When worshippers arrive for the Advent worship service on December 5, they’ll see some changes at Perkins Chapel: new lighting and newly refinished floors and pews, the result of renovation efforts this fall. And they will hear some changes, too.

“We have a new sound system that will make it much easier to hear sermons and prayers,” said Duane Harbin, Assistant Dean for Technology, Planning & Compliance. “I think we will really hear a difference in the spoken word in the chapel.”

Perkins Chapel under renovation.

The improvements are part of a $1.7 million, two-phase renovation project initiated after a steam leak in January 2018 damaged paint and plasterwork and the Chapel’s organ.  Since the Chapel hadn’t been renovated since 1999, Dean Craig Hill and SMU administration decided to authorize some upgrades in addition to the repairs. Insurance paid for some of the renovations; other funding came from a bequest of $931,000 from Dr. Mark Lemmon, Jr., the son of the architect who designed Perkins Chapel in 1951.

The first phase of renovations last fall repaired the damage, an elaborate restoration process involving several different shades of paint and repair of the dentil molding around the upper walls.  Then, the renovations were paused.

“Because the chapel is heavily booked for weddings the rest of the year, the fall term is the only window we have to do this kind of major work,” said Harbin.

When work resumed this fall, the Spring Valley Construction Company replaced and upgraded all of the lighting, refinished the floors and the pews, replaced the sound system and installed a new video system.

“The new video system is fairly elaborate,” said John Martin, Director of Development at Perkins. “There’s a screen that may be raised out of the floor in the upper chancel, which will allow lecturers to use PowerPoints visuals. Also, the system gives us the capability to livestream events out of the Chapel.”

The new sound system also relocated the tech booth to the nave, so that the sound technician will hear what the congregation hears and thus can better adjust the audio.  Gone are the reinforcement speakers on the backs of the pews, which tended to knock knees and hadn’t worked properly in recent years.

New Organ

Another big change underway: a new organ for the Chapel.

The January 2018 steam leak also damaged the Chapel’s Aeolian-Skinner organ; plans are underway to replace it with an older, but more classic instrument.

SMU has purchased a 1927 E.M. Skinner organ, Opus 563, from the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan. The E.M. Skinner organ is currently in a storage facility near Boston, awaiting restoration. (The previous Chapel organ, the Aeolian-Skinner, will soon have a new home at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dallas.)

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

The timeline for bringing the new organ to Perkins Chapel is not yet clear; an additional $2 million in funding is needed to complete the restoration of the instrument and the installation in Perkins.

“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.