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About the Grand Court Organ

Murray M. Harris

Built for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Wanamaker Organ was designed by renowned organ architect George Ashdown Audsley, author of The Art of Organ-Building. The driving force behind the project was Murray M. Harris, a superb organ builder hailed as “The Father of Organ Building in the American West.” Harris was also a shrewd investor and promoter. Living in a land with abundant mineral resources and superb lumber from pristine, old-growth forests, Harris was able to invest the finest in materials in his organs, and he brought a group headed by master craftsman William Boone

Eben Smith

Fleming into his group to incorporate the latest developments in electric action into his instruments, with the patents that went with them.

During construction of the organ costs skyrocketed and certain financial manipulations by Harris came to light, causing the company to be taken over by its chief investor, a Colorado mining mogul named Eben Smith. Harris was ousted and the Murray M. Harris company was rechristened The Los Angeles Art Organ Company. But the organ’s soaring $105,000 price tag ,

1904 St. Louis World’s Fair — Festival Hall

and the refusal of the Kansas City Convention Hall authorities to accept the organ they had commissioned following the Fair, would ultimately lead to the company’s demise.

The investment, however, paid huge musical dividends. The heroic instrument that resulted had five manuals, more than 10,000 pipes, and it won the Grand Prize and five other medals at the Fair, where was played by Alexandre Guilmant and virtually every other notable organist of the day. 

 

The train that brought the Organ to Philadelphia

In 1909, Philadelphia merchant-prince John Wanamaker bought the instrument for his new Philadelphia emporium. Thirteen freight cars were required to ship the entire organ from St. Louis, and installation took two years. The Grand Organ was first heard in the Store’s seven-story atrium on June 22, 1911, at the exact moment when England’s King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Later that year, it was prominently featured when President William Howard Taft dedicated the Store.

The Wanamaker Organ Shop on the Store’s top floo, 1927

Despite its immense size, the tone was judged inadequate to fill the huge court. Wanamaker’s opened a private pipe-organ factory in the Store attic, employing up to 40 full-time employees to enlarge the instrument. William Boone Fleming, the original factory supervisor, was hired to direct the work.

From the beginning the instrument was an Art Organ. Lavish construction, expensive materials and elegant workmanship made the Wanamaker Organ both a tonal wonder and a monument to superb craftsmanship. The largest pipe is made of flawless Oregon sugar-pine three inches thick and more than 32 feet long—so large that a Shetland Pony was once posed inside for publicity photos.

George W. Till

Supervising tonal matters was George W. Till, a superb voicer who is credited by many for the Wanamaker Organ’s beautiful tone.  It is said that Marcel Dupré used to embrace him whenever he saw him. All wood pipes were made in the Wanamaker Shop. Metal pipes were purchased from supply houses to strict quality specifications and regulated on-site. Among Till’s stop contributions were the Clear Flute, perhaps the most beautiful and well known flute stop in any organ, and compound stops of two ranks with intriguing sounds such as the Nasard Gambas and the Quint Flute. Till devised the Pedal 10-rank mixture, which Audsley praised for its reedlike tone.

In an unusual move for the times. Audsley had insisted on the necessity of mixtures, and his dictum on this and numerous other ideas were faithfully followed through throughout the instrument’s long development, leading to its overall unity of concept and harmonious inter-blending.

Charles M. Courboin

Mr. Till was also an inventive genius and his brilliance with pneumatic and mechanical devices led to advances such as the first piano played by an organ, selective mixtures, adjustable tremolos and expression-shoe couplers. The color coding of stop tablets and couplers was also a Till innovation.

Insisting on quality, Rodman Wanamaker during the 1920s wanted “all the tonal glory of the orchestra” added to the instrument, making it a perfect organ and orchestra built of pipes.

Completing the picture is organist Charles M. Courboin, a Rodman Wanamaker favorite and one of the brilliant virtuosos of his day, who was a driving force behind the String, Orchestral and Great Chorus divisions that capped the completed instrument. Courboin also thought in terms of making choirs out of the same sort of stop, such as Dulcianas, French Horns, Flutes Vox Humanas, Orchestral Violins and Muted Violins.

During Courboin’s tenure the Store began buying pipes from leading builders, particularly the W.W. Kimball Company of Chicago, although vendors were not permitted to advertise their contributions.  In addition, Courboin is also largely credited for the visionary layout of the present six-manual console.

The smallest pipe is a quarter-inch in length. More than 8,000 pipes were added to the Organ between 1911 and 1917, and from 1924 to 1930 an additional 10,000 pipes were installed, bringing the total number of pipes today to 28,750.

Commanding these huge resources is a massive console with six ivory keyboards and 729 color-coded stop tablets. There are 168 piston buttons under the keyboards and 42 foot controls. The console weighs 2.5 tons; the entire instrument weighs 287 tons.

During the lifetimes of John Wanamaker and his son Rodman, the world’s finest musicians were brought to the Store for brilliant after-business-hours concerts, among them France’s Marcel Dupre, Louis Vierne and Nadia Boulanger, Italy’s Fernando Germani and Marco Enrico Bossi, and England’s Alfred Hollins.

The Orchestral French Horns

At a 1919 Musicians’ Assembly, virtuoso Charles M. Courboin, in association with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed before a standing-room-only crowd of 15,000. Since then, great organists have continued to perform at the Store, many making special pilgrimages.

Stokowski 1919 “Symphony of 15000.”

In 1986, the evening-concert tradition was continued as the Grand Organ marked its 75th anniversary with a Keith Chapman recital that attracted a huge audience. More recently, elaborate music events have regularly been sponsored by the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, attracting visitors to Macy’s with representatives from all parts of the U.S.  

In 2008 Macy’s celebrated its 150th anniversary with a Philadelphia Orchestra concert under Maestro Rossen Milanov. At the Wanamaker Organ, Peter Richard Conte performed Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante (1925) for the first time with the organ and orchestra for which it had been written.

Now a National Historic Landmark and valued in excess of $79 million, the Wanamaker Organ is of the American Symphonic design, which can play the great organ masterworks as well as the entire range of orchestral literature. The pipework encompasses the resources of three symphony orchestras; its String Organ alone has 7,000 pipes.

Organ Tonal Resources

The Wanamaker Organ is a Concert Organ of the American Symphonic school of design, which brings to traditional organ tone the added color resources and expressive capabilities of the symphony orchestra. All of this was made possible by the application of electricity to the pipe organ, allowing instruments of unlimited size arranged at various distances from the keyboard and winded by powerful blowers. For an appreciation of the Symphonic School of organ design, an article by Jack Bethards of the Schoenstein Company is found HERE.

In accord with its overall design as an ideal concert organ, the Wanamaker Organ is a Straight Organ with a minimum of unification. Borrowing is kept to a minimum and mainly in the Pedal and Orchestral, where it has great value. Duplexing of stops is reserved for the few instances where valuable solo voices can be separated from their divisions without tying up the remainder of tonal resources there. Choruses (16′, 8′ and 4′) are true choruses of three ranks, each with their own personality, rather than a single rank electrically “tapped” at three pitches, with the resulting weakening of the octave and sameness of tone between the voices found in unification. Rigorous adherance to classic organ design is another major factor in the instrument’s abiding success.


THE MAIN PEDAL DIVISION is unexpressive and forms the core of the largest independent Pedal department ever built. It has 75 ranks, forty-four stops and wind pressures of five to twenty-five inches. Its stupendous 32-foot-series 10-rank mixture has the timbre of a magnificent reed and adds immense power when drawn with the Double Open  Diapasons.

THE CHOIR, consisting of sublime, delicate voices, is on five inches of wind pressure, and is one of the many soft sections that mass to form beautiful carpets of rich tone that can serve as accompaniment for the bolder voices elsewhere in the Organ.

THE GREAT DIVISION is on wind pressures of five to sixteen inches, and consists of unenclosed stops as well as a section enclosed with the Choir division. Together the Enclosed Great and Choir can be electrically combined to form a single expressive division independent of the rest of the Great.

IN TWO EXPRESSION CHAMBERS, THE SWELL is on wind pressures of five to twenty-two and one-half inches. All are under expression. One of these expression chambers houses the Original String division designed by George Ashdown Audsley—the first independent String organ ever found in a pipe organ.

THE ENTIRE SOLO DIVISION, in the Main Chamber, is under expression, on a wind pressure of fifteen inches. Powerful tubas, bold trumpets, assertive strings and particularly rich diapasons are among the many dominant stops at hand. Milder voices include a beautiful Soft Tuba, a Violin Diapason, a Nasard Gamba, and a Chimney Flute. Topping the ensemble are seventeen ranks of mixture work. Curiously, the Solo is not heard directly by the player because of a pillar, but its sound easily bounces off the pillar on the far side of the console, creating the illusion that the sound is coming from the opposite direction. The 51-rank division has recently been enhanced with sound-reflective paneling as it undergoes a complete restoration.

The Ethereal and the Tuba Magna and Major Chimes on Floor 7
Tuners require ear protection in the Ethereal chamber.

THE ETHEREAL ORGAN IS COMMANDING, rich and full in tone, entirely expressive. It has twenty-one stops, and a wind pressure of twenty-five inches. It is located on the seventh floor. An unenclosed Tuba Magna 8′ was added on the occasion of the Organ’s Centennial in 2011.

THE FLOATING DIVISIONS

THE STRING ORGAN , for many the glory of the Wanamaker Organ, is entirely expressive, has eighty-seven manual stops and a wind pressure of fifteen to twenty-seven inches. It has a matching pedal of twenty-seven stops. Its tone is unusually rich and beautiful, producing at full volume a velvety carpet of lush string tone suggestive of hundreds of stringed instruments. Individual tablets enable the organist to reduce the sound to a gorgeous hush with a sweep of the stops. This division, with metal pipework by the famed Kimball company, occupies the largest space of any single organ chamber ever constructed. It is approximately sixty-seven feet long, twenty-six feet deep and sixteen feet high.

THE ORCHESTRAL DIVISION, also with Kimball metal pipes, has pressures of fifteen and twenty inches and is entirely expressive. There are thirty-two stops, including bold imitative reeds from the brass and woodwind families, backed by a battery of assorted flutes. The flute section and the French Horn chest are each capable of being electrically detached and played separately on other keyboards.

THE ECHO DIVISION is located opposite the main organ, on the seventh floor. Entirely expressive, it has a wind pressure of five inches.

THE VOX HUMANA CHORUS was originally part of the Orchestral and now occupies its own expression chamber. It is on a wind pressure of 15 inches with eight manual ranks and two 16′ pedal ranks. This addition brought the total number of separate expression chambers to eight.

The Pedal Mixture X with two wood Gross Flutes and two reeds.

UNUSUAL AND ADVANCED FOR THE PERIOD IS THE EXTENSIVE USE OF MIXTURES, which Dr. Audsley and Wanamaker Organ Shop Tone-and-Voicing Chief George W. Till felt were essential for proper chorus development. Mixture pipes use pipes to bolster the upper tones of nature’s harmonic series, giving brightness to the duller stops, edge to the reeds, roundness and definition to slow-to-speak Pedal pipes and articulation in fast Pedal passages.

Perhaps the most breathtaking of all the Mixtures is the Pedal Grand Mutation X, a 32′ harmonic series stop that George Ashdown Audsley praised for its stupendous effect, like that of a “magnificent reed, so perfectly are its harmonic constituents balanced and regulated.

Tierce mixtures in the manuals are intended for use when the division’s 16′ stops are drawn.

The Percussion includes a genuine Mustel Celesta, restored by a gift of the Seifert family in 2015.

THE PERCUSSION DIVISION is expressive and operates on pneumatic, vacuum and electric action. Each stop is a floating restorce that can be played individually on any of the keyboards.

THE MAJOR CHIMES are usually referred to as “tower chimes” because they were especially made for outdoor tower-chime playing by Chicago’s J.C. Deagan Co. The largest chime of this set, Note C, is twelve feet long, five inches in diameter, and weighs 600 pounds. It is struck by a leather-topped hammer four inches in diameter, the stroke of which is nine inches. It weighs eighteen pounds and has an impact of seventy-two pounds of pneumatic pressure. The force of the pneumatic impulse is controllable from an expression shoe at the console.

MECHANICAL FEATURES

PULSATIONS OF THE TREMULANTS, two for each division, are controllable in ten stages by means of tremolo pulsation levers to the right and left of the music rack on the console. This device was invented and patented in the Wanamaker Organ Shop. It enables the organist to adjust the speed of an individual tremolo or of all the tremolos to suit the performer’s taste. Expression pedals at the extreme end of the console can also be used to regulate tremolo speed, giving a lifelike shifting vibrato to many solo stops.

Fifty-three regulators furnish steady wind pressure from five to twenty-seven inches. The organ is electro-pneumatic throughout, requiring seven large centrifugal blowers and one vacuum blower totaling 173 horsepower.

 

For a Restoration Overview, please click HERE. For a Restoration Timeline, please click HERE.
For the Stoplist, please click HERE.

 


George Ashdown Audsley
Organ Designer

 

George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) was the designer of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Organ that forms the nucleus of the present Wanamaker Organ. It began as a scheme for an ideal organ that was published in his monumental two-volume tome “The Art of Organ-Building” (1905). Audsley insisted that his organs have multiple divisions, each of which could have their volume controlled individually by swell shades—a radical idea that received its ultimate expression and vindication in the present Wanamaker Organ. Dr. Audsley was extraordinarily expert in many fields, including architecture, metalwork, fashion, decoration, Japanese ceramics, pipe-organ design and manuscript illumination.
 
The Friends museum, visited on our tours, includes an important collection of Audsley memorabilia placed on deposit by descendents Judi Kosco, Holly Audsley-Gyulveszi and Alan K. Audsley. Included are rare photographs and family copies of the illuminated manuscript “The Sermon on the Mount” and “Color and Harmony in Dress.” An Audsley pattern forms the border of this website.
 
Among the chief researchers into Dr. Audsley’s life is David H. Fox, who has also published a biography of organbuilder Robert Hope-Jones and compiled a major directory of North American organbuilders. The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ website is pleased to host David H. Fox’s unpublished biography of Dr. Audsley. Mr. Fox, of course, retains the copyright. Readers with questions or additional information are invited to contact Mr. Fox directly at FOX11354@gmail.com
 

The David Fox Audsley Biography may be obtained by clicking HERE.

An updated version without photos is HERE.

 


The Choir Division looking toward the Enclosed Great

Ranks and Pipes

The Wanamaker Organ has 464 ranks of pipes, the most of any pipe organ,
and possesses 28,750 pipes.

PEDAL   75 ranks, 81 stops, 2,573 pipes
CHOIR   24 ranks, 19 stops, 1,452 pipes
GREAT   58 ranks, 43 stops, 3,634 pipes
SWELL   71 ranks, 51 stops, 4,361 pipes
SOLO   51 ranks, 35 stops, 3,640 pipes
ETHEREAL   23 ranks, 21 stops, 1,670 pipes
STRING   88 ranks, 87 stops, 6,340 pipes
STENTOR     1 rank,     2 stops,      61 pipes
ORCHESTRAL   32 ranks, 32 stops, 2,312 pipes
ECHO   33 ranks, 22 stops, 2,013 pipes
VOX CHORUS     8 ranks,   8 stops,    572 pipes
Click here for the STOPLIST.

 

Wanamaker Organists

Dr. Irvin J. Morgan
(1911-17)

Mary E. Vogt
(1917-66)

Dr. Keith Chapman
(1966-89)

Peter Richard Conte
(1989-present)


About Peter Richard Conte

Peter Richard Conte is Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Organ at the Macy’s Philadelphia department store. Mr. Conte was appointed Grand Court Organist in 1989, and is only the fourth person to hold that title since the organ was first played in 1911.

Mr. Conte is highly regarded as a skillful performer and arranger of organ transcriptions. He has been featured several times on National Public Radio and on ABC television’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight. His monthly radio show, The Wanamaker Organ Hour, aired for many years on WRTI-FM. In September 2008 he performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Wanamaker Organ concert marking Macy’s 150th anniversary that won international acclaim. It featured the premiere of the Jongen Symphonie Concertante with the organ and orchestra for which it had been written in 1925.

He concertizes extensively throughout the United States and Canada under the management of Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists, and was a featured artist at the American Guild of Organists’ National Convention in 2002, and at the International Organ Festival in Aosta, Italy, in September 2004. He has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, and with the Delaware and Allentown Symphonies. When not touring, he performs on the six-manual, 28,750-pipe Wanamaker instrument, which is played twice daily, six days each week.

In addition to his concert career, Mr. Conte serves as Choirmaster and Organist of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, where he directs an eighteen-voice professional choir in music of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. That choir has recorded several internationally-acclaimed compact discs on the Dorian label.

Peter Richard Conte is an Associate of the American Guild of Organists, and has served on the executive board of its Philadelphia Chapter. Mr. Conte studied with Larry Smith and Robert Rayfield at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was awarded the prestigious Performers’ Certificate in Organ. He returned to Indiana University in 2008 to accept the School of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award. During high school, he studied with Robert Kennedy, while serving as Associate Organist at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York.

Mr. Conte appears on the Gothic, Raven, Dorian, JAV and DTR recording labels. His first Yuletide compact disc, Christmas in the Grand Tradition, features the Philadelphia Brass and the Wanamaker Organ. He is featured on several Friends of the Wanamaker Organ DVDs, including Sonic Odyssey, costarring Yale University organist Thomas Murray. Conte recordings are available at our Webstore or at the Macy’s Information Desk.


The Eagle

Like the Organ, the Eagle, also came from the St. Louis World’s Fair, where it was the centerpiece of the German Exhibit of Arts and Crafts. Made by the Armbruester Brothers in Frankfort, Germany, the Eagle is fashioned of Durana bronze from models by Berlin sculptor August Gaul. All of the heavy plates that form the inner structure, as well as the feathers and other surface features, were separately wrought by hand with chisel, file and hammer. Each individual feather on the 

head and body was carefully modeled and fitted into place. There are 1,600 feathers on the head alone, and 5,000 on the entire Eagle. The sculpture weighs 2,500 pounds and sits on a granite base. When brought to Wanamaker’s it became the John Wanamaker chain’s corporate trademark.

The floor of the Grand Court reportedly had to be strengthened with girders to accommodate it. The Grand Court is something of Philadelphia’s “living room,” and here is an old Philadelphia custom to rendezvous in Center City by saying “Meet me at the Eagle.”


The John Wanamaker
Memorial Founders Bell

The deep-voiced bell that rings from the belfry of the One South Broad building on South Broad Street and Penn Square in Philadelphia was commissioned by Rodman Wanamaker in 1926 as a memorial to his father, John Wanamaker. Consequently, the bell is known as the Founder’s Bell. It was also cast to celebrate the Sesqui-Centennial of the United States of America and the 50th Anniversary of The New Kind of Store, John Wanamaker’s department store.

The bell was cast by the distinguished Gillett and Johnston foundry in Croydon, England, a firm which had revived a method of tuning bells by shaving off some of the bronze at various places on the bell surface to make their sound more concordant. The completed bell, which sounds low “D,” weighs 15 tons—one ton for each decade of American independence—and was the largest tuned bell in the world at the time of its casting. (Subsequently, slightly larger tuned bells were cast for the carillon of New York City’s Riverside Church, also by Gillett and Johnston.)

The Founder’s Bell was originally placed on the roof of the Wanamaker Philadelphia store. Production delays caused its dedication to be postponed from the Fourth of July until New Year’s Eve 1926-27. However, the roof location proved inadequate, and in the 1930s the Wanamaker management provided a belfry where the bell could be fully swung. It was erected atop Wanamaker’s new men’s store, originally known as the Lincoln-Liberty building. The Founder’s Bell, whose majestic tone has been praised by Leopold Stokowski and many others, continues to ring the hours daily from its perch high above the city.

Many people, incidentally, mistakenly believe the sound comes from nearby City Hall. Although there is no official policy, the managers of the real-estate firm that manages the PNB building occasionally take visitors to the belfry upon application for an appointment.


THE WANAMAKER GRAND ORGAN now at MACY’S has been thrilling Philadelphia shoppers and visitors every business day since 1911. Eighty years later, in the fall of 1991, an organization of the Friends Society was formed to support the preservation and musical mission of this irreplaceable American treasure.


Friends of the
Wanamaker Organ, Inc.

The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ is a world-wide group of sponsors and supporters formed to encourage the preservation and musical mission of this National Historic Landmark pipe organ. The Friends believes that committed public involvement is more important to historical preservation than any plaque or certification provides. We are people just like yourself who look to the select few who truly understand the importanceof this priceless musical masterpiece for financial support of our programs. Introductory contributions of $25 entitle the donor to become a Friend and to receive four issues of The Stentor, the Society’s quarterly historical newsletter and restoration update. Added tax-deductible donations support Friends programs. Join the Friends now!

The official registration and financial information of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, Inc., may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll-free within Pennsylvania, 1-800-732-0999. Registration does not imply endorsement.


The Stentor is published in the Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, with all renewals taking place at the beginning of the new year. The minimum annual donation is $25 per year special rate for new members. Those joining in the middle of the calendar year who do not wish to receive that year’s back issues can pay just for the issues still to be published (at $5 apiece). Kindly make checks payable to Friends of the Wanamaker Organ.

E-Mail the Friends

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Please enclose your check with a brief note or print-out or facsimile of the Order Form and mail to the:

Friends of the Wanamaker Organ
630 Hidden Valley Road

King of Prussia, PA   19406-1712

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