Date:    Mon, 26 Jan 1998 10:58:05 GMT
From:    Stephen Bicknell <>
Subject: Christmas in New York City

Dear List,

Last Christmas I was in 'Bah! Humbug!' frame of mind. It is not that I find the spirit of Christmas fundamentally objectionable, it is just that the holiday brings with it a host of unwanted pressures that really make it very difficult to maintain the desired spirit of goodwill. To take a small example: grubby parties of carol-singers, some of them barely Christian, and few of them able to remember the words or the tune of 'Away in a Manger', started besieging the front door at the Ivory Tower as early as late November. These imps and urchins could be despatched in the normal manner, with a well-aimed bucket of slops, but the predatory forces of friends and family were not to be so conveniently combatted.

After last year's holiday, which you may remember was energetic enough to require a few day's rest at the Thora Hird Home for Distressed Gentlefolk, I vowed to try and take a break from family festivities in 1997, and by the end of the summer had hatched a satisfactory plan.

So it was that on Saturday December the Sixth 1997 I blew up my closest friends and relatives in a cataclysmic explosion and immediately left the country.

Perhaps I should explain.

With the kind assistance of a couple of friends I arranged a party for my nearest and dearest on the date above mentioned, which would therefore be the first such event of the festive season (at least in largely Moslem Spitalfields). The fact of my birthday falling on an adjacent date added verisimilitude to the invitations, which were printed in a variety of Victorian display typefaces on vermillion paper and read as follows:

By kind permission of Messrs. M.Gillingham & D.Findlay
        Stephen Bicknell of No.6 Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London E.        
Begs leave to invite his friends, cousins and patrons to join him
and to attend a magnificent display of
to be held in the grounds of No.4 Fournier Street
~ Magic-Lantern Show ~
comprising slides from the collection of the late
Raymond Percy Bicknell of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
(to be held in the conservatory at No.6 Fournier Street)

Both exhibitions will take place on the evening of
Guests are asked to make themselves known at the door of No.4
at around half-past five o'clock; light refreshments will be served.
Carriages may called for half-past eight o'clock.

will be devised, arranged and exploded by the noted expert
who appears on this unique occasion by joint permission of
He will fire the entire gallimaufry of incendiary entertainment
the programme to include among many breathtaking novelties
never before seen in ANY civilised land:

Pioggia di Stelle Rosse
and a grand

Nota bene: the courtesy of a reply would be much appreciated.

Those of you who have read 'The Great Pauloni' will know that I am rather partial to fireworks. To secure the services of Signor Fosca-Gioliffe on this occasion was a real coup, as he has been kept under close guard since the fiasco at the Nigerian High Commission in 1994. With a few well-placed bribes I was able to prise him out of the hospital wing of the San Giovanni in Ghiaolo prison in Naples, and on the Saturday in question I happily watched him busy himself amongst the roses, camellias, fuchsias and peonies in my landlord's garden, setting up his heavy artillery (and safe in the knowledge that my pet giraffes Abraham and Edgar had been sent with the other animals to stay for a while with Aunt Ursula in Eastbourne). If any of you are pondering the exact scope of the planned display, I will simply state that the pieces were all of the variety known as 'category four', they were all supplied under special arrangement by the celebrated Revd. Ronald Lancaster of Kimbolton, Bedfordshire, and that if we had that day received a visit from the anti-terrorist squad we would have all been in very serious trouble.

Of course the enticing words of the invitation, including the spurious 'magic-lantern' show, assured a large attendance, and by the appointed hour great numbers of folk, both young and old, were filing up to the front door for admittance to the event. Messrs Findlay & Gillingham had most kindly agreed to allow me the use of their ground-floor rooms (briefly visible behind Natasha Kinsky's wig in the ill-fated film 'Revolution'). The beautiful entrance hall and parlour, lit entirely by candles, looked perfectly splendid. Quite a number of my friends and relations had taken it upon themselves to come in fancy dress - a diverting habit that I have come to take for granted. Anyone looking in to the eighteenth-century panelled rooms from the street would no doubt have been surprised to see a gathering that included Boadicaea, a motor-cycle despatch rider and a punk rocker, Adolf Hitler and three cardinals (one of them female). My mother came as Napoleon. (Again!). The only figure notable by his absence was the great Pauloni, who had wisely accepted a prior invitation to play a recital at Truro Cathedral.

Once we had everyone safely on the premises we stuffed them quickly with a handful of lukewarm canapes, doused with a few glasses of mulled wine (fortified with the usual bracing spices, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of Cointreau, and a quart of unleaded petrol). At the appointed hour the party bustled out into the garden, and I waved my handkerchief at Signor Gioliffe.

The spectacle could hardly have been more diverting. As usual Signor Gioliffe had arranged his display with complete disregard for the law, any considerations of safety, or any question of depradations to the delicate structures in the surrounding conservation area. Safely concealed behind a low brick wall, he threw the switches on his electronic firing panel, sending charge after charge of high explosive into the evening sky. In the centre of the garden a vast magnesium-filled silver fountain threw a plume of white fire to a height of sixty feet, while around it, in concentric circles, battery after battery of roman candles, parachute flares, tourbillions, whirly-twirlers, locofocos, gyrating gnats and strobe lights flew in every direction.

At the first detonation my party of guests was thrown into confusion. My godmother, Miss Hinde, became entangled in a patch of prickly Mahonia (she had already been to a rather stressful matinee of the Magic Flute at the Coliseum). Mrs. John Pike Mander let out a delightful squeal and (I believe) dropped one small black leather glove in surprise. Some of my gentlemen friends fainted, and there were a few minor injuries caused by falling wine glasses and flying cocktail sticks.

At the second and third barrages the screams of delight were quite drowned out, and in the thickening pall of smoke and blinding glare it was no longer quite possible to see the guests dancing and hopping about the flower-beds as the fireworks exploded round them. Soon a marvellously tottering wooden scaffold of catherine wheels burst into erratic activity. As it swayed perilously twenty feet above the milling throng, I was already making final preparations for my departure. My bags had long been packed, and tickets bought for the trans-Atlantic crossing. By the time the final bombardment of six-inch mortars thumped into life, I was in the street and climbing into a taxi.

Accompanied only by my good friend Mr. Vanner I was en route for the City of Granite and Steel: - New York. Here we would spend a Christmas of an altogether different kind from the Dickensian nonsense so beloved of the English. We relished the prospect ahead of us - shopping at Saks and Bloomingdales, skating in the Rockefeller Plaza, feeding the squirrels in Washington Square, Midnight Mass at St. Ignatius and so-on.

Why I trouble my dear readers with the account of our journey is for quite a different reason, for I know that you regard my tedious ramblings on every subject under the sun as a quite unnecessary diversion from the topic to which this august list is normally devoted - 'the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human beings' - to use the words of Balzac.

Well, I shall try not to disappoint you, for we had indeed made arrangements to visit just one organ while in New York City. 'Which one?', I hear you ask. I am glad to be able to tell you that, through the immense kindness of the organ builder Brad Jaeger III, we had arranged to see no less an instrument than the famous and leviathan Elhanan Q. Hackenback Organ at the Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix, which will be the subject of the account that follows.


Elhanan Q. Hackenback (1868-1954) was a an exceptionally wealthy recluse. He was both exceptionally wealthy, and exceptionally reclusive, even by American standards. It was his money that built the extraordinary Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix in uptown Manhattan (the church whose phenomenally vertiginous and nightmarishly gothic west tower is featured at the close of the film version of 'Batman' starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson).

His father, Cyrus Z. Hackenback (1848-1872) was somewhat wealthy and reclusive. Both wealth and reclusivity were the direct result of his chosen profession, as a remover of soil. Night soil, day soil, horse soil, and human soil. Soil from foundations, from excavations, from graves, from wells. Soil from the building of roads and railways, streetcars and Els. Garbage. Ordure.

In steam-age New York the streets were jammed with horses. If it hadn't been for Cyrus Z. Hackenback the citizens would have been up to their knees in the residue. It is a subject incapable of decorous treatment, for which I apologise, but the Hackenbacks were shit-shifters, and there is an end to it.

The rutted and muddy roads leading north out of Manhattan were a constant bottleneck, day and night. Before the completion of the Brooklyn bridge in 1883, and long before the tunnels of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad or those of the subways, all land-bound traffic in and out of Manhattan travelled via the isthmus to the north. Hackenback's malodorous cargoes had to go by water.

From countless piers round Manhattan, chains of Hackenback barges removed the waste products of the great metropolis. New York, resplendent on its granite peninsula, met the modern age in a cloud of steam. Steam from the engines, steam from the boats, steam from the mains below the street, steam from the backs of the horses, and steam from Hackenback's stinking open scows.

No wonder Hackenback was of a retiring disposition. Despite the fact that he had amassed a fortune large enough to buy his way into any club or clique he chose, despite his high morals, his bonny family and his charming character, the nature of his trade left an indelible stain on his public reputation. The Hackenbacks were not welcome in society. They lived as outcasts.

In 1872 the family suffered alone when papa died of typhoid fever, almost certainly contracted after a fall into a barge carrying waste from the city. His son, Elhanan, was only fourteen. It is reported that the experience affected him to the core. He had already had to endure the names and catcalls that fell on the ears of anyone unlucky enough to carry the Hackenback name. Despite that unfortunate reputation, and the grossly unfair treatment the family received at the hands of all who knew their vocation, was it not in fact the case that Papa had died keeping Gotham City clean?

The life of Elhanan Q. Hackenback became even stranger than that of his father. A lonely and brooding teenager, he took complete control of his father's business, and turned it into an Empire. By the time he was twenty, he was handling the garbage of twenty million households in the five cities. In his early thirties he was removing the spoil from the tunnels of the newly-built subways. In his forties he helped excavate the great holes where the skyscrapers would stand.

Elhanan Q. Hackenback's fortune was simply immense, and with it he set about building a church. On the site of the family house in Washington Heights he built first a Tomb, then a Mausoleum, then a Chapel, and then a Church (with a fine organ by Hilborne Roosevelt fitted with the new 'Electric Action'). In 1898 he razed the whole lot to the ground and started again on a massive scale, blasting a vast undercroft out of the solid granite and employing Constantine Ziggurat to design the first Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix. Dissatisfied with Ziggurat's work, Hackenback fired him just as he was about to start the Choir vault, and employed the Guastavinos to continue. As soon as they had completed the crossing and dome they were thrown out to be replaced by Ranulph Crumb Addams, who built the transepts and made a start on the nave (altering the Byzantine framework of Ziggurat's original design as he went along, and replacing it with his own sombre version of Very Late Gothic).

At last Hackenback had found an architect who understood the breadth of his vision. The new work planned in 1928 caused the donor to make a withdrawal from his Deposit Account that is rumoured to have started the wave that led to the Wall Street crash of 1929. A few years later, Addams died in harness, squashed to the thickness of a dime by the fall of a granite block weighing a hundred and twelve tons. His sons, Cedric and Cyril Crumb Addams, continued as far as they could, amid constant arguments with the now fractious and elderly Hackenback. During the Second World War, and skimping wildly on materials and workmanship, they flung up the horrifically tall west-end Campanile, with its Disneyland turrets and Charles Laughton gargoyles, its desperately unsafe peal of eighteen Whitechapel-cast bells, and its four-hundred and sixty-four steps made of low-grade unplaned Bulgarian softwood held together with angle-blocks and wriggle-pins.

There the hair-raising structure came to a grinding halt, having run out of money, inspiration and architects. Hackenback retired to a cramped and freezing apartment at the very top of the Addams-family campanile, where he lived alone by the light of naked bulbs until his unregarded death in 1954.

Hackenback was nothing if not thorough, and he approached the question of an organ for his great building with exactly the same obsessive enthusiasm as he originally devoted to the construction of the building. Today we know of Rodman Wanamaker and Senator Emerson Richards, but few realise the extent to which all they ever said and did was simply a response to what Hackenback had already done at the Basilica of St. Gladys. Always at the forefront of organ design, always ready to bring out the cheque-book and write an order for another fifty ranks, Hackenback employed, one by one, all the great names in American organ-building.

The organ by Roosevelt, a perfectly adequate four-manual instrument with five manual divisions (the fifth being an Echo organ concealed under Cyrus Hackenback's sarcophagus), was moved into the new Basilica in 1898 and revoiced and altered by Carlton C. Michell. In 1901 it was rebuilt completely by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company under the direction of George Ashdown Audsley. In 1903 the whole thing came down again for a radical rebuild by Hope-Jones. By now the main organ, divided either side of the chancel, had grown to six manual divisions. The Echo organ under the Hackenback tomb behind the high altar had grown somewhat, becoming a fully fledged three-manual and pedal orchestral section with a string organ for Rodman Wanamaker to drool over.

Hope-Jones added a few dozen of his own idiosyncratic voices to the main organ, but reserved his own special contribution for the newly built transepts. Here, against the north and south walls of the facing transepts and in the spaces below the vast rose windows, he built two vast sixty-foot high chambers of steel and concrete, fitted with huge arrays of aluminium sound-trap shutters. He turned the clergy out of the undercroft in order to build a blowing plant run directly by a turbine on the high-pressure steam main. Employing the same contractors who laid the pipe for Edison Steam, he ran cast-iron main round the entire church, to deliver twenty-five and fifty-inch wind to every quarter. In the north transept chamber he installed a Diaphone unit down to sixty-four-foot C on the fifty-inch wind, and a vast open wood Tibia to thirty-two-foot C on the twenty-five inch. On the south side the high wind carried a Contra Trombone of wood down to the CCCCC pitch, and the 'low' wind had a monster metal violone rank to CCCC. High above the crossing in the oculus of the dome, Hope Jones laid out his double-tongued quadruple-harmonic Tuba Mirum in the open air, before he was unceremoniously fired by Hackenback in 1904.

In 1908 it was E.M.Skinner who took over, replacing chests and action throughout the instrument, re-naming many ranks and replacing others, re-voicing and re-balancing the main ensembles, and adding many of those characteristic voices with which he made his name: the Erz€hler chorus on the north Choir section, the huge Solo Flauto Mirabilis and its matching Bombarde Flauto Stupenda; the lovely little family of English Horns in the south Choir, and the Wagnerian Brass Organ added to the east-end Orchestral section beneath the Paternal Catafalque (with its several French Horns and unique 'Cornet des Cors de Champ VI'). In the transept chambers Skinner began to build on the noble foundation laid down by Hope-Jones, eliminating the inartistic extension and providing a fully independent foundation on both sides, of large Diapasons, Flutes, Trombas, Horns and Tubas.

Skinner visited the organ on and off until about 1920, at which point work stopped while the construction of the building entered its next and greatest phase. With the opening of the nave in 1934 the full length of the church was revealed for the first time - some seven hundred and fourteen feet - together with its astronomic sixteen-second reverberation.

Hackenback was already well aware of what Emerson Richards had been up to at Atlantic City, but paused for a moment in his onward flight. It is rumoured that he went to Atlantic City when the organ was quite new, and had Ruben Midmer show it to him without Richards' knowledge. According to one of Midmer-Losh's employees, who witnessed the visit, he arrived in an enormous Duesenberg J with shaded windows, was scruffily dressed, and toured the entire organ in compete silence. He then sat at the console, drew every stop in sight, and played 'chopsticks' rather slowly. Scowling at Midmer, he spat out a single bitter sentence:

'Sounds like shit! Nothing but a military band with a red-hot-poker up its backside! It may be bigger than mine, but it ain't worth a flyin' fart!'

With that he turned on his heel and left.

Hackenback may have pretended not to be impressed, but over the next year or two he clearly took renewed interest in the craft of organ building. He was rumoured to have been seen at the openings of several important instruments by G. Donald Harrison, and by 1938 he had secured the services of Harry Willis, the English-born grandson of Father Willis and son of Vincent, who had worked on the Atlantic City organ and knew the secrets of the Double-Langward Diapason and of Brass-Weighted Tongues.

During the war Harry Willis worked almost on his own and in total secrecy, adding yet more to the Elhanan Q. Hackenback Organ at the Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix. Exactly what he added, no-one ever knew. A huge drawstop console, with six manuals and vast curved jambs almost enveloping the player, was completed in 1942, but the knobs were never engraved and the wiring never started. A great deal of new material was added to the various chambers, but no-one knew what, because Willis voiced at night and allowed no-one into the organ.

By the time Hackenback died in 1954, Willis was dead also. The Basilica was out of money and out of luck. Unfinished, grotesque and forlorn on its rocky northern promontory, increasingly isolated in an unsympathetic and sometimes dangerous locality, the church was almost forgotten and the organ with it. Harry Willis's workshop in the basement was locked and forgotten. He in turn had sealed the shutter fronts of the transept sections, protecting them against the dust caused by the final chaotic building campaign of 1942-6. The cast-iron wind-lines had fractured and rusted. Temporary blowers were rigged up in the north chancel section. Limping along on its five-manual Skinner console and action, with only a few departments capable of wheezing life, it was an unwanted and unloved monster. The transept organs were probably derelict. A tarpaulin hung over whatever Willis had been putting up at the west end. The Hope-Jones Tuba Mirum sagged unhappily among the pigeons in the dome. The entire Orchestral Organ was silent, decayed into breathless and dusty obscurity under the huge bronze tomb of the Hackenbacks, Father and Son.


Mr. Vanner and I arrived safely in New York City aboard the liner S.S.Gargantua on 22nd December 1997. I always travel by Imperial Star - certain delightful privileges having been awarded me by the managment of that company since I advised them on the construction and installation of the various automatic musical instruments that adorn the vessels of their fleet.

The Gargantua is of course my favourite; a truly magnificent boat built in the most extravagant manner imaginable. For example: the Ship's Chapel seats eight hundred, and though the restrictions imposed by naval engineering prevent it from having exactly the acoustic of San Vitale in Ravenna - on which edifice it is closely modelled - it nevertheless manages to stump up a decent four second reverb., and the organ is perfectly bewitching. There is a little Italian-style case on the 'west' gallery, and an enchantingly pretty one-manual console of antique type, where any passenger so inclined can while away the journey playing the 'durezzi e ligaturi' of Frescobaldi on the Voce Umana (if the movement of the bat is not too disconcerting). Lift up the music desk, and there is revealed the roll-player for the main organ, built on the system devised by Horatio Cordy-Bassett of Boston. The pipework of this splendid instrument, laid out on Compton lines to save space, occupies three concealed chambers to the 'north', 'south' and 'east'. The rolls available include most of the major organ and orchestral repertoire. On this journey I had the pleasure of programming the registration for certain new rolls, including a terrific version of Arthur Honegger's 'Pacific 231' - a real tour-de-force .... but I digress.

On arrival, we took our usual suite of rooms in the Hotel Swank-Hochhatte-Mirabelle on Fifth Avenue, and busied ourselves with all those activities that only a tourist in New York can enjoy. Of these I will say little, except to note that we left no stone unturned in our daily quest for the full Gotham Experience, and that no department store or retail outlet was safe from our rape and pillage. We made a very satisfactory acquisition in the category of rare fauna (a companion for our pet giraffes, Abraham and Edgar) of a species previously unknown to us (a jpg. of this animal, christened Otto Meredith Bumpe, and believed to be of Scandinavian origin, will be forwarded to interested parties on request).

By Christmas itself, we were ready to turn our thoughts to higher things, and took ourselves to Midnight Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola, at Park and Eighty-fourth, where you will recall there is a large new instrument not entirely unconnected with your present narrator. There, through the kindness of the Director of Music, Kent Tritle, we had seats in the choir gallery, and were able to talk part in the most splendid service, which included two shifts of clergy, dancers (both male and female!), an orchestra, a full 'son et lumiere' display, nine or more well-loved carols, much of Handel's 'Messiah', and about two thousand red poinsettias. We reeled back out onto the snowy street at about half-past two on Christmas morning.

Christmas day was delightfully sunny, and was devoted to large meals and long walks. By the twenty-sixth (known to us British, for some strange reason, as 'Boxing Day'), we were ready for our trip to St. Gladys. Of course one goes to the Basilica by No.1 Subway: the view of the huge building from the Manhattan Valley Bridge at 125th and Broadway is unforgettable, as is the sumptuously appointed marble and mosaic station at Hackenback Square, where you alight. At those times of day when the church is open to the public, an escalator takes you directly from the platform to the visitor centre at the west end of the nave. The experience of rising out of the ground to greet the seven-hundred-foot vista is unforgettable.

On this occasion we were met at the top of the moving stairs by Brad Jaeger III, the distinguished organ builder and curator of the Hackenback Organ. With characteristic charm and exhibiting tremendous depth of knowledge, he then gave us a tour of the building, telling much of the history I have already outlined, and leading us inexorably to the console of the Great Instrument we had come to visit.

Brad Jaeger's ambition to become involved in some way with St. Gladys dates from visits as a child (his father was a distinguished professor at nearby Columbia University). He was so struck by his first ascent of the famous escalator at the west end as never to be able to erase the experience from his mind. At the same time he was captivated by the gloomy sounds issuing from the few working portions of the organ, and thus his vocation was born. Hanging round the building in his vacations, he began to make contact with the musicians, and latterly with those entrusted with the unenviable task of keeping some part of the great organ in working order. Then, as a young adult, came his period of training, with some of the most notable organ building companies on the east coast, and finally his appointment to the post he had so long coveted - that of Curator to the Leviathan (financed by a trust set up under a codicil to Hackenback's will).

Brad stood with us at the Skinner five-manual console, delighted to explain to us just what he had found when he arrived in 1973. As previously mentioned, only portions of the chancel section were then working, several of the chambers were sealed, and the key to the basement organ shop was lost. On his first day, he stood in front of that locked double door, and wondered what to do (I can imagine him doing so, possibly adjusting or polishing his spectacles as he weighed up the situation). Then, in a moment of uncharacteristic violence, he picked up a discarded fire-extinguisher from a dusty corner and hurled it against the door. The lock gave way, and one half of the door swung open. Brad described to us in his own words what he found: -

"There in front of me, blocking the doorway on a huge wheeled dolly, was the Harry Willis six-manual console: probably the largest drawknob console ever made, finished from top to bottom in funereal black polish, and covered with dust. Its hundreds of knobs and several tiers of coupler tabs were all blank. I felt against the wall for a light switch, found one, and turned it on. Of the many bulbs that once hung in that shop, several still worked, and a few worked for more than the first few seconds. Stretching back under the vaults of the crypt, and dimply lit by a handful of dusty lights, I could see organ material of all kinds going back as far as I could see. Pipes, chests, bellows, windlines, and mechanisms of all kinds covered the floor and leaned against the walls. There were so many things stuffed in there that they almost met in the middle, leaving only a tiny winding gangway down the centre, which led off into the murky depths.

"At first I was scared to go in. For I while I actually thought I might find Harry Willis's skeleton somewhere at the back of all that stuff. I started by mending the door and putting a new lock on it, and while I did so I had a long think. Then I went out and bought a box of light bulbs and a dozen lawyer's pads, and made a start.

"I started at the door and worked inwards. The first few days I just made lists, and more lists. You can imagine the kind of thing - 'Bay three, left side: 4 trems (Sknnr.pttrn.); 1 whiffle-tree Sw. eng.; 1 zinc string bass 16' 32 notes unv. #35 2/9m (mtl.)'. I would take a flask of coffee and sandwiches down there, and work until I could do no more, coming out at night to sleep. After a week I had penetrated about a hundred feet into the gloom, and could see something glinting in the distance. I peered ahead, and then put down my pad and pencil and decided to abandon caution and method and just go out exploring. As I walked down that long subterranean aisle (it goes right out under the hillside, you know), I found that there were further brick-lined tunnels to right and left, and large locked doors with carrying intriguing signs, such as 'TURBINE ROOM', 'BLOWER ROOM 6B', or '50" MAIN - NORTH ACCESS'. I carried straight ahead for the time being, because what had caught my eye in the distance were the glinting windows of a glass-windowed office. When I got to it, I found the door was open. I reached for the light switch, and was greeted by the most amazing sight.'


What Brad Jaeger had found, at the far end of the vast and gloomy subterranean workshop in the undercroft of the Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix, was the former office of Harry Willis, where in isolation as complete and as peculiar as that of his patron at the other extreme of the building, he plotted and schemed the final and incomplete rebuild of the Elhanan Q. Hackenback Grand Organ.

"I couldn't believe my eyes", Brad told us.

"It looked as though he had just walked out of there before his final illness in 1948 and never came back. There was the layout of the big console on a drawing board. I blew away the dust, and found the stop-names written in hard pencil on the tracing paper - the whole thing was there in front of me. Looking round the office I saw a rack with neatly rolled parcels of other drawings. I took one or two of them down, reading out the labels to myself as I did so: 'NAVE CHORUS - NORTH SIDE'; 'ECHO & ORCHESTRAL - SWITCHSTACK ROOMS 1-3'; 'WEST END: 200" PRESSURE RAM PUMP AND ACCUMULATORS' - that kind of thing. I took a roll at random and laid it out on the setting-out bench. It was a complete set of drawings for one of the transept sections, beautifully laid out in classic style, drawn in ink on cartridge paper and watercoloured by hand. Looking round to see what else there was, I found a filing cabinet full of correspondence. Just from the tags on the files I could see that Harry had been in touch with every supplier in the business at one time or another - Herrburger Brooks, Spencer, Schopp, Eisenschmidt, Reisner, Laukhuff - you name a company, and he had ordered from them."

"I carried on looking around the office without any real idea of what I was expecting, and then made my 'big find' - the key cupboard. On the wall was this cupboard full of keys. Keys to every chamber and room in the building. At last, I was truly able to find out what we had got."

And over the next few months Brad did indeed find out what Harry Willis and his august predecessors really had laid out in the way of preparations for the greatest organ the world had ever seen. Armed with great bunches of carefully labelled keys he explored every nook and cranny of the building, filling page after age of his legal pads with inventories, notes and reports to himself. These he would take back to the office in the evenings, cross-checking what he found against the paperwork in the office and the pipes and parts stacked in the crypt.

By the fall of 1974 Jaeger was eager to make a start. Reporting to the Trustees that certain significant renewal would be needed to set the organ project in motion again, he arranged for several large withdrawals to be made from the Organ Account. Armed with the appropriate cheques, he was able to bring in engineers of various different kinds. Naval Engineers arrived to examine and restore the steam turbines driven off the Edison Power Company's main supply. Blower Engineers came to clean and re-balance the Orgoblo fans. Electrical Engineers came to look over the three dozen rooms entirely devoted to Reisner relays and switchstacks, to test wiring and report on safety. Experts in Air Conditioning climbed through the mysterious doors that gave access to the huge cast-iron wind-lines laid down by Hope-Jones, and pronounced that the whole cracked and leaking system could be brought back into action by lining the duct with new materials. Men from Otis arrived to restore the goods elevator which gave direct access from the organ workshop to the triforium and roof-spaces. A team of volunteers from the Metropolitain Transit Authority led by Stan Fischler came and marvelled at the narrow-guage tramway that ran through the roof and triforia, checked through the electrical system, restored the dumpy little Sprague locomotive, and spent a happy summer in 1976 testing out the entire line.

As soon as Jaeger had the building to himself again, in early 1977, he engaged a few skilled helpers and started the herculaean task of lifting the hundreds of thousands of parts, so carefully prepared and labelled by Willis, to the upper levels of the Basilica. From the elevator doors trucks could be wheeled straight on to the tramway to be delivered to the appropriate chamber by locomotive. At the same time he and his staff started on a massive programme of regular maintenance, so that those parts of the organ that were actually installed and working could be heard to their best advantage. Individual restoration tasks were tackled at the rate of one major item per year, each one dismantled in the fall, prepared in the workshop over the winter, and reinstalled during the following spring. Thus the Wagnerian Brass Organ was renovated in 1983, and the Tuba Mirum section in the Dome cleared of its infestation of pigeons and brought back to life in 1991.

Brad Jaeger explained all this to us as we stood at the old Skinner console of 1909, still in use awaiting the wiring of several new relay rooms and the installation of the six-manual console of 1942, planned to be on-line by 2005.

"The trouble is," continued Brad, "even with a staff of ten to twelve people it is becoming very difficult indeed to keep the whole thing going. There are two relays of tuners, doing tuning all night, every night, in two shifts: one week on, and one week off. Fridays are devoted entirely to fault finding, so that we are prepared (as far as possible) for services on the Sunday. In the other four days of the week there are about six of us doing the actual organ building. In the summer we are doing jobs in and around the organ, and in the winter we are mostly downstairs preparing for the next campaign. Even with the huge amount of space, the elevator, and the tramway, we can hardly keep pace with what we have put in so far."

"As we install more and more - all of it beautifully prepared by Harry Willis, I have to say - so the job gets slower and slower. Frankly I despair of anyone ever getting to the end of it. The infrastructure has been laid out so that it is just possible for a full-time team to keep the whole organ working - but only just! - and only by dint of working almost round the clock. We are all here six or seven days a week - at the weekends we just all sit at a big table and try and sort out the paperwork. I would employ more staff, but there is no point in putting in more pipes than the upstairs guys can tune, so in the meantime we just do the best we can."

"Somewhere amongst all the stuff marked out for the west end, there is a thing referred to in Willis's plans as the 'Last Trumpet' - and I can quite see why. For a start, it's on two-hundred inch pressure, raised by a special pneumatic ram-pump in the campanile, powered off the fifty-inch main. We've rigged a couple of pipes up on a compressor outdoors, and they are terrifying things - we had complaints from all over town. I can't see us getting the ram-pump and accumulators up there until 2010 at the very earliest, and by then the rest of the organ is going to be virtually full-time tuning and repairs. I think that Willis knew that the Last Trumpet was to be both the crowning glory of the whole scheme, and also dangerously close to the limit of feasibility. The name is highly suggestive of the idea that it will never actually be heard in this world, but only the next!"

I asked Brad how on earth anyone managed to play what was currently available from the five-manual Skinner console, clearly still labelled with the stops of the Roosevelt/Audsley/Hope-Jones/Skinner organ from before the first world war.

"Well," he said, "we use the Skinner console to represent an approximate picture of the resources of the whole instrument. The organists set the pistons to represent certain levels of power in the main ensembles, and I switch the stop action accordingly. This is done by relaying all the stop-position information through the old disused telephone exchange under Hackenback Square, next to the Subway Station. It went out of use when the phones round here all went digital, and it has been invaluable. I just plug in the stops that are wanted. We work with a very broad palette of course, and most of the effects are general across the whole organ. In addition the organists can use a keypad to switch certain sections of the organ in or out. Each main division can be toggled on or off with these pistons,"

- Brad here pulled out a little drawer from under the left side of the key bench, revealing a row of carefully labelled push buttons -

"and they all have double-touch cancel, so that if you want one specific division only you can have it with just one press."

It all seemed perfectly clear to me, I had to admit.

"As for the Solo stops: for the time being a handful of these are rigged up to play off the fifth manual. We swap them round each week for the sake of variety, so at some times of year the fifth manual will be awash with Clarinets, at another time it might be devoted to a huge Flute Organ, and at Easter it just becomes a great collective Bombarde division for the trumpets. It means the drawknobs for the old Echo - on manual V - are usually several layers deep in hand-written labels and sticky markers - but we get by! Another set of pistons is for transfers on the fifth manual only,"

- here Brad pulled out another little drawer of buttons under the right side of the key bench -

"and that allows a few extra antiphonal effects and a bit more flexibility with the solo voices. Frankly the telephone exchange has made all this possible - I don't know what we would have done without it."

At this point I could resist temptation no longer and, asking Brad Jaeger to manipulate the controls for me, I swung my legs over the bench. Brad made a quick call on his mobile phone to warn the staff at the visitor centre, and then threw the main switch on the wall next to the console. From some distant place there came the sound of a muffled thump. Then, very slowly, the entire building started to hiss, and the still incense-scented air around us began to move. It was as though the whole Basilica, like some giant granite dinosaur, had come to life. A shiver ran down my spine as I prepared to play.


Despite your inevitable protestations, and equally inevitable disappointment, I cannot be expected to make any attempt to describe, in words, the sound of the Elhanan Q. Hackenback Memorial Grand Pipe Organ in the Basilica of St. Gladys de la Croix on Washington Heights. The task is beyond me.

What can one say? With fifty-inch wind running to every corner of the building, and both the sixty-four foot ranks in working order, the tutti is simply electrifying, as one would expect. It shakes the building, raises clouds of dust in every corner, creates severe power surges in the entire district, and blows fuses in substations on the nearby subway line. Far more than that, this is an organ so large and so complex that a single visit of one hour only can hardly be expected to bring out more than the vaguest and most general impression. I played for a few minutes, and then descended to the crossing to hear some of the main effects demonstrated. The possibilities for Antiphonal and counter-Antiphonal repartee are particularly exciting. Brad is adept at playing the organ round and round in circles, finally ending with a massive chord on the Dome and West End reeds. After he had done so for a few minutes I felt very peculiar and had to shout for him to stop.

The acoustic is phenomenal, and the organ makes full use of it. The instrument is in every respect successful, and though not as large as the Atlantic City organ, it makes more sense in almost every respect. The balances are coherent throughout, and though all the departments beyond the Chancel are more or less brutish - with no pressures lower than twenty-five inches - the solid concrete enclosures are massive and forgiving. Ultimately all the major effects are traditional in style, simply developed in every direction to the umpteenth degree. In the Chancel stands a perfectly normal large Cathedral instrument, suitable for daily use. It is a bit larger than Liverpool, and slightly better in almost every respect. Here the pressures are all at fairly normal levels, reflecting the origins of much of the material in the simpler days of Skinner, Audsley and even Michell or Roosevelt. The rest of the instrument is almost entirely devoted to special effects: stereophonic and quadrophonic dialogue, several levels of super-tutti and, of course, the various terrifying mixtures and reeds. Questions of tonal finish and balancing are all exceptionally difficult to judge at a first visit, and here I can hardly comment.

Two things remain to be said. First: this is, of all organs in the world, one that can only be experienced in the flesh, and no written description could possibly do justice to it. Secondly, and perhaps more important, it represents the apotheosis of the heroic Anglo-American Late-Romantic style of organ building, and it is an instrument of a type only made possible by the advent of electric transmission. If ever there needed to be a justification of electro-pneumatic action, then surely it is this: the possibilities for special effects in a really big space are simply too artistically exciting to be turned down. This was demonstrated in theory at Liverpool (though the scheme was never completed). Further practical attempts along the same lines have been essayed at various times since, notably at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, under Willis and Mander - though in my view the major effects at St. Paul's suffer from asymmetry, and a general lumpiness in the build-up due to lack of space. (The Dome organ is essentially just a super-Great Organ on one side, and lacks any real sense of variety or build-up: it tends to be noticeably either 'on' or 'off'.) At St. Gladys, the total organ effect is well-balanced between the various sections, all of which are complete in their own right.

I urge all friends of the organ to attend the Basilica on Hackenback Square at their earliest convenience in order to hear this magnificent instrument with their own ears.

My own visit concluded with a most enjoyable tour of the chambers. Our small party first descended to the crypt and entered the organ workshop, taking a few moments to cast our eyes over the sub-basement Turbine Hall and the magnificent Blower Rooms. We visited the Willis office, and examined some sample drawings, before ascending in the large goods elevator to triforium level. There, the three of us clambered into the cramped cab of the Sprague locomotive and, our passage through the darkness illuminated by an occasional arcing flash from the overhead power supply, we set off on the two-foot-gauge tramway to view the organ chambers.

From the elevator shaft at the extreme east end of the building, the line follows a circular route, sometimes running inside the triforium gallery, and sometimes out across the roofs in the open air. It is perfectly charming, although in view of the heights involved the excursion is not recommended for those who suffer from vertigo. The line passes behind each organ chamber, high above the pipes. Each enclosure is fitted with its own travelling hoist to lower chests and pipes down to their situation below. We saw all the sections on the north side first - Chancel, Transept and Nave - then went to the west end to see the State Trumpets (as far as they are installed), before returning by the south side in reverse order - Nave, Transept and Chancel. Then, with the locomotive driven into the elevator car itself (which is fitted with a turntable and a short length of track for the purpose), we ascended to a still higher level, and made a terrifying windswept traverse along the apex of the chancel roof, leading ultimately to the Dome Gallery Organ. We could see the Tuba Mirum Organ in the apex of the dome high above, but as we did not have a great deal of time left we did not make the change to the cable-car for that final ascent. Returning by locomotive and elevator, we paused again at basement level for a quick walk through the chambers of the Echo and Orchestral Organ, located at the east end below Hackenback's tomb.

My thanks are due to Brad Jaeger III, for making this visit possible. The debt owed to him by the entire organ world, for his splendid efforts in making this fantastic instrument available to us, is beyond calculation.

Back on home ground again, and reflecting on our visit to New York, I can only envy the freedom with which the New World is able to tackle tasks on such a scale; a scale at which we in the Old World can only gawp. The question remains as to whether such excess is truly artistic. I suggest that each must decide for him or herself. It is all too easy to assume that everything in New York is made out of steel and concrete, and that it is a city in which craftsmanship has no place. The Basilica of St. Gladys is proof, if such is needed, that the United States is capable of producing gestures as baffling, as grandiose, as compelling, as beautiful and as complex as anything found in the older civilisations of the East.

Ca vaut le detour, as it says in the Guide Michelin.

Complete stoplist of Hackenback Grand Organ

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Last modified January 30, 1998.