Upon getting back from vacation, I was immediately out the door the next day to meet the Capital Street Duo for the Wanamaker Organ Concert with Peter Richard Conte and others musicians. If you have never been to Philadelphia, the organ is now being stewarded by Macy's, thankfully, and the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, and is housed in the once amazing and opulent John Wanamaker Building, which was once the place to shop in it's 12 floors of luxury and quality goods in this high end department store. The store was massive and a architectural marvel in it's own right. It was a sad day indeed when it finally shuttered and Hecht's took over... and now Macy's. But the organ is quite something to see and hear. Before the concert, we arrived early to get a behind the scenes tour behind the organ which was very cool to see.
Designed by renowned organ architect, George Ashdown Audsley, and built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Wanamaker Organ originally incorporated more than 10,000 pipes. The huge cost of construction was $105,000...and actually bankrupted the builder.
Fortunately, the Organ found a new home with John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant who founded the groundbreaking Wanamaker’s department store.
A firm believer in music’s capacity to benefit civic life, he purchased the organ in 1909 and had it installed over a two-year period in the palatial seven-story atrium of his Philadelphia emporium. Seeking an even bigger sound to suit its palatial proportions, Wanamaker created an on-site factory to expand the Organ and hired 40 full-time employees to add 8,000 more pipes between 1911 and 1917, and another 10,000 pipes between 1924 and 1930. With its stunning pipework, the Wanamaker Organ is capable of playing all the great organ masterworks as well as a full range of orchestral compositions—it powerfully emulates the sounds of three symphony orchestras.
Some of the larger pipes can fit a horse in them, and soar many floors high.
The Organ was first heard in the downtown Philadelphia Wanamaker’s store on June 22, 1911, just as England’s King George V was being crowned. Over the years that John Wanamaker and his son Rodman presided over their retail business, they invited some of the world’s most renowned musicians as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform concerts on the Wanamaker Organ and these drew thousands of listeners to the Grand Court. Since that time, many virtuosos have made special pilgrimages here to perform on the instrument.
Only four musicians have been designated Grand Court Organists since the organ was first played in 1911. The fourth and present one, Peter Richard Conte, is presently celebrating his 25th anniversary in the role. When he’s not touring, he performs free 45-minute recitals on the Wanamaker Grand Organ, twice a day, six days a week. Other top organists take his place when he is on the road. Every year during the holidays, the Grand Court lights up with the beautiful Light Show that ends with a Christmas concert grand finale almost every day.
Today, the Organ weighs in at 287 tons, incorporates an astounding 28,500 pipes, six ivory keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons (under the keyboards) and 42 foot controls. The largest pipe, made of three-inch-thick Oregon sugar pine, is more than 32 feet long and the smallest is a quarter-inch long.And while you there be sure to see the Eagle!!!
As with the Organ, the Eagle was also displayed in St. Louis in 1904. Created by the German sculptor August Gaul for the German Pavilion at the St. Louis Exhibition, the bronze Eagle stands 10 feet tall, weights over 2,500lbs, and has 5,000 customized feathers – all of which were cast individually and assembled in St. Louis.
As one hears in Philadelphia...Meet me at the Eagle!