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June 24, 2007

The world's largest operating musical instrument — It's at Macy's in Philadelphia



Craig R. Whitney, in a June 9, 2007 New York Times article, described how the massive pipe organ (above and below), constructed for the 1904 St. Louis International Exposition where it was a smash hit (though it bankrupted the Los Angeles Art Organ Company, which built it), subsequently made its way to Wanamaker's in Philadelphia where President William Howard Taft dedicated it in front of 40,000 people on December 30, 1911, then occupied the vast, 149-foot-high Grand Court center space specially designed for it by Daniel Hudson Burnham, resounding in glory before slowly deteriorating over the decades to the point that by 1995 only about 20% of its pipes were playable, with just two of its six keyboards functioning.

When Macy's took over the store last year, it decided to pull out all the stops in an attempt to restore the great instrument to its former power — and beyond.


Here's the Times story.

    Amid the Shirts and Socks, a Concert Can Break Out

    What do you do if you buy a famous downtown department store and find an organ with 28,482 pipes occupying thousands of square feet of perfectly good retail space?

    If you’re Macy’s, you let devotees of the instrument put in 61 more pipes and give them thousands more square feet to set up an organ repair shop.

    Diapasons, it would seem, are as much music to Macy’s as cash registers, coin counters and customers at its Center City store here, a Philadelphia institution that was originally a Wanamaker’s. So the company let the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, a private group of aficionados who have been helping to maintain the instrument for years, install another stop and set up a repair shop after Macy’s took over the store.

    “Every lunchtime, people hear the organ and feel good — and people are in a mind to shop when they’re feeling good,” explained James Kenny, the store manager. “It’s the ultimate feel-good experience.”

    The organ, the world’s largest operating musical instrument, has never sounded better, according to the store’s staff organist, Peter Richard Conte, who has been here 20 years and fills the place with warm waves of sound at noon and in the evening, daily except Sunday.


    “In 1995 it was down to about 20 percent of the pipes being playable, maybe,” and only two keyboards working instead of six, Mr. Conte said. “Now it sounds loved again.”

    With money from private donors and more than $100,000 from Macy’s this year, the staff curator, L. Curt Mangel III, with his assistant, the Friends and numerous organ groupies, now have 95 percent of the organ playing again. Next year they expect to have it all up and running for the first time in decades.

    Today Mr. Conte and the Friends have the run of the store for the annual Wanamaker Organ Day, and Mr. Conte will play something new: his own transcription of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations (Op. 36), at 11:30 a.m. Shoppers are welcome.

    He has been working feverishly on the Elgar for weeks, with all-night practice sessions, alone in the store except for a guard. “It’s probably the most difficult piece I’ve ever done,” he said before trying out several movements at a Wednesday evening concert, his fingers slinking from keyboard to keyboard and darting restlessly over the 729 stop-control tablets as phrase seamlessly followed phrase and crescendo climaxed and faded into descrescendo.

    The Elgar sounds impressively orchestral on this organ, with its 462 sets of pipes, including stops named for orchestral violins, cellos, flutes, orchestral oboes, clarinets, French horns, tubas and trombones. It has just about everything else imaginable — chimes and even a kitchen sink (for the curators to wash their hands) — in a forest of pipes ranging from 32 feet to less than an inch long, spread over both ends and multiple rooms and floors off the store’s Grand Court.

    Next year a long-muffled section of 2,000 more pipes, now being cleaned and restored, will rejoin the rest in a more audible spot, and Mr. Conte expects to luxuriate in its liberated sounds, including three more French horn stops made by the Kimball Organ Company of Chicago.

    “I love the sound of French horns and I will probably use them a lot,” he said.

    The instrument started life at the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904, when the Los Angeles Art Organ Company built it along orchestral lines, rather than according to the baroque organ ideal, as Bach and Buxtehude knew it.


    It was a smash hit at the fair, but bankrupted the company. Then it languished in storage until 1909, when John Wanamaker bought it for the Philadelphia store that he was planning to open two years later.

    His son, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, saw the vast, 149-foot-high Grand Court center space in the building Daniel Hudson Burnham had designed for them as the ideal place for “the finest organ in the world,” and 40,000 people and President William Howard Taft came to the dedication ceremonies on Dec. 30, 1911.

    Until his death in 1928, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker oversaw successive expansions of the organ in the store’s own organ shop on the building’s roof. The changes were so extensive that the instrument’s “string” section finally had more pipes than most large organs do altogether.

    Famous organists flocked to play it over the years, and both Marcel Dupré and Virgil Fox developed signature pieces on the organ, but when Lewis Rodman Wanamaker died, the organ’s importance faded. Wanamaker’s itself was sold to Woodward & Lothrop in 1986; then it became a Hecht’s; and in 1997 a Lord & Taylor store. Macy’s took it over last year.

    Each of the owners recognized the unique historical value of the organ, and Lord & Taylor hired Mr. Mangel as curator in 2002. The difference now, as Mr. Conte sees things, is that “Macy’s gets it — it understands how to use this instrument and market it to the public.”

    Martine Reardon, the Macy’s national headquarters executive overseeing holiday events, including now the annual Christmas organ and light show in the Philadelphia store, said, “The Wanamaker Organ’s legacy is as legendary as the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Fourth of July fireworks.”

    Next year, Macy’s 150th anniversary, the store hopes to get the Philadelphia Orchestra to come and play Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante,” a work for organ and orchestra commissioned by Wanamaker’s in 1928 but never performed at the store.

    And the Friends, with a $150,000 donation from the Phoebe Haas Charitable Trust, have set up a spacious repair and organ-building training center on an unused floor of the store. Early this year the additional 61 new pipes, a rank of singing vox humana stops, joined nine others in a chamber rebuilt especially for them and brought the total to 28,543. To many their vibrato tones call to mind a choir of angels.

    Mr. Conte patted the huge console that controls the pipes and said, nodding at Mr. Mangel, “Baby hasn’t been given such care and tending since John Wanamaker.” But he still hopes Baby will throw no tantrums at today’s performance.



How does it sound?

Find out for yourself, right here.

June 24, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Excellent link, Flautist, thanks. Now if I can get my far younger and far more beautiful daughter so impassioned, I think she'd make some strides with her violin! The link and the links off of that page will be, I hope, inspiring for her in that a woman is doing that.

Posted by: NotCreativeEnough | Jul 2, 2007 6:33:18 PM

You're welcome, NCE. Can I recommend another? Look at me, I seem to be doing just that:


A very young (and beautiful) Jacqueline Du Pre playing 2nd mvmt Elgar Cello Concerto. She's absolutely possessed playing that thing. It just knocks me out at the end when she flashes that killer smile...

Posted by: Flautist | Jun 29, 2007 10:42:08 PM

Thanks for the Shostakovich YouTube link, Flautist. Beautiful! Reply on the chicken management had me almost in tears I was laughing so hard, unfortunately no time to reply and couldn't find the entry just now.

Posted by: NotCreativeEnough | Jun 29, 2007 5:49:30 PM

Wow - talk about synchronicity: yesterday I was at an organ recital in the Salt Lake City Conference Center. It sounded pretty good, but not great - probably something to do with the Conference Center being utterly enormous.

Posted by: Russ | Jun 25, 2007 3:03:00 AM

I'm sorry, really, just this one more and I really will quit -- but this is SO great. (No singing, promise.) I miss old Rostro. (First mvmt. Shostakovich cello concerto w/Rostropovich.) Incredible. Crank it up, too.


Posted by: Flautist | Jun 25, 2007 1:58:41 AM

And, I tried to include this with my above comment, but I seem to be some kind of lunch meat. Watch this, too, just cause I said so. Don't ask questions. Stick with it: the actual tune kicks in around 4:10. What an amazing voice, even past his prime.


Posted by: Flautist | Jun 25, 2007 1:05:05 AM

I'm not much of a Virgil Fox fan, and the orchestra is not the best, but here is a YouTube vid of the fourth movement (toccata) of the Jongen "Symphonie Concertante" -- crank it up:

Posted by: Flautist | Jun 25, 2007 12:54:10 AM

Any references to the movie ends up becoming extremely creepy, though anyone is welcome to argue, this personal observation of mine. The point, I think of the post, is that perfection is or is equaled to the composition accompanied by the very best instrument available.

Posted by: NotCreativeEnough | Jun 24, 2007 10:38:12 PM

Hey that's pretty cool. I just watched a 2-hour documentary on the 1904 St. Louis Exposition last night and they actually made reference to this organ. It's almost worth a trip to Philadelphia just to check it out.

Posted by: Andrew Liszewski | Jun 24, 2007 9:05:59 PM

Flautist et al,

Yes, blaster volume: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd_oIFy1mxM

Not a huge fan of Bach, but this is his best, absolutely! Being this link is You Tube, keep in mind there is no house pet on an exercise machine. I have yet to get my cat and house-rabbit on the home elliptical for that purpose :P :))) (teasing)

Excellent reminder of Bach. Thank you!

Posted by: NotCreativeEnough | Jun 24, 2007 7:27:40 PM

Wow! Jongen's Symphonie Concertante played on that thing, and with the Philly Orchestra. I would love to be there for that.
I highly recommend what I guess is the latest recording of it -- Michael Murray and the San Francisco Symphony -- but there's nothing like hearing it in person. (You can, of course, hear excerpts on Amazon. I hate the idea of listening to teaser chunks of ANY music, but it gives some idea. The 4th movement "toccata" has to be listened to at blaster vol.)

Posted by: Flautist | Jun 24, 2007 5:50:03 PM

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