The Holtkamp Organ
"It’s a real addition to the musical tapestry of Cleveland."
By Andrew Kuhar
Although my entrance to the Holtkamp shop was unusual, it felt appropriate: through a side cargo door, and into the open frame of a brand new organ. Chris Holtkamp, President, Artistic and Tonal Director of the Holtkamp Organ Company, guided me through their archives, his grandfather's legacy, the history of St. Vitus' organ and its importance among organs in North America. Our conversation took place in Chris' office, which is lined with shelves of documents and photographs that span the construction of each Holtkamp organ, and powered by his encyclopedic knowledge of what makes them sing.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
"Although it’s not known as having an important place in the history of organ building in North America, it does"Chris Holtkamp
What makes St. Vitus’ Holtkamp organ so unique?
Chris Holtkamp (CH): The organ precedes a series of three organs in my grandfather’s new style of building. Basically, it took the organ out of the chambers or closets, in which they were typically placed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and instead put the organs out in the room so that there wasn’t any acoustical impediments to the sound getting out. If you put something in a side-chamber or closet, what happens is that the sound gets filtered. Most of what you get when it’s in the chamber is a lot of fundamental [tone], but not a whole lot of color.
John Allen Ferguson, the guy that wrote the biography on my grandfather (Walter Holtkamp: American Organ Builder), said there were five organs between 1933 and 1934 that were the first instruments that fully represented that change. One of them, which is still in existence, is in Covington, Kentucky. Another one was at Miles Park Presbyterian Church, on Cleveland’s south side at that time. However, [St. Vitus’] was the direct predecessor to them. When you listen to the organ you hear a lot of sounds that are characteristic of organs in chambers. But you also hear a lot of sounds that are headed in the direction of the sound that organs in the open church produce. The biographer says that this started in 1934, but these [photographs & documents] show that it was completed in 1932. That shows that it started a number of years earlier, and it shows how purposeful my grandfather was in what he was designing. The change didn’t just happen with those three or four organs. It happened before them.
So although it’s not known as having an important place in the history of organ building in North America, it does. The Organ Historical Society had a convention in Cleveland just before the St. Vitus organ was restored, and the American Institute of Builders is going to have a convention here in a couple of years, in Northeastern Ohio. The Institute we’re having here in a couple of years should hear [St. Vitus' organ].