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Calvary church organ to rise from the ashes with new concert series in Newburgh

Luke Pontifell, president of Thornwillow Press, gives a brief demonstration of the Skinner organ at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Newburgh. After years of restoration following a devastating fire at the church in 2020, the organ will once again ring for public audiences as part of a new monthly concert series titled "Thornwillow Concerts at Calvary."
Jesse King
Luke Pontifell, president of Thornwillow Press, gives a brief demonstration of the Skinner organ at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Newburgh. After years of restoration following a devastating fire at the church in 2020, the organ will once again ring for public audiences as part of a new monthly concert series titled "Thornwillow Concerts at Calvary."

A rare pipe organ damaged in a 2020 fire will once again ring through the sanctuary of a church in Newburgh, New York, as part of a new concert series launching Saturday. WAMC's Hudson Valley Bureau Chief, Jesse King, stopped by for a preview.

With more than 2,000 pipes, the Skinner & Son organ at Calvary Presbyterian Church is a mammoth of an instrument. Luke Pontifell, president of Thornwillow Press, takes me up to the loft at the back of the sanctuary for a glimpse at the main console, and it looks like the cockpit of an airplane, with dozens of keys, buttons, and pedals at your disposal. Pontifell says any combination of levers can take the same note and twist it into a new sound.

"I can't walk and chew gum at the same time, but Paul Jacobs can walk and chew gum and use the pedals, the keyboards, and change the stops all at once," he laughs.

While he’s happy to give a demonstration, Pontifell’s expertise is actually in printing, not pipe organs. Thornwillow Press, on nearby Spring Street, has been making custom stationery and books from the likes of Walter Cronkite and Toni Morrison since 1985. Its newest project, however, looks to promote the broader arts by bringing free, monthly concerts with world-class artists to the church. “Thornwillow Concerts at Calvary” will kick off Saturday with the organ’s first public performance in more than three years.

"It's a great place for a concert series like this," says Artistic Director and composer Lowell Liebermann. "Certainly, the venue is terrific, they have that magnificent organ that has just been renovated. And they've just acquired an absolutely gorgeous Steinway concert grand piano. It's a big deal."

Pontifell says Calvary has made a remarkable recovery ever since a devastating fire scorched its fellowship hall in March of 2020. The historic sanctuary, designed by the Gothic architect F.C. Withers in 1858, was mercifully spared the flames, but was absolutely covered in smoke and ash. Pontifell says saving the organ required the use of cranes to lift the pipes out of the building, and years of careful restoration by the Connecticut-based repair shop Foley-Baker, Inc.

"To take it out and put it back, and restore it to what it was, it's almost as if we have a new version of Skinner's original concept," says Pontifell.

The organ is in equally good hands for its return. Grammy Award-winning organist Paul Jacobs will begin the series with a program of Bach, Mozart, and contemporary works. Jacobs has played churches and concert halls all over the world, and he says one of the joys of his job is that every stage and organ is different. He plans to arrive in Newburgh hours early on Saturday to start tuning Calvary’s instrument, and get to know all of its quirks.

"And of course, the organ is high up in a gallery in the back, so what we have for the concert this Saturday is a closed-circuit [video] setup. There will be screens down front, so the audience can see my hands and feet in action," adds Jacobs.

Skinner organ dedication
Jesse King
The dedication plate for the Skinner organ at Calvary Presbyterian Church. Longtime volunteer Jim Ferguson says Ernest Skinner actually had to convince the congregation to let him build their new organ in 1937, as some members thought Skinner was too old and/or frail for the job. To prove them wrong, Ferguson says the story goes that Skinner walked across a church table on his hands. Skinner designed the organ for the National Cathedral in Washington around the same time.

Ernest Skinner, who custom-made this particular organ as a gift for Calvary in 1937, is referred to by some as the “Stradivarius” of the pipe organ. Pontifell says he was an eccentric man who liked to experiment with new sounds, and his businesses saw varied success over the course of his career — but no one was building organs quite like Skinner in the 20th Century. His work would adorn cathedrals in nearly every major city in the country, including the National Cathedral in Washington.

Unlike the organs in those cities, however, the Calvary organ has more or less been left alone the past 80 years. Pontifell says Newburgh, like a lot of Hudson Valley cities, fell on hard times during the 1960s, and never fully bounced back. So while richer cities and cathedrals modernized their organs or swapped them out for the next “best thing,” Newburgh served as a sort of time capsule.

"This really one of the only Skinner organs that is so completely overhauled and in its original Skinner vision for what the instrument should be," Pontifell explains.

The same can be said for Calvary itself. Of course, a lot has been done to remedy the church’s fellowship hall, but longtime volunteer Jim Ferguson says the sanctuary still has a lot of its history. Thomas Edison once used Calvary to demonstrate electricity to the public in 1884, making it the first church in the state to be illuminated by lightbulbs instead of gas lamps, but you’ll still see the hooks for those gas lamps by the entrance. A seating chart dating back to the 19th Century contains a lot of the same names that now label Newburgh’s streets. And Ferguson says church staff recently tore up the carpeting to reveal beautiful stone tile underneath. Kind of like Foley & Sons, he's now slowly patching it up to resemble its original condition.

Pontifell says he hopes the concert series can be a way for Newburgh residents to celebrate the city’s past, present and future — George Washington had his headquarters here, after all. Newburgh may not be housing the president anymore, but Thornwillow has designed and printed every president’s stationery since George H.W. Bush. Pontifell says there’s a burgeoning arts community in Newburgh that could be key to the city’s revival, and Thornwillow wants to do everything it can to feed that.

"The point, I guess, is that out of hardships can sometimes come opportunity, and out of opportunity can come joy. And that's what we're trying to do here," says Pontifell.

Saturday’s show with Paul Jacobs kicks off at 5 p.m. at the Calvary Presbyterian Church. The show itself is free, but it will be followed by an onsite dinner with local artist and chef Leon Johnson in the fellowship hall. Tickets for that are already sold out. You can find more information about the “Thornwillow Concerts at Calvary” series here.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."