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Historic St. Luke's Church Organ

An Exceptionally Rare Early 17th Century Organ in the USA at Historic St. Luke's Church, Smithfield, VA

The oldest intact organ in the USA is a 1630 English chamber organ [pictured above] in Historic St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Purchased in the 1950's during the church's own restoration, the organ was playable when purchased and is now in need of conservation and/or restoration.


Stage 1 - $10,000 - COMPLETED!

The insides of the oak and pine paneled doors of the organ are painted with two Old Testament scenes - David and Saul on the left and Jephthah's daughter on the right. The paintings were in need of immediate conservation work. After 13 months in the workshop of David Goist, Conservator, the doors were returned with the once crumbling paint now stabilized. The trompe d'oeil panels and facade pipes, that produce the illusion of a grand room, required only several months of precise and careful conservation and cleaning. Only!

STAGE 2 - $14,000 - COMPLETED!

The Examination of our organ took place at Historic St. Luke's (HSL) on January 18 and 19th, 1999. Four experts from three countries made up a multi-disciplinary team that took the organ further apart than it has been taken in this century. Stopping short of breaking any glue joints, the team examined the organ for clues to construction details and evidence of modifications made to the organ in its 368 years as well as what historical losses would occur if the organ were repaired to play again.

The Examiners were: Robert Barclay of the Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, a musical instrument conservation specialist who has published two books and many articles; Dominic Gwynn of Goetze and Gwynn, Nottinghamshire, England, the pre-eminent researcher, maker and restorer of early English organs; Barbara Owen, founder and current president of the Organ Historical Society, who is a widely published organ historian and editor, with Peter Williams, of The Organ (New Grove Musical Instrument Series); and John Watson, keyboard instrument maker and Conservator of Instruments at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who has published 11 articles on keyboard instruments and their conservation.

Under the general direction of Dominic Gwynn, the organ was carefully dismantled. The 184 wooden pipes were carefully laid out on five tables lining the aisle of the church. The examiners quietly, almost reverently, measured, photographed and drew sketches of the organ pipes and parts. Taking only a little time to be interviewed by a documentary team, the group worked on the task late into the night. A sense of working on a very special project in a very special place permeated the atmosphere.

At noon on the second day, a round table discussion was held with each examiner and their assistant participating. There was quite a lot of general consensus for the two disciplines. Conservators agreeing with restorers and vice versa. The very collegial atmosphere begun during the previous three days of the Colloquium continued.

A Gift of Katherine Langhorne Gwaltney


Preceding the January 1999 Examination of the organ, an invitational colloquium of scholarly papers and discussions by specialists in organ history, organ restoration, restoration consulting, conservation, and material history was held. The 1630 English chamber organ formed the backdrop for a dialog about the broader issues of organ restoration among specialists in the musical and cultural history of organs, the traditional restoration of organs, and, the conservation of historical and functional artifacts. As space was limited, participants were invited based on achieving a balanced variety of professionals The venue was held at Historic St. Luke's Church. John Watson of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Conservation Department was the Program Chair.

The Colloquium was an astounding success! Forty speakers and participants came from seven countries, in spite of a snow storm that closed airports from Pittsburgh to Boston. The two disciplines represented, organ restoration and conservation, shared common ground issues and case studies. We believe this was the first time, at least in the United States, that these two disciplines have met in a collegial atmosphere.


The precedent setting Colloquium, held January 15-17, 1999, was an important step in the world of organ repair and treatment. The very nature of a large structure that is built into it's surroundings precludes moving it to a laboratory for examination. Moving laboratory equipment of any size, like an X-ray machine, is equally difficult. This separation has kept the disciplines of organ restoration and conservation from evolving a close working relationship. That gap was narrowed through the presentations and dialogue of the Colloquium, Historic Organs Reconsidered: Restoration and Conservation for a New Century.

The presentations moved the two disciplines to a closer understanding and awareness of the common issues and problems that they share. We feel strongly that the way to carry the success of the Colloquium into the world is to publish post prints of some of the presentations given.

Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. is entering into a joint venture with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to publish the proceedings of the historic colloquium: Historic Organs Reconsidered: Restoration and Conservation for a New Century.

Publication cost for HSL's part will be $8,000. This stage will be in addition to our Stage Three Goal to perform treatment to the organ.


The decision of whether to repair the organ to play is a controversial one. The examiners made their recommendations based on whether the organ repairs will cause excessive losses of historical information. This whole process will be precedent-setting in the collaboration of conservators and restorers.

The next step rests with the Organ Committee who attended the Colloquium and have received the reports. Because of the great rarity of the organ, we will be taking utmost care in defining actions and plans for the organ. As John Watson said at the March meeting of the Board of Directors of Historic St. Luke's Restoration, "we can make a decision in a minute". The best decision will take some time. There are many issues to consider in making a plan of treatment.

The Committee feels it acquired the background information for the decision making and knows they have met a veritable sterling cast of experts to whom they can turn for additional advice. As the Colloquium ended in January, one of the presenters commented that, since the Organ Committee had attended the precedent-setting three day event, they were the most prepared organ committee "in two thousand years".




"The Glorious Sweet Sound"

Sunday, May 7th 7:00PM A Waterfront Wave event
The John W. Gaines Theatre
Christopher Newport University
1 University Place
Newport News, VA 23607

This May 7th at 7:00 PM, Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. will present a Benefit Concert for the conservation/restoration of our 1630 English chamber organ that will be like none other!

We have the great, good fortune to have Linda Maguire, internationally known classical vocal artist, to sing a special concert for us. Ms. Maguire is a Newport News native who has been trained in Canada and makes her home there.

Tickets will be available at our Gift Shop and from the Box Office at the Gaines Theatre. We will have two levels of tickets:

Patron Ticket - $50 - which will include a post concert Reception to meet
the artist. (It would also be a chance to wish her a Happy Birthday, as May 7th is her birthday.)

Benefit Concert only - $20
$18 Seniors (over 60) & Military
$10 Students (with ID)

The concert will be a Waterfront Wave event (the fringe events occurring as part of the Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival)!

We have chosen the John W. Gaines Theatre at Christopher Newport University in Newport News as the venue. This venue is a departure from previous benefits held in the circa 1632 shrine, which is a National Historic Landmark. "We felt we needed a larger hall because of the importance of our singer" said Historic St. Luke's Curator, Richard L. Austin. "During a visit to the church last spring, Ms. Maguire offered her talents as a singer. A gift like that is exceedingly rare, as is the 1630 organ it benefits."

Since her Canadian Broadcasting Corporation debut in May 1985, Linda Maguire's elegant vocal richness, incredulous technique and commanding, dramatic presence have brought her both national and international acclaim. She most recently made her highly praised and uniquely successful debut in LA CLEMENZA DI TITO for the Dallas Opera (opposite Frederika von Stade). Performances with the Houston Grand Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Versailles Court Theatre, in France, Stichting National Reisopera in the Netherlands, and the Cincinnati Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony and the symphonies of Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montréal, Calgary and Edmonton are just some of the locales where her talents have been displayed.

In 1999, she entertained at the evening of "The Kennedy Dinner" commemoration the original White House Evening with the Nobel Laureates. Ms. Maguire also sand on occasion of the 223rd Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America.

Ms. Maguire has entertained at scores of Gala, Professional and Benefit Functions in such esteemed venues as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Royal Canadian Yacht Club. She has performed on various state occasions including events held by diplomatic post of Austria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Italy, the Phillipines, and the USA. To show her appreciation for the many grants, awards, training programs, stipends and outreach funding that supported her professional development, Ms. Maguire has opened up her schedule this year to include an unlimited number of benefit performances. "We are certainly blessed that she happened to visit our venerable church last spring," said Austin.

Musical programs sung by Ms. Maguire include operatic and operetta favorites; French, English and German cabaret styling; Gershwin, Cole Porter; Chabrier; Duparc; and Lloyd Webber. The talented and highly regarded Tidewater pianist, Charles Woodward, will accompany Ms. Maguire



Tickets available from:

John W. Gaines Theatre Box Office - 757-594-8752 or
Historic St. Luke's Church - 757-357-3367


"Hits from the Renaissance"

Sunday, November 5th, 2000 - 4:00 PM

Admission by $15 minimum donation

The sixth benefit for the 1630 English chamber organ by this early music ensemble, Fayre Laydes Musicke! It will be in the Church in Isle of Wight County, VA. This year's concert will feature hits of the Renaissance - the energetic and appealing music that kept toes literally tapping and leaping from the 15th through the 17th centuries.

Fayre Laydes Musicke was formed in 1987. Members include: Dianne Jelle, organ; Diana Kemp, viola d'amore and recorders; Mary Norris, recorders; Deborah Ogan, viola da gamba and recorders; and, Fran Olsen, recorders and voice.

Admission is by a minimum $15 donation.

HISTORIC ST LUKE'S CHURCH is at 14477 Benn's Church Blvd., Smithfield, VA 23430 (Hwys 10 & 258).
Call 757-357-3367 for information.


Historic St. Luke's Church is the oldest church of English foundation in the United States. (Originally an Anglican church, it became an Episcopalian church after the Revolution.) It is also the oldest Protestant church in America. The church was begun in 1632, according to Nathaniel Young, Clerk of the County from 1801 to 1841, who read the original vestry book before it succumbed to crumbling mold after being buried during the Revolutionary War. The church had been called "The Old Brick Church" as early as 1727 and references in the second vestry book refer to re-shingling the old church in 1737 "with good cypress shingles of good substance and well nailed". Cypress shingles were known to last a hundred years. After the Revolution, when the church became an Episcopalian church, it was later named St. Luke's. The church was used until the 1830's when Christ Church was built within the town of Smithfield.

The church is the only original Gothic church remaining in the USA. The massiveness of the structure and the buttresses that support the walls follow, in spirit, the small, Medieval parish churches of Essex, England from whence the earliest settlers came in 1619.

The church, which of course was a state church before the Revolution, was also used to conduct the business of the county's court. The Vestry book was also the court records. During the Revolutionary War, English Colonial Tarlington's dragoons bivouacked on the property. Almost a hundred years later, Confederate troops pitched their tents among the gravestones.

In 1887, a violent storm blew down part of the roof and a part of the eastern wall. Two bricks were found in the debris, one whole and the other broken into two parts. On the whole brick were the numbers "1632" while the numbers "1" and "2" were on the ends of the broken brick. A restoration of the church was begun in 1887 and completed in 1894. During this restoration, stained glass windows replaced the lead-paned windows. Seven pairs of Tiffany-style windows and a German window were installed along the sides of the church. A great window in the East end of the church is also of German craftsmanship.

In this century, the church underwent its second restoration during the 1950's. Little work had been done on the venerable structure in over 75 years and it was in dire danger of it's foundations crumbling. Through the inspiration of three Jordan sisters - Ella, Elizabeth and Susan- a national campaign to restore the historic church was mounted. The campaign was a national effort, with pennies being sent in by school children across the country. Even a moment on the game show, Warren Hull's Strike It Rich, gave national attention to the effort. They enlisted the support of Henry Mason Day, a descendant of one of the original settlers of the region to spearhead the restoration. Mr. Day was, likewise, able to inspire churchmen, historians, architects and lay persons to join in the effort to restore this national shrine. James Grote Van Derpool and Canon Arthur P. Middleton were engaged to locate appropriate period furnishings in England. Altar, chairs, communion service, Bible, paraments and an organ were located in England.

St. Luke's served as the restoration model for the church at Jamestown Island across the James River. It also has some architectural features, primitive pediment and elliptical windows in the porch tower presaged the changing architectural taste. Its stepped gable ends, buttresses and jutting quoins that notch the corners of the tower.


For over 300 hundred years, this beautiful organ was owned by the Le Strange family of Hunstanton Hall, Hunstanton, East Anglia, England. The organ was purchased in 1630 by Sir Nicholas Le Strange. Sir Nicholas's father, Harmon, and brothers, Harmon (Jr) and Roger, were all talented players of the viola da gamba. Two teachers of the viol lived in the household at various times and were noted composers of music for the viol. The most famous of these, John Jenkins, wrote much music for organ and viols, and presumably played the actual organ now in Historic St. Luke's Church. Thomas Brewer, who taught Roger on the viol and voice, composed music for voice and string ensemble. Nicholas amassed a collection of 17th century music in manuscript form that is now distributed among four libraries in England and the USA.

With the end of WWII, the burden of taxes and expenses of maintaining large manor houses was too great for many English families. Hunstanton Hall was sold and divided into "flats". The contents of the hall were sold at auction in October 1949. The chamber organ was described for the sale as "The Unique Tudor Organ - a Positive Organ in paneled oak case, the painted front pipes of wood mounted in perspective (circa 1660). The inner side of the folding doors are painted with representations of David before Saul and Jepthath's daughter. The Organ has a compass of four octaves and is in playing order."

The organ was bought by a Captain Lane, an eccentric collector of musical instruments. In the mid 1950's Historic St. Luke's Church was undergoing restoration. The organ was purchased from Captain Lane, who represented it as a "rare English organ c.1665 and built by Bernard Smith". (Smith was a noted maker of organs in the late 17th Century.) The attribution is now known to be spurious, the instrument has been proven to date from before Smith's time. When the organ arrived in Virginia, it was still somewhat playable, but climatic conditions and amateur attempts to repair it soon silenced it. The organ has been mute for over 30 years.

In 1990 an article by Linda McNatt in the Virginian-Pilot began to stir new interest among early music people. Andrew Ashbee, a leading authority on 17th century viol music and the L'Estrange family, had suspected that the organ sold by Capt. Lane was that purchased by the Le Strange's in 1630. More recently, John and Linda Shortridge and historian, Barbara Owen, spent a few days examining and documenting the organ. This led to a re-examination of the instrument's "paper trail" and correspondence with Ashbee and other British historians, as well as organ-builder Noel Mander, who had initially packed the organ for shipment.

The organ is mentioned in Michael Wilson's 1968 book, The English Chamber Organ, although its whereabouts was unknown then. More up-to-date information appears in Stephen Bicknell's new book, The History of the English Organ, and will soon be pictured in a third book on the historic painted organs of Europe.

The door paintings have recently been restored, but this historic organ needs considerable further restoration and conservation work. In order to carry out this work in the most careful and responsible manner, Historic St. Luke's Restoration, Inc. will bring four respected experts in the

fields of organ restoration, conservation and organ history to Smithfield for two days of examination in January of 1999. To take advantage of this August gathering, the foundation will also hold a colloquium with approximately 10 or more additional presenters.


Richard L. Austin, Curator
Historic St. Luke's Church
14477 Benn's Church Blvd
Smithfield, VA 23430

Comments on this article or Email questions may be submitted to Fran Olsen at