A Brief History of Organs at First Church

The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York is Manhattan’s oldest Presbyterian congregation, tracing its origins to 1706. In 1846, the congregation moved from Wall Street to its present location on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. Today, First Church’s Gothic-style building is surrounded by formal gardens and is the only church other than St. Patrick’s Cathedral to occupy one complete block on Fifth Avenue.

As early as 1855, the Session at First Church wanted to install a pipe organ to attract younger worshipers, but Elder James Lenox, who controlled the church’s finances, opposed “the sinister influences of such innovations.” After Lenox’s death, however, the way was opened, and in 1887 the first pipe organ was installed. Located in the rear of the sanctuary, this was a large, three-manual instrument built by the noted organ builder Frank Roosevelt (Opus 264). So successful was this innovation that by 1898 a second organ was purchased for the lecture room.

In 1892, Dr. William C. Carl was appointed the church’s first organist and choirmaster. Dr. Carl, a former student of Alexandre Guilmant, and Dr. Howard Duffield, minister of First Church, founded the Guilmant Organ School, one of the first American schools devoted exclusively to the training of organists and choirmasters. The Guilmant Organ School at First Church attracted organ students from all parts of the country.

In 1919, the Roosevelt organ was replaced by a Skinner organ (Opus 293). Skinner rebuilt this instrument in 1929 (Opus 293A).

The present instrument was built by Austin Organs (Opus 2408) in 1964. It is a IV/81 with five divisions: Great, Swell, Choir, Solo, and Pedal. (The sixth division, a Skinner Echo division, has since been removed.) Of particular note are the solo orchestral stops and large Pedal open wood stop from the Skinner and Roosevelt organs.

In the fall of 1995, Austin Organs added a new Great principal chorus to the instrument and tonally refinished a large portion of the instrument.

Two years later, due to a construction error, the sanctuary and the organ were covered with 100-year-old plaster dust. The entire organ was removed from the chambers and cleaned by the organ firm Glück New York. At this time Sebastian M. Glück did further tonal work, creating a warmer and broader sound.

Most recently in 2004, The Alexander Chapel has been graced by the dedication of a marvelous new pipe organ. For more information from the Glück New York website on this recent addition, click here.

Organists of First Church:

  • Dr. William C. Carl 1892-1936
  • Mr. Willard Nevins 1936-1957
  • Mr. John Huston 1957-1975
  • Dr. Robert S. Baker 1975-1988
  • Dr. William F. Entriken 1988-present