[The] organ appeared in the mid-fifties and embodied so much of the essence of Holtkamp’s style, convictions and interests. ... [This organ] reveals Holtkamp, as much a radical in his field as Frank Lloyd Wright was in architecture, at work in a space designed by the respected contemporary architectural firm, Eero Saarinen and Associates. Here the combination of gifted organ builder working together with a creative architect demonstrates again that organ building, when practiced responsibly, can produce instruments of exceptional visual and aural distinction.” – John Allen Ferguson, “Walter Holtkamp: American Organ Builder” (1979)

Why was Saarinen as amenable to acoustics and organ placement in the Chapel as he was unamenable to them in Kresge? It is said that organ builder Walter Holtkamp, Sr. (1894-1962), did not enjoy building the Kresge organ. Besides the cramped space and unideal placement relegated by Saarinen’s design, the auditorium was not ideal acoustically – a fact that didn’t seem to disturb Saariren. Acoustics, Saarinen said in 1955, were a “modifying factor” but “not a science with the authority to impose a basic shape.” Therefore, according to legend, Saarinen attempted to mollify Holtkamp with the Chapel, by providing him with an ideally placed organ loft and the type of acoustical environment about which organ builders dream.

Every bit as shocking as the buildings of Saarinen were the organs of Walter Holtkamp, Sr. Upon the death of his father Herman Heinrich (“Henry”) Holtkamp (1858-1931), Walter assumed control of the company that was then called the Votteler-Holtkamp-Sparling Organ Company. Despite the financial difficulties of the Depression, Walter Holtkamp wasted little time in developing his radical ideas. His 1933 addition to the E. M. Skinner organ of the Cleveland Museum of Art (the first “Rückpositiv” ever built in North America), quickly established him as the most avant-garde organ builder in America. These Baroque-inspired instruments had a brightness and clarity completely unfamiliar to audiences of the 1930s, who were accustomed, instead, to the lush, woolly sounds of organs by E. M. Skinner – instruments more suitable for Wagner transcriptions than for Bach’s great organ works.

In 1951 the company was renamed the Holtkamp Organ Company; Walter Holtkamp, Sr., was named President. The company’s finest work dates from this period, including important installations at Crouse College (Syracuse University) and Battell Chapel (Yale). The consultant for many Holtkamp instruments, including the two MIT organs, was Melville Smith (1898-1962), one of the most influential organists of his time. In addition to his involvement at MIT, Smith was President of the Longy School. Smith was one of the leaders of the so-called Organ Reform Movement, which repopularized the Baroque music and organs that Smith so loved. He had a particular passion for French Baroque organ music, especially that of the composer Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703). Perhaps this explains why a stop on the Chapel organ, named “Cymbal” on the stopknob, is actually a Sesquialtera.

The Chapel organ is tonally unaltered and reflects Holtkamp’s finest work. On only two-and-seven-eighths inches of wind pressure, the pipes speak with an unforced, singing tone into the generous acoustics provided by Saarinen. Saarinen and Holtkamp: the two men were so different on the surface – one an architect from southern Finland, another an organbuilder from St. Mary, Ohio. But both men were iconoclasts who dedicated their lives to creating what they felt was beautiful – even when the mainstream felt differently.

Text & photos by Leonardo Ciampa (2009)

MIT Chapel
Cambridge, MA
Holtkamp Organ Company, Op. 1674 (1955)

Copula 8'
Dulciana 8'
Principal 4'
Hohlflote 2'

Quintadena 8'
Rohrflote 4'
Principal 2'
Sesquialter II (called "Cymbal" on the stopknob)

Quintadena 16'
Gedackt 8'
Choral Bass 4'