January 2021 News Perspective Online

Office of Development Update: A New Organ for Perkins Chapel

Gay and William (Bill) Solomon (SMU ’65) have blessed Perkins with a $1 million gift for the Caren and Vin Prothro Organ project.  That gift is a solid foundation that challenges us to raise the remaining $1 million to finish the restoration and installation of the organ.

A January 2018 steam leak caused damage to Perkins Chapel, including the organ.  Through a marvelous bequest from the estate of Dr. Mark Lemmon, the Chapel was restored to its pristine beauty in 2019.  Floors and pews were refinished, the intricate ceiling was repainted and both lighting and sound were updated.  Plans are now underway to replace the organ with a truly classic instrument.

The “organ team” from Perkins School of Theology and Meadows School of the Arts conducted a national search that led to an E. M. Skinner organ in New York City.  SMU purchased a 1927 Skinner organ, Opus 563, from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan. This magnificent instrument is currently being restored by the Ortloff Organ Company, a world-renowned pipe organ building, restoration, and maintenance firm based in Needham, Massachusetts. Clients include churches, theatres, institutions, and individuals.

Stefan Engels, Professor of Organ and Chair of the Organ Department at the Meadows School of the Arts, says the Skinner Organ Company is widely regarded as America’s finest organ builder from 1905 until 1932, when the company merged with the organ department of the Aeolian Company to form Aeolian-Skinner.  “The period of 1924-1932 is further regarded as the zenith of the firm’s work in that period, mechanically and artistically,” Engels said.

The Greek Orthodox congregation in New York acquired the organ in 1953 when it purchased the building from the Fourth Presbyterian congregation.  Because Greek Orthodox worship does not typically include organ music, the organ essentially went into storage. “With almost no use over the past 60 years,” Engels added, “the instrument is a pristine example of a company in its prime – a diamond in the rough.”

Only three Skinner Organs were built for clients in Texas and none remain.  This will be a unique instrument, and the Perkins Chapel venue will be sought after by organ enthusiasts.

“Once the restoration and installation of this instrument in Perkins Chapel is completed, we expect that it will attract international attention, serve many generations of organists in their goal to achieve artistic excellence, and be an inspiration to the daily needs of the SMU community,” said Engels.

This project appealed to Perkins Executive Board member Gay Solomon and her husband, Bill.  They knew that a previous remodeling of Perkins Chapel, in 1999, had been spearheaded and, to a large extent, funded by their dear friends, Caren Prothro and her late husband, C. Vincent Prothro.  They stipulated that the Organ be named for Caren and Vin.

“For the Prothros, Perkins Chapel is a family affair,” said SMU President Gerald Turner. “Vin’s grandparents funded the chapel, and Caren and Vin have been an integral part of the history of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.  I can’t imagine a more fitting way to honor them than with this gift from their close friends, Gay and Bill, whose generous support will transform both worship and music education at SMU for generations to come.”

The Solomons’ gift has set the timeline for bringing the new organ to Perkins Chapel in motion.  An additional $1 million in funding is needed to complete the restoration of the instrument and the installation in Perkins Chapel.

This project is another example of the outstanding support by people like Gay and Bill Solomon who are dedicated to the progress and ministry of Perkins School of Theology, as well as the entirety of Southern Methodist University.  Bill graduated from SMU in 1965 before earning an M.B.A. from Harvard University.  He is retired president and CEO of Austin Industries, Inc. and the current president and CEO of The O’Donnell Foundation. Gay is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, a painter, interior designer and a civic volunteer.

The Prothros have been ardent champions of SMU.  Mrs. Prothro is currently an SMU trustee.

We look forward to the first worship service, concert, organ recital, and many other “firsts” in the future.  We are thankful for Gay and Bill Solomon, for Caren and Vin Prothro, and for all who love this institution.

John Martin
Development Director