Inspired Sound: Philadelphia's Pipe Organ Heritage
The pipe organ is unique among musical instruments in its relationship to architecture. Pipe organs are embedded in the spaces of the structures that contain them. They are typically designed in conjunction with a building’s architecture, both visually and acoustically. In scale, complexity, and sonic capabilities, pipe organs are unmatched by any instrument.
Philadelphia’s pipe organs, and the sacred places that house them, are some of the city’s greatest treasures. Yet, changing religious landscapes, musical tastes, and technology over the last three decades, are putting both sacred places and their historic pipe organs at risk. One expert estimates that 50% of the instruments featured in the Organ Historical Society’s national convention in Philadelphia twenty years ago may be partially destroyed, dormant or unplayable.
In 2015 photographer Joseph E. B. Elliott was commissioned by Partners for Sacred Places to document seven churches in Kensington. Another commission came in 2019 to photograph nearly fifty churches and organs that were part of the Playing and Preserving Project. In his work Elliott explored and photographed scores of fascinating structures and the organs within them. His approach combined the visual experience of space, light, and detail of historic religious spaces with the exploration of the hidden, intricate mechanical workings of the instruments. He captured the full range of care and use of organs, from polished beauty to loss of interest and disrepair of instruments that will never be played again.
He was assisted in the project by Sarah Lerner, Santiago Preciado, and Melissa Wei Luo, students in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, University of Pennsylvania.
An exhibition about musical instruments demands sound as well as photographs. Organist Chase Castle performed a variety of pieces on several of the organs pictured in the exhibition including The Free Church of St. John, St. Mary’s Hamilton Village, and Tindley Temple United Methodist Church. Field recordings, editing and sound design were produced by Scott Sherk.
First Friday August 6
Funding for The Athenaeum of Philadelphia is supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.