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Mournful Final Note

March 9, 2005
By STACY WONG / Courant Staff Writer

Hartford-based Austin Organs Inc., which for more than a century made organs for churches, universities and theaters around the world, has notified its sales representatives that it has closed because of financial difficulties.

The privately held, family-run company was the last of the big organ makers in the United States, ranks that once included Kimball, Skinner and Moller.

Industry observers and Hartford-area music devotees said Austin's closing marks the end of an era.

"It's a very sad day for the organ world, and certainly specifically for us here in Hartford," said David Spicer, minister of music and the arts at the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield.

"That's a legendary company. It was always such a treat to go through there. They have these machines from the turn of the century... and wonderful examples of the craftsmanship that they did," he said.

The company has built, repaired or refurbished organs at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Trinity College and the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

The company also installed organs in Jerusalem; Shanghai, China; St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; and other cities around the world.

Austin Organs' red brick headquarters on Woodland Street was closed Tuesday afternoon. A worn white sign bore the company's name in faded lettering, followed by the words "since 1893."

Company President Kimberlee J. Austin could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but she notified sales representatives around the country on Monday that the business was closing.

Ezequiel Menendez, the organist at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford and the music director for the Archdiocese of Hartford, said he visited the company on Monday and found the atmosphere to be like a funeral.

"It was awful. Everybody was crying," he said.

Kimberlee Austin is a descendant of company founder John T. Austin and daughter of the late company president Donald B. Austin, who passed away in September. In an e-mail to sales representatives, she said the company was unable to overcome financial difficulties.

Those problems, she wrote, include a church's non-payment of "a rather large sum," "catastrophic losses on several jobs," and "a lack of new business because of rumor mongering."

"As you know, things have been financially very challenging to us over the past few years," she wrote. "I regret to state that we have been unable to overcome the obstacles, which seem to grow greater each year. ... I am deeply sorry for whatever way I might have failed you, or the company."

Sales representatives said they did not know whether the closing is permanent or whether the company might be sold.

"It's really too early to tell," said Douglas Campbell, the company's sales representative for western New York. "I've been talking to some others. The general feeling is we need to give it two or three days and see what happens. The loss of Austin to the U.S. is monumental."

Sales rep Devon Hollingworth, whose church in Oakbrook, Ill., has an Austin organ with 4,444 pipes in it, said it will be hard to see the company close. "It's like losing your close relative," he said. "It's a love affair - more than moneymaking, you believe in the product."

The company was founded by John T. Austin, the son of an English gentleman farmer who made organs as a hobby, in 1898 in Boston. That same year, Austin visited Hartford to install an organ in a local church, and local businessmen persuaded him to relocate his company to Hartford.

One benefit of the Austin organ design is that a person can get inside the organ's wind chest, the reservoir of compressed air that blows through the pipes to make music, as the organ plays. That feature is unchanged since John Austin developed it in Detroit in 1893.

Austin had its heyday in the 1910s and 1920s. Times were good until talking movies made theater organs obsolete and the Great Depression struck.

The company began to liquidate its assets in 1935, but re-formed in 1937 as Austin Organs Inc. in a smaller factory on Woodland Street behind the original building. Austin had remained in that location ever since.

Austin's largest organ in Connecticut is thought to be the one at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford on Farmington Avenue, which also owns two other Austin organs.

Menendez said he is concerned about getting replacement parts for the organs because Austin was the exclusive maker of certain parts.

"It is very sad because Austin was an institution in Hartford, everybody knew Austin. It is very sad in the music world because it is the only big company that was left," he said.

Courant staff writers Kenneth R. Gosselin and Paul Marks contributed to this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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