A Grand Pipe Organ for a Grand City

A Grand Pipe Organ for a Grand City 2Henry M. Flagler is a name synonymous with the development of St. Augustine into the tourist destination it is today. He most often associated with the Florida East Coast Railroad and his many hotels here. What is often overlooked, however, is his connection with the local churches, and interestingly enough, their pipe organs. Pipe organs are typically not associated with Flagler, his businesses, or philanthropy. Flagler was a religious man, however. His father was a Presbyterian preacher, and Flagler regularly attended church in both New York and Florida. In addition, he was deeply entrenched in the elite music culture of the Gilded Age.

Following the Civil War, organ builders began building large pipe organs for the growing churches and new concert halls around the United States. As a result, concert organists soon became popular in the 1870s in cities such as New York, where Henry Flagler worked alongside John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil before his business ventures in Florida. Many wealthy philanthropists purchased organs not only for their churches, but also for their homes. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1902) and Rockefeller (1907), who both worked closely with Flagler, possessed their own home organs. Eventually, Flagler would procure his own, a large and ornate two-manual (keyboard) Odell organ for his Palm Beach mansion, Whitehall (1901). He even hired a full-time home organist, first Russell T. Joy, later Arthur Spalding in 1907. For the inaugural concert of his home organ, Flagler hired the most prolific organist of the Gilded Age, Clarence Eddy, to play for his guests at what was a grand high-profile event.

In New York, Henry Flagler attended West Presbyterian Church, which had a Roosevelt organ built in 1884. Roosevelt Organ Works was considered the most elite American organ builder of the Gilded Age, making a name for themselves at the 1876 U.S. Centennial. The organist of West Presbyterian, Peter August Schnecker, a noted concert organist and hymn composer, was invited to perform the inaugural concert of the organ at St. Augustine’s Memorial Presbyterian Church when it opened in 1890.

Flagler hired the Roosevelt Organ Works to build what was at the time likely the largest organ in the state of Florida at the Memorial Presbyterian Church. The organ would remain one of the largest in the state, until larger organs began to spread within the state in the 1910s. The organ at Memorial Presbyterian is listed by Roosevelt Organ Works as their 452nd instrument, with 3 manuals (keyboards) and 29 ranks (sets) of pipes. Before this 1890 organ, Florida lacked large churches and organs fit for the highly varied symphonic repertoire of concert organists. Thus, it is possible that this organ introduced the state to organ concerts like those that were popular in the big cities of the Northeast. Flagler’s second cousin, Isaac Van Vleck Flagler, a noted composer and concert organist, would later perform on it daily for an extended period of time during the height of the hotel season just one year after the organ was built. The close proximity of the Memorial Presbyterian Church to the Hotel Ponce de Leon demonstrated the organ’s ability to serve the religious and musical needs of wealthy visiting Northerners.

Unfortunately, the original Roosevelt organ is long gone. It was enlarged by Estey in 1927 before being replaced due to serious water and termite damage. In its place, a gigantic Aeolian Skinner organ of 90 ranks was installed in 1970. While the instrument has been replaced, the grand pipe organ case, its towering facade that Flagler commissioned, remains. The only noticeable difference is that it was repainted Mahogany instead of its original white.

Written by Cornelius Oostwouder, Flagler Graduate, 2024


“Abstract of receipt re-organ recitals, season 1915-1916.” Memorial Presbyterian Church Files. Manuscript Collection 24, Box 6, File 32, Treasurer’s Reports – 1915-1922.

St. Augustine Historical Society.

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Graham, Thomas. Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2014.

Harvey, Karen. Florida’s First Presbyterians: A Celebration of 175 Years in St.  Augustine 1824-1999. St. Augustine: Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1998.

Orr, N. Lee and John Ogasapian. Music of The Gilded Age. Westport: Greenwood   Press, 2007.

Smith, Rollin.  Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous. Richmond: Organ Historical  Society Press, 2014.

“Music Room.” Flagler museum.us. Accessed October 24, 2023. https://flaglermuseum.us/music-room.