Organs and Organists on Temple Square

Tabernacle Organ

Number of Pipes: 11,623 
Number of Voices: 147
Ranks: 206

Detailed Specification

Pioneer Roots

The history of the organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle begins with Joseph H. Ridges (1827‒1914). An English carpenter and cabinetmaker, Ridges had a lifelong fascination with organs.  As far as can be determined, he never formally apprenticed in the organ trade. He appears to have gained his knowledge of the instrument through frequent visits to an organ factory near his London home, by observing and talking with the workers there, and by carefully studying instruments in the factory as well as in local churches. However, it was not until he had immigrated to Sydney, Australia that Ridges actually attempted his first instrument, among the earliest organs to have been built in that country. Following his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1853, Ridges and his family chose to join the main body of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Leaving Australia in 1856, they finally reached the Salt Lake Valley in June of the following year.

Limited information exists concerning the organ that Ridges built in Australia.  One account mentions that the organ contained seven stops, and another speaks of “two soft rich diapason stops.” The organ was dismantled and packed in moisture-resistant cases (perhaps tin-lined wooden crates) “some of them as long as a wagon,” according to Ridges. The Ridges family, along with the organ and some 120 additional Mormon emigrants, made the two-and-a-half-month voyage to California aboard the ship Jenny Ford. After spending the winter in California, the family and the organ traveled overland by wagon train to Salt Lake City, itself a nearly two-months-long journey.

Old Tabernacle

Ridges installed his organ in a building on Temple Square now referred to as the “Old Tabernacle” (to distinguish it from the present “new” Tabernacle that was finished in 1867).  This adobe structure, completed in 1852, stood until 1877, when it was razed to make way for the Assembly Hall, which was built on the same site.

As plans for the new tabernacle were being considered, Brigham Young turned to Ridges regarding the feasibility of building an organ for the imposing edifice—an instrument that would be commensurate in size and grandeur to the building itself. The venture would be particularly difficult since Salt Lake City was still something of a wilderness outpost, inaccessible by rail until completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Ridges felt that such an instrument could be built by using native resources insofar as possible and by obtaining other parts and materials from an established organ builder on the east coast. Native pine was used for the wood portions of the organ. Suitable lumber for the large façade pipes was found in Pine Valley, some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City.  Cowhides were boiled down to make glue, and calfskin was used to hinge the ribs of the bellows. Ridges traveled to Boston in 1863, where he purchased metal pipes and other parts and materials from the established organbuilding firm of William B. D. Simmons.

For the design of the pipe façade and casework Ridges appears to have been highly influenced by the new Walcker organ then being installed in the Boston Music Hall. Though the Tabernacle organ casework is somewhat less ornate than that of the Boston organ, the two share the same basic shape and many design elements too similar to be explained by mere coincidence.

Ridges’s original specifications included 32 ranks and about 1,600 pipes played from two 56-note manuals and a 25-note pedal board. The organ had mechanical (tracker) action. The keydesk was attached to the organ case, with the organist facing the case, his back to the congregation. Wind for the organ was initially furnished by means of hand-pumped bellows.  Only about 700 pipes were in use by October 1867, when the organ was first put into service.  The case was not completed until 1869. Ridges and his assistants continued to work on the instrument, and photographs indicate that by 1874 it had been enlarged to include a third manual and additional stops.

Expansion and Modernization

Further expansion of the Tabernacle organ was undertaken in 1885 under the supervision of Niels Johnson. At that time, the organ was enlarged to include four manuals, 57 stops, and 2,648 pipes. Johnson added pneumatic levers to lighten the touch and employed a water-powered system to supply the wind. In 1895, the water motors were replaced by two DC electric motors.

In 1901, the Kimball Organ Company undertook a rebuilding of the organ. The manual compass was extended to 61 notes and the pedal compass to 30 notes. With the installation of tubular-pneumatic action at the time, the console was detached from the organ case.  Approximately two-thirds of the previous pipework was removed, and the organ was tuned to international pitch. New pipework was added to bring the organ to 62 ranks and approximately 3,600 pipes. Wind was provided by a 10-HP electric blower. After the Kimball rebuilding, regular recitals were scheduled. By 1908, recitals were played daily, except Sundays; in 1947, Sunday recitals were added.

By 1915, the pneumatics of the Kimball organ needed extensive repair, and another rebuilding was commenced. The work was entrusted to the Austin Organ Company, which installed electro-pneumatic action and Austin universal air chests. At this time, the original case was extended on both sides to its present size by the Salt Lake woodworking firm of Fetzers Inc.  The 1916 Austin organ contained about 100 ranks of pipes in seven divisions played from four manuals and pedals.

Additions to the organ by the Austin Company in 1926 and 1940 further enlarged the instrument. In 1926, twenty-four stops (about 1,500 pipes) were added. Nine more stops were added in 1940. It was during this period, on 15 July 1929, that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir began its weekly radio broadcasts.

Present-day Instrument

By the 1940s, important changes in organ design were taking place. Organists and organbuilders were looking to the past to find direction for the future. Organs with high wind pressure, large pipe scales, undeveloped choruses, and orchestral voicing were giving way to instruments based on more classical concepts of tonal design. Accordingly, the Æolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston, Massachusetts, was engaged in 1945 to again rebuild the Tabernacle organ. Except for the case with its ten original speaking façade pipes, two additional ranks of Ridges’s original pipework, and a modest number of pipes from previous rebuilds, the organ was entirely new. The instrument was completed at the close of 1948, under direct supervision of Æolian-Skinner’s president and tonal director, G. Donald Harrison, and was dedicated in January of the following year.

During the ensuing years as the Tabernacle organists became more familiar with the new instrument, a few relatively subtle tonal and mechanical changes were made, including the addition of three ranks to the Solo division by the Canadian firm Casavant Frères in 1979.

By 1984, after nearly forty years of rigorous use, the organ was beginning to show its age, and a thorough renovation was commenced by Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco, under the direction of that firm’s president and tonal director, Jack M. Bethards. The work was carried out slowly and meticulously over a period of four years.

During the renovation, all pipework was carefully checked, repaired and/or regulated as needed. Seventeen new ranks of pipes were added, bringing the total to 206 ranks and the number of pipes to 11,623. Unsteadiness of wind was remedied by the addition of concussion bellows as needed throughout the organ, and a 3-HP blower was added to supply wind to the pedal bass pipes to correct a slight wind sag when full organ was being played. The relay and switching systems were replaced with solid-state equipment, and a multi-level combination action, now with 256 levels of memory, replaced the large, remotely located Æolian-Skinner combination machine. The console was removed to the Schoenstein workshop where, over a period of eighteen months, it was completely refurbished. All interior components were rebuilt, new keyboards and pedal caps were installed, and the case exterior was repaired and refinished.  Several features for the convenience of organists and technicians were added, such as an adjustable music rack, duplicate general pistons, an intercom system, a USB port for external memory by using a USB flash drive, an internal fan with two external ducts that can be adjusted and aimed at the organist, and a clock/timer. A four-manual temporary console was used while the Æolian-Skinner console was away.

During that same period, a rotating disk was built into the floor underneath the console, which allowed the console to be rotated to provide audiences with increased visibility of the organist and keyboards during the daily recitals.

The Tabernacle was closed from the end of 2004 until April 2007, while the building underwent seismic retrofitting and other structural enhancements along with considerable refurbishing of the interior and upgrading of mechanical and electrical systems. Much of the organ’s pipework was removed and cleaned, however no tonal changes were made. The Tabernacle organ technicians took advantage of the opportunity to re-leather reservoirs and actions where deterioration had occurred. The organ case, which had incurred minor damage through the years, was repaired, and the façade pipes were gilded with 23.5 karat gold leaf, replacing the so-called “Dutch” imitation gold leaf, which had been seen on the pipes for decades. After more than fifty years of service, the main blower was returned to the factory to be reconditioned. As part of the renovation, air conditioning was incorporated into the rostrum and choir areas of the Tabernacle. This addition not only increased the comfort of those performing under the heat of television lighting, but also served to increase, to a considerable degree, the tuning stability of the organ.

The Salt Lake Tabernacle organ is one of the most notable instruments in America, not only because of its size, but also because of the success of its tonal design. Aided by the unique acoustical properties of the Tabernacle, the organ’s warmth and richness are immediately recognizable. It is perhaps more widely heard and enjoyed than any other organ in America. View the current specification of the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ.

A more detailed history of the Tabernacle organ from Joseph Ridges through the Schoenstein renovation may be found in Barbara Owen’s book, The Mormon Tabernacle Organ: An American Classic (Salt Lake City: The American Classic Organ Symposium, 1990). Though currently out-of-print, copies may be found in libraries or used copies may be available through Also, a thorough discussion of the Schoenstein renovation, written by Jack M. Bethards, appeared in the December 1988 issue of The American Organist magazine.