Murray M. Harris (1866-1922) is generally regarded as the “Father of Organ Building in the West.” Born in Illinois, Murray Harris moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1884. In 1889, Murray Harris relocated to Boston to receive his training in organ building with George S. Hutchings, at that time one of the nation’s premier firms. Harris returned to Los Angeles in 1894 both to represent and install Hutchings organs and to establish his own organ building business. After a few short-lived partnerships, he formed his own company in 1898.
Fame and business soon came Murray Harris’ way, and in 1900 he was able to attract a talented band of craftsmen from the East Coast to help him build better organs. This group included several famous organ builders, among them William Boone Fleming. Together, these gentlemen revolutionized the mechanism of the Murray Harris organ; the craftsmanship exhibited extraordinary attention to detail, and the voicing produced an ensemble in step with the orchestrally-inspired tastes of the day, but with an energy and drama all too rarely encountered. Murray Harris himself imparted a tonal signature which was coveted. His stature as the builder of some of the finest organs available in North America brought the company many significant contracts.
Murray Harris’ first large organ in Los Angeles was of three-manuals and forty speaking stops for the First Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1901, he was awarded a contract for an instrument of forty-five speaking stops for Stanford University’s Memorial Church (this remains intact today). From this prestigious beginning, the company grew rapidly, securing the contract for the Louisiana Exposition organ (Saint Louis World’s Fair) of 1904. At the time, this was the largest organ in the world, with one hundred and forty stops (it would later become the nucleus of the organ in the John Wanamaker Store, Philadelphia). Due to cost overruns and litigation, the project spiraled out of control, and the board of directors deposed Murray Harris as President of his own company. He severed all ties with the company and for the next three years worked as an investment broker.
In 1906, Murray Harris re-entered organ building with the help of one of his former workmen, Edwin Spencer. Based upon a different type of windchest (sometimes built of pine, at other times redwood), the instruments from this era continued to exhibit the same marvelous tonal qualities of the earlier work, and in some cases exceeded them.
The new firm continued to build organs until 1913, when it was succeeded by the Johnston Organ Company. In that year, Murray Harris returned to the investment world; he died in 1922 while on a business trip to Arizona. However, the Murray Harris craftsmen continued to work through 1930, first as Johnston, then as the California Organ Company, and finally as Robert-Morton, who became prominent in both church and theatre organs. The company continued to employ many of the Harris concepts, scales, and voicing techniques. The firm’s magnum opus was the four-manual organ for Bovard Auditorium at the University of Southern California.
The Murray Harris Organ, built for Saint Jean Baptiste, was a gift from Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose generosity made possible the construction of the new Saint Jean’s. Built in 1913, the organ is perhaps the last instrument designed by Murray Harris, as the contract was completed by the Johnston Piano and Organ Company. The organ was blessed on Sunday, January 4, 1914, and first used that evening in recital by Gaston M. Dethier (1875-1958), who was Professor of Organ at the Juilliard School. The specification and scaling of the instrument were carried out by Arthur Scott Brook in collaboration with Murray Harris. Mr. Brook had most recently finished designing an instrument for the Fifth Avenue mansion of the Hon. William A. Clarks. The Italian Renaissance facade, which still stands today, follows the case design of the 16th-century organ of the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, Italy.
In the 1940s, the Kilgen Organ Company of Saint Louis, Missouri, installed a new four-manual console to replace the original Murray Harris. The instrument continued to serve the parish until it became unplayable in the early 1990s.
In November 1999, a contract was signed with the Wicks Organ Company, Highland, Illinois. The organ contains 11 divisions, playable from a four manual console located in the lower gallery of the church. The organ contains 122 stops, 71 ranks of pipes, 14 pipe extensions, 44 digital stops, 57 digital ranks and a total of 4,204 pipes.