Music lovers from around the world have always made pilgrimages to hear the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, which resides not in a church, but in a Philadelphia department store. It’s the largest operational pipe organ in the world — some say the world’s largest playable instrument. And on the eve of its 100th year of serenading shoppers, it’s never sounded better.
But at Christmastime, the organ, a National Historic Landmark, belongs not to tourists so much as to Philadelphians. Its holiday organ concert and sweetly old-fashioned light show has for generations been as much of a local tradition as trimming the tree or sitting on Santa’s lap.
Located in a Macy’s that was originally John Wanamaker chain’s flagship store, the organ’s polished mahogany console is tucked behind racks of sweaters and skirts. This time of year, crowds laden with bags and bundles overflow the soaring atrium, squeezing amid the women’s shoes and pressing against glass jewelry cases for the hourly show. With narration by Julie Andrews, animated bears, snowflakes, nutcrackers and reindeer take visitors through a series of prerecorded Christmas songs with a live organ concert as the finale.
“It’s magical,” said Margie Fitzpatrick, a native Philadelphian who fondly recalled organ concerts with her parents, then her children, and was at a recent show with her 2-year-old granddaughter. “Hearing it just makes you feel blessed.”
Superlatives are unavoidable when describing the symphonic, 260 tonne organ. With 28,543 pipes, it embodies the sounds of not one orchestra, but three. In contrast, the organ at Notre Dame in Paris has about 8,000 pipes. St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City tallies about 9,000.
WANAMAKER GRAND COURT ORGAN: At Macy’s, 1300 Market St, Philadelphia; http://wanamakerorgan.com. Free daily 45-minute recitals, Monday-Saturday at noon; Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 5:30pm; and Wednesdays and Fridays at 7pm. Visitors may tour the console area on the second floor and meet the staff following daily concerts. Through New Year’s Eve, the noon organ concerts begin right after a 10 minute light show.
The Wanamaker pipes range from two-thirds of a centimeter to 10m in length, are made of wood or metal, and span five stories. The console boasts six ivory keyboards and 729 color-coded stops representing the sounds of every string, woodwind, brass and percussion instrument imaginable.
But numbers can’t explain the lusciousness of the organ’s music, which can simultaneously feel warm as a blanket and light as air. Extensive repairs over the past few years and vigilant upkeep now have the instrument — valued in excess of US$57 million — performing at its peak.
“The organ has never sounded better,” said staff curator L. Curt Mangel III, who has breathed new life into pipes that were silent for decades. He strides through the labyrinth of pipes and narrow passageways — which can also be toured by the public — with purpose, pride and unabashed devotion.
“Everyone involved with this instrument is passionate about it,” he said. “It’ll be around long after you and I are gone ... maintaining it is a joy and a responsibility.”
The organ was built for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and was purchased by retail magnate John Wanamaker in 1909 as the crown jewel of his eponymous store in downtown Philadelphia. The store, an elegant marble and granite showpiece, itself a National Historic Landmark, was created for both commerce and concerts by Daniel Burnham, architect of Manhattan’s iconic Flatiron Building and, as readers of The Devil in the White City know, director of works for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ made its debut in Philly on June 22, 1911, to coincide with the coronation of George V as King of England. It started with 10,000 pipes, but 18,000 more were added over the next two decades, with Wanamaker’s son Rodman Wanamaker sacrificing precious selling floor space to accommodate the expansion.