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When I was in high school, it was still fairly uncommon (and pretty darn prestigious) for a kid to drive a car to school. The lucky seniors would circle the block before and after class, cruising for girls (most of the cars had boys at the wheel), blasting The Doors and The Who from their 8-track tape decks.

Rock and roll was the soundtrack of their lives (and for many of them it still is). I confess that I too was a bit too easily impressed by sheer volume — but by then I’d discovered that other instruments besides fuzzed-out electric guitar could burn off my excess of adolescent adrenaline.

Full-bore Wagnerian orchestras made for a good, solid thump to the musical gut, but what really caught my attention was the pipe organ. To make a grand noise with an orchestra required the cooperation of a hundred or more players, but a solitary (albeit busy) organist could swamp an auditorium or cathedral in pounding waves of sound. What more could a vaguely misanthropic, slightly sullen adolescent wish for?

Forget E. Power Biggs and Marie-Claire Alain. These organists and their wimpy little European church organs were much too sober and thoughtful for a hormone-addled teen. I was looking for some serious decibels. I found them in Virgil Fox, pedal to the metal on Philadelphia’s Wanamaker Organ, and the now nearly-forgotten Robert Elmore at the console of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ. No wonder one of my birthday gifts was a pair of headphones!

Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ Console (Photo: Antoni Scott/ACCHOS)
Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ Console (Photo: Antoni Scott/ACCHOS)

The Midmer-Losh organ in the Atlantic City Convention Hall (now Boardwalk Hall) is still, as far as I know, the largest organ ever built anywhere in the world. However, in the half-century since Elmore recorded Bach on the Biggest, it’s suffered mightily from haphazard nature and thoughtless humanity. With no one to pay for the three full-time technicians required to maintain its roughly 33,000 pipes (no one has ever really counted them), let alone carry out the restoration needed, it’s now effectively unplayable.

We may not be able to hear the world’s largest organ, but we can still hear the largest playable organ.

John Wanamaker founded a men’s clothing store in Philadephia in 1861. By 1910 he was so successful that he built a department store with 2 million square feet of space on 12 floors.

The Wanamaker Organ, Philadelphia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Wanamaker Organ, Philadelphia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Already in that era, true success in life usually included an appreciation of culture — if not actually achieved, at least affected. The focal point of Wanamaker’s Department Store was to be a musical one: the organ, then homeless, which American organ building pioneer Murray M. Harris and the Los Angeles Art Organ Company had built for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.

But once thirteen railroad freight cars had hauled the instrument’s bulk from St Louis to Philadelphia, and Wanamaker’s technicians had spent two years installing it, Wanamaker decided that it wasn’t beefy enough. The organ’s over 10,000 pipes (by way of comparison, the E. M. Skinner Organ in Severance Hall has just over 6,000 pipes) didn’t make sufficient sound to fill the 7-storey Grand Court Atrium. So Wanamaker founded and staffed a complete organ building shop in the attic of his store. By 1917, the Wanamaker Organ had nearly doubled in size, to 18,000 pipes.

Wanamaker brought the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski to his store to dedicate the expanded organ in 1919. For years afterward, he sponsored a series of regular recitals featuring such noted musicians as Marcel Dupre and Louis Vierne.

In 1924, John Wanamaker’s son Rodman asked Dupre and the store’s organist, Charles Courboin, to plan yet another expansion of the organ — and to spare no expense. Following the project, the organ was to be rededicated.

Wanamaker neither saw nor heard his dream for the organ fulfilled. He died unexpectedly in 1928. Work on the expansion finally ground to a halt two years later, as the Great Depression settled in. By then, the Wanamaker Organ had grown to an astounding 28,482 pipes.

Granted, that’s not as many as the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ has — but the Wanamaker Organ has far more pipes that actually play.

For that we should give credit to Macy’s, current keeper of what was once Wanamaker’s department store. It’s nearly unimaginable that any department store of today would commission such a dramatic instrument. Yet Macy’s have retained the store organist of 20 years to play the Wanamaker Organ twice a day, six days a week. Imagine shopping to that — and in fact the store’s manager says that the daily recitals bring in customers.

Macy’s have also collaborated with (and contributed to) the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, a private group of fans who’ve helped to maintain the organ for years, allowing them to set up a repair shop to keep the instrument fit. Indeed, in 1995, only about 20% of the organ was functional. Today, thanks to their efforts, the instrument is essentially at full capacity. The Friends have even added a rank, bringing the pipe count to an imposing 28,543.

But let’s return for a moment to the 1924 organ expansion project, and the dedicatory recital that never materialized.

Peter Richard Conte (Photo: Truckenbrod Concert Artists)
Peter Richard Conte (Photo: Truckenbrod Concert Artists)

In 1926, Rodman Wanamaker commissioned a dedicatory composition from Joseph Jongen. The composer was to travel to Philadelphia for the premiere in early 1928, but he cancelled the trip after his father died in the fall of 1927. The organ wasn’t really ready anyway, so the concert was pushed back to the autumn of 1928. But by then Wanamaker had died. In the end, Jongen’s work had its premiere in Brussels, 3,600 miles from the organ which had inspired it.

It was never played on the Wanamaker Organ — but 80 years later, it’s about to be. A week from this Sunday (27 September 2008), current Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte will finally perform the work which Joseph Jongen composed for the organ’s dedication, the Symphonie Concertante Op81.

The concert commemorates the 150th anniversary of Macy’s Department Store. It also marks the return of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Grand Court, this time conducted by Rossen Milanov. It will include a world premiere, Howard Shore’s Fanfare; Leopold Stokowski’s bang-up arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in d minor; and Dupre’s Cortege and Litany for Organ and Orchestra.

And what of The Mother of Them All, the Boardwalk Hall Organ? Alas, its prognosis is not as promising. For years, ACCHOS (the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society) has been working to raise funds for its restoration. Currently they hope to at least bring the organ back to its condition of a decade ago, before a carelessly managed Boardwalk Hall renovation destroyed pipes, severed windlines, and filled the organ’s works with dust. A tiny part of the funding for that effort will come from sales of the CD reissue of Elmore’s 1956 recording, but much more is still needed to achieve even that modest goal.

As for me, I’m a long way from my teenage years and attitudes. I’ve discovered the deep satisfaction to be found in making music with other musicians. I’ve also learned to appreciate much more of the pipe organ’s expressive range — including (especially!) Marie-Claire Alain’s Bach. But now and again, with a furtive glance over my shoulder (is anyone watching?), I still slip Bach on the Biggest into the CD player. Just for old time’s sake, mind you.

Further reading:

The Wanamaker Organ in Wikipedia

Wanamaker’s Department Store in Wikipedia

Amid Shirts and Socks, a Concert Can Break Out in New York Times (registration may be required)

Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Wikipedia


Friends of the Wanamaker Organ

Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society

Philadelphia Orchestra Concert Tickets


Virgil Fox Plays the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, Philadelphia (1964) DVD at Gothic Records

Bach on the Biggest and Boardwalk Pipes CD at the Organ Historical Society

Bach Organ Masterpieces performed by Marie Claire Alain at Amazon

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One Response to “Making a Joyous Noise”

  1. David Roden Says:

    I’ve received an email message from Mr H C Bellangy, of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society (ACCHOS). He says the restoration of the right stage (Great) chamber of the Midmer-Losh organ is now well under way. According to an update posted on the ACCHOS website, of the more than 20 divisions, they hope to soon restore the two most crucial ones, the main swell and swell choir ancillary.

    This should make the instrument playable again, though it won’t by any means give it full voice. There are still more chambers located round the auditorium in 7 other places — including the ceiling. But even at reduced capacity, this instrument should still be able to make a stunning amount of sound.

    Will we ever get to hear the full power of the Boardwalk Hall Midmer-Losh pipe organ? That, in part, is up to you. Raising the funds for a full restoration is a daunting task. Even if they succeed, ACCHOS will then have to find the resources to maintain the organ. They can certainly use some help. If you’re a pipe organ lover, please consider aiding ACCHOS in this effort. See above for contact information.

    Meanwhile, ACCHOS are also managing a full restoration of the Midmer-Losh’s little sister, the 1931 Kimball 4-55 located in the Boardwalk Hall ballroom. The Kimball is the other instrument you can hear on the Robert Elmore CD I mentioned above. That’s a much more tractable project, and they expect to rededicate the Kimball early next year (2010).

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