[Editor’s Note: The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus has been selected as part of the highly acclaimed Music Series 2017 of the First United Methodist Church of San Diego (First Church). SDGMC’s masterworks Chamber Chorale will present the final performance of the ensemble’s popular Americana: Traditional American Masterworks concert on Sunday, March 5 at 7 p.m. featuring classics ranging from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “Amazing Grace.” Tickets are available at SDGMC.org.]
Step inside Mission Valley’s First Church sanctuary and one of the first things you’ll notice are the golden organ pipes towering above the pews as if reaching past the firmament to find Heaven. On any given Sunday, the powerful bursts of musical acclaim fill every arch and spire of the room’s modern architecture. Although the Chorus won’t be using the organ in this performance, its presence alone represents a history as deep and inspiring as the traditional American masterworks being performed.
In 1929, First Church dedicated its new 27-rank, three-manual Pilcher organ which included 1,877 pipes with harp and chimes. For decades, the organ’s brilliant pipes sang to the pious and passersby alike around 9th and C Streets in downtown San Diego. However, the organ’s call to glory came to an end when the church moved to Mission Valley in 1964 and the Pilcher organ was placed in storage.
In 1971, under the curation of the noted organist Lyle W. Blackinton, the former downtown organ was removed from storage and refurbished and enlarged to 41 ranks, with 2,450 pipes, chimes and harp. Soon thereafter, Blackinton gained fame as the curator of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion organ in Balboa Park, a position he has held for more than 40 years and continues as such today.
In keeping with the church’s history of wonderful organ music, in 1985 a committee began to implement a vision for making the organ even grander. In 1986, First Church again turned to Blackinton and signed a contract with his company L. W. Blackinton & Associates to redesign and expand the instrument, provide slider chests throughout, a four-manual console and 54 new ranks. The completed instrument was dedicated on January 22, 1989, with a total of 107 ranks and 6,042 pipes.
In 2010, an eight-foot Festival Trumpet was added, bringing the organ to 108 ranks and 6,092 pipes in nine divisions. The specification includes three 32-foot ranks, of which the Principal and the Bombarde are full length. The organ stands as San Diego County’s largest. To find out all the details of this San Diego jewel visit the American Guild of Organists website.