One of the great joys (and occasionally frustrations!) of being an organist is the novelty afforded by performing on instruments of widely variable character, size and vintage. Unlike most musical instruments, which are more or less standardized, organs produced for different spaces or by builders can differ so greatly in both timbre and construction that they scarcely seem like the same instrument. Yet even in a profession defined by uniqueness, the Hazel Wright Organ at Christ Cathedral stands out as truly one of a kind. From its massive size to its unprecedented surroundings, to its prominent role in the internationally popular “Hour of Power” broadcasts, no organ has a history quite like “Hazel.”
The story of the Hazel Wright Organ begins more than 20 years prior to its installation, with the December 1962 inauguration of a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner organ in New York’s newly constructed Lincoln Center for the Arts. Built by the most venerable firm in American organ building, it was officially dedicated in a marathon concert featuring three of the finest organists in America: E. Power Biggs, Catherine Crozier and Virgil Fox, who would later play a large role in the design of the Hazel Wright Organ. While the organ was generally judged a success, the hall (now known as David Geffen Hall) was plagued by poor acoustics and underwent a full renovation in 1975, at which time the organ was removed and put up for sale.
Organist Richard Unfried also began his long tenure at the Crystal Cathedral (then known as Garden Grove Community Church) in 1962. The congregation was at the time worshiping in the building now known as the Arboretum, and Unfried immediately began pursuing a replacement for the church’s small 23-rank instrument. At the 1970 convention of the American Guild of Organists, he had the opportunity to hear a new organ by the Italian firm Fratelli Ruffatti, at the time little known in America. Unfried felt he had found the right builders and was excited to receive a proposal for a five-manual, 116-rank instrument shortly thereafter — the first five-manual instrument in California. Virgil Fox again performed the dedicatory recital in April of 1977 and was so taken with the instrument that he returned that summer for an unprecedented recording project: the first direct-to-disc record featuring the pipe organ.
The church had continued to experience exponential growth while the Ruffatti was being built, and it had become clear that even the recently enlarged Arboretum would not be a sufficiently capacious worship space. Eight months after the dedication recital, the church officially broke ground on the Crystal Cathedral. Initially, it was assumed that the Ruffatti organ would simply be moved into the new building, but as the scope of the project became clear, Unfried and others began to feel that even 116 ranks would not be enough. When he learned of the unexpected availability of the Lincoln Center Skinner, he seized the opportunity to double the organ’s size for a relatively modest price. Unfried and the Schullers tapped their old friend Virgil Fox to oversee the daunting project of combining the two instruments into a cohesive unit, which would be accomplished by Ruffatti. His final design incorporated not only the Ruffatti and the Skinner, but dozens of ranks of pipes from his own collection, assembled mainly from Skinner organs that had been discarded.
Organs have always been substantial financial investments, and in the 1970s alone the church spent $250,000 on the Arboretum Ruffatti, $106,000 on the Lincoln Center Aeolian-Skinner and $50,000 on Virgil Fox’s pipes. The bill to put it all together as a cohesive instrument would be one million dollars. Runaway inflation in the 1970s led to ballooning construction costs for the new worship space, and there were few remaining resources for a massive organ project. The money ended up being provided by a single donor: Hazel Wright, widow of Harold D. Wright, President and Chairman of the Board at Republic Coal and Coke Company. She had encountered “Hour of Power” broadcasts in the early 1970s, when her husband was recovering from a heart attack, and the gift was made in gratitude for Robert Schuller and his ministry. Many have been surprised to learn that she was not a particular devotee of the organ, but she recognized its central and powerful role in the Schullers’ ministries and knew that her gift would mean a great deal to millions of people all over the world.
The Hazel Wright Organ was officially dedicated on May 7, 1982, in a gala performance featuring concert organists Ted Alan Worth (a Fox pupil – Fox himself had passed away in 1980), Pierre Cocherau (organist at Notre Dame in Paris), a 100-piece orchestra and a choir of over 1000 voices. Organist Dr. Frederick Swann later wrote that “none of us present will ever forget that sensational evening of music making. It would be difficult to imagine a more inspiring or memorable occasion in pipe organ history.” Swann soon took the reins of the cathedral’s music program, which he shepherded until 1998. The organ changed drastically over the first decade of his tenure: the 282 stop knobs on the main console were reorganized; various ranks were replaced, repurposed or revoiced; several more stops were added; electronic components were upgraded; and a second console was purchased for the rear gallery. By the time Swann left the Crystal Cathedral, the instrument had grown to its present size of 293 ranks and more than 16,000 pipes, making it the largest European-built organ in America, and among the largest organs in the world.
The Crystal Cathedral Ministries began to decline following Robert Schuller’s 2006 retirement, and by 2011 it had become necessary to sell the iconic property. It was purchased by the Diocese of Orange, which soon began thoroughgoing renovations on the aging structures. The organ had suffered tremendously during the church’s financial downturn, and large parts of it were non-functional by the time Bishop Kevin Vann signed a contract with Ruffatti for a complete restoration in May of 2013. The restoration took almost a full decade to complete, thanks in part to the substantial alterations performed on the building itself and the intervening COVID-19 pandemic. Now in better-than-new condition, the Hazel Wright Organ enters its fifth decade of service as one of the most beloved and renowned instruments in the world.