1891 Roosevelt Organ

St James is home to a rare 1891 Roosevelt pneumatic-tracker organs. Organs are custom built instruments for the space in which they reside.

(Photo by Stephen Schnurr)

(Photo by Stephen Schnurr)


One of the very few tracker-pneumatic organs known to exist in this country, the organ at St. James was installed in the rear gallery of the reverberant church in 1891 by Frank Roosevelt, younger brother and successor to Hilborne Roosevelt. The Roosevelt firm was known for some of the finest pipe organs built in the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The pipe-work, all of generous scale, stands on patented Roosevelt pneumatic wind-chests. These wind-chests are acti­vated by a mechanical (tracker) console that is connected to primaries in the chests. The key action that results from this arrangement is light and quick. There is also a mechanical adjustable combination action. The twenty-bell carillon in the tower of the church was formerly playable from a small keyboard under the right stop-jamb. A typically Roosevelt feature is the fact that, with the exception of the 16′ and 8′ Diapasons in the Great, the remaining Great stops are enclosed in the same expression-box as the Swell stops.

An account of the organ is given in the July, 1893 issue of The Organ edited by Everett Truett: “Probably the most elab­orate musical service given in the city is that of St. James R. C. Church, on the south side of the city, of which the celebrated English organist, Frederick Archer [sic], is organist. The organ, by Roosevelt, is of two manuals, blown by an electric motor. The question now most naturally arises, how is it such a great performer has such a small organ at his disposition?

In the first place, lack of room prevented the building of a larger one. But this instrument must be heard to be appreciated. A peculiar occurrence happened at its dedication. The church being packed with hearers, the full power of the instrument proved to be insignificant; no gathering ever had such a marked effect upon an organ. Mr. Davis, Roosevelt’s Chicago representative, immediately sent most of the pipes back to the New York factory, with an order for pipes of a much larger scale. This order was carried out, and one is agreeably surprised at the marvelous power and masterly voicing of this truly efficient instrument.”

Today the Roosevelt organ is still in almost original condition. A few parts of the hand-pumping mechanism have been removed over the years, and the manual keyboards have been either recovered or replaced. In 1941, the pneumatic valves in the wind-chests were re-Ieathered but were not adjusted carefully. Therefore, they do not seat properly every time. Since this can result in a major ciphering problem, the organ has been used rarely in recent times. High temperatures and high humidity enabled the organ to perform remarkably well when the tapes were made for this recording. Although the church has been restored now and is in regular use again, the numerous wind leaks, rattles and hisses which can be heard from time to time attest to the fact that the organ is still in need of restoration. An illustrated article about this organ, written by Michael D. Friesen, appeared in THE TRACKER 27:2 (Winter 1983): 7, the quarterly publication of the Organ Historical Society (PO Box 26811, Richmond, VA 23261).

(Chicago-Midwest Chapter Organ Historical Society

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