The story of St. John's Parish dates back to 1829, when the first Episcopal services were held in Jacksonville. The cornerstone of the first church was laid in 1842. That building was destroyed during the Civil War and a new building was dedicated in 1877.
During the 1880s, an instrument was installed by Hilborne Roosevelt, one of the most prominent of 19th-century American organbuilders. This was comprised of a complete Swell organ and part of a Pedal organ, actually built for All Saints' Cathedral in Albany, New York. All Saints' Cathedral was not ready for the installation, so the one manual and pedal instrument went to Jacksonville. In 1901, the great Jacksonville fire destroyed the church, parish house and rectory, along with the entire city.
The cornerstone for the present English Parish Gothic building was laid in 1903. The entire cathedral square of office building, church school building, parish hall and music complex, cathedral and chapels is built of Indiana limestone. In 1905, an instrument by Hook and Hastings was installed, that instrument being enlarged and electrified by the Odell company in the early 1920s. In 1949, a four-manual instrument comprised of Great, Swell, Choir, Solo and Pedal was installed. In 1951, St. John's was officially proclaimed the Cathedral Church for the Diocese of Florida. The current parish of nearly 2,000 active communicants, which operates a high school of 700 students, also provides an extensive social ministry to the elderly, infirm, hungry and poor.
The 1949 organ was the last instrument to be installed in the cathedral as it then stood. The organ chambers were very deep, with large tone pockets and minimal egress to the chancel. A deep arch separated chancel from nave. Although the cathedral accommodates as many as 1,200 for large services, reverberation time was minimal, since the entire floor was carpeted. Some case-work projected into the transepts, with a fence of display pipes above each half. From 1965 to 1980, some tonal reworking was carried out but never successfully completed; with the passage of time, the organ became increasingly unreliable.
Parts of the cathedral were in need of considerable repair and the decision was made to undertake a major renovation of the building; the cost of nearly two million dollars also included the purchase of a new pipe organ.
W. Stanley Gordon of Jacksonville was the architect. David Klepper of Klepper, Marshall, King and Assoc., New York, was retained as the acoustical consultant. Austin Organs Inc. was commissioned to build a large, new organ very much in the French tradition.
The organ was to consist of 62 ranks on three manuals, with preparation for a future antiphonal of seven ranks placed on the west wall. Specifications were worked out by the builder and organist and choirmaster, John Barry, with the varied needs of the cathedral in mind. A study of musical requirements of the organ, along with suggestions concerning tonal matters and console accessories, was prepared by Daniel Page and John Parkyn of the cathedral music department.
The deep arch separating
the chancel from the nave was opened up and the ceiling of the south organ
space was lowered several feet to eliminate a large
tone pocket. With new steel reinforcement of the chancel walls, the openings to the chancel were greatly enlarged. Walls and ceilings of the organ spaces were insulated and finished in hard plaster.
The wood ceiling of the cathedral was coated with a non-glossy polyurethane material. New case fronts of oak, executed by the firm of Herbert Read Ltd., of Exeter, England, were installed in the transept openings with speaking bass pipes. Wide open grilles were installed in the chancel openings. In effect, the organ is installed in two, rather wide open shelves in the front corners of the cathedral, speaking freely to chancel, transepts, crossing and nave. The magnificent oak altar, also by Read, is set in the crossing on a new, raised area of inlaid marble. The new chancel floor is also of marble. The choir area, of oak furnishings, is now located across the head of the chancel, with the three-manual, drawknob console on the nave side of the area, the organist facing the choir. A rood screen separates the choir area from the rest of the chancel. The impressive cathedra, or Bishop's throne, is immediately in front of the rood screen, behind the back of the organist. This cathedra is a copy of the one at Canterbury Cathedral. The floors of the nave and transepts are of quarry tile, and the choir floor is of wood parquet.
Acoustics are now excellent, with a reverberation time of approximately two-and-one-half seconds under most conditions. Nave and transept pews have removable cushions to provide stability in acoustics for a wide range of services. These cushions, when re moved for recording purposes and occasional concerts, have the effect of increasing the reverberation time to nearly four seconds.
Installation of the organ commenced in late September 1983, and final tonal finishing was accomplished in mid-February 1984. Under the guidance of David A.J. Broome, vice president and tonal director of Austin Organs, the finishing was undertaken by Daniel Kingman and David Johnston. The Great and Positif are in the transept openings speaking to the nave and across to the chancel. The Swell and Choir, each having dual sets of expression shades, are in the south and north areas of the chancel, respectively. The shades are angled to nave and chancel, and are controlled in such a way that both sets can be operated at once, or the transept shades can be switched to be held in a closed position when the organ is being used for choir accompaniment.
The Great principal chorus, located in the south transept case, is based on a large-scale 16' Violone, with complete chorus through two mixtures. The Positif, located in the north transept area, is based on an 8' Montre, serving as a foil for the Great. There is a cornet on both Great and Swell, either of which can be played against the Cromorne on the Positif. The two comets are of different scalings, the Great Cornet being very bold and flutey. Each division has its own principal chorus and there are chorus reeds on both Swell and Great. Because of the many color possibilities, a tremulant was included on every manual division.
In the Pedal, the 32' Basse Acoustique is resultant and the 32' Cornet is derived; spatial considerations precluded a 32' Soubasse. The 32' Bombarde is a large-scale, half-length-resonator reed. The Trompette de Fête, the major solo reed, is on 13 3/4" wind, expressive by its placement in the Choir chamber, and is voiced to sound above the full organ It does not couple to any other keyboard but is playable from the Choir and Swell manuals at 8'.
The new organ gives an excellent account of itself in the room and has been complimented by concert artists and audiences alike. It is used extensively in services with elaborate choral accompaniments, occasionally with orchestral forces, and in organ concerts spanning the literature.
The opening recital in February 1984 was played by Christopher Dearnley, organist of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Simon Preston, of Westminster Abbey, played in April 1985 and returned on April 20, 1986. Concerts by American artists Marilyn Keiser, William Whitehead and Frederick Swann, as well as several of Jacksonville's local organists, have been performed to large audiences. The recitals continue to be very well attended, attesting to the compatibility of favorable acoustics, well-thought-out organ design and placement, and careful programming by the performing artists with concern for the color characteristics of the instrument as well as the musical tastes of local audiences.
John Barry is the author of this story; it also appeared in the May 1986 issue of The American Organist.
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