The Organ Project – 25 Years Later

Originally written for the St. Georgian in 2008

Marge Arnold recounted how it began 25 years ago “On a blustery day in January, 1983 a call came from one Tom Guthrie. He was so excited he could hardly get his words out. He has just received a call from Mr. James Baker of the Music Department at Mary Washington College offering for St. George’s Church the chance to buy the college’s four pipe organs for the ridiculous price of $9,000. What did I think? I shared his enthusiasm for he had for months wanted to do something about the present organ, some of which dated back to the 19th century. Being an accomplished organist he was to say the least frustrated by the limitations of the St. George’s organ.” 

Arnold, a member of the choir, served with Pete Myers on a three year journey to raise funds for both a renovated chancel organ and a new separate organ in the west gallery.  Tom Guthrie, the organist during the early 1980’s, visited St. George’s twice in 2008 and donated first Marge Arnold’s memoirs and then his own memoirs to the St. George’s archives.   Arnold’s memoirs are stored in an accordion file alphabetized with separate folders and include the donations, organ committee minutes, newsletter articles and the like. It is very complete and I was both absorbed and enthralled over the recent Labor Day weekend. Along the way you meet many of the donors from far away places and their relatives who attended St. George’s.

Mary Washington College dropped its organ courses in 1983 and traded its four organs for an electronic one and then sold them to St. George’s for $9,000. Ranks of pipes and wind chests from each were reassembled and rewired in the west gallery. St. George’s organ had increased in size 3.5 times!    Irving G. Lawless, organ curator for Kennedy Center, was hired to put the organ together. Kenneth Lundberg, an organ consultant from Pennsylvania, supervised the project.

In February, 1984, the fund raising began with subcommittees established for memorials, publicity, plaques, brochures, and pledges.  The rear organ was in place for a dual organ recital with Guthrie and Dr. William Munsie, then a pathologist at Mary Washington Hospital. The committee decided in the summer of 1984 to renovate the organ in the west gallery followed by the chancel organ. $125,000 was raised and after four years from Guthrie’s original call, the work had been done. In October, 1987, the organ was dedicated by a concert of Douglas Major, then associate organist-choirmaster at the Washington Cathedral.

The work in the 1980’s provided extra depth and range to the organ that had been moved to the chancel in 1925. Much of the back-breaking labor was done by Guthrie and Charles Hooten, then treasurer of the Church, over nights and weekends. The organ committee also provides an example of successful management of limited resources to accomplish a goal. 25 years later we used the organ as a “trade-in” to reduce the price we are paying for our new organ.

This only scratches the surface of what Marge has left. My appeal to you is to search your attics and cupboards for any records of St. George’s events, especially photographs.  Please consider a donation with anything you find.

We now have an enlarged space for them. The Vestry has recently voted to lend our archives to the Heritage Center, two blocks away at the old Maury School and to formally appoint Trip Wiggins as our archivist. The reason is simple. This facility provides both safekeeping and a larger space to view our archives and to see them in the context of their other holdings. You can help us both preserve and enlarge our heritage with your contributions, such as what Tom Guthrie has provided.