The Wanamaker Organ

A very long year ago I posted about our experiences at Woodworking in America, the one in Pennsylvania. I mentioned in that post that I’d be adding more later about our visit to Philadelphia and our tour of the Wanamaker Organ. I was reminded of my forgetfulness this morning by an Open Thread post on Crooks and Liars (.com) by Susie Madrak reminiscing about her childhood visits to Wanamaker’s Department Store (now Macy’s) in downtown Philly at Christmastime to see Santa, etc. Her post includes a video of an October 30 “flash-mob” performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” with music from the Wanamaker Organ.

One of the many wonderful things that happened to us at WIA in PA (it was at the Valley Forge Convention Center, right across the street from, you guessed it, Valley Forge National Park which was a huge treat to visit in itself) was meeting Scott Kip. Scott’s an artist/woodworker/sculptor and organ restorer. We talked woodworking, etc, and he offered us a tour of the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest pipe organ.

This is not an organ.

See the photo with all the pipes that look like what we think an organ should look like? That’s not it. Those are fakes. The real organ occupies some 3000 square feet by about six stories behind that very tall wall behind those fake pipes. We’re talking 28,543 pipes. Some smaller than a pencil stub, others large enough to walk a pony through. Honest.

Scott Kip

We met Scott at Macy’s as he was finishing his shift. He does all sorts of high-level woodworking and mechanics in the ongoing preservation of this organ. The photo above shows Scott explaining about the room we’re in. This is a newer room where some of the over-crowded pipes were moved for better sound. The ranks of pipes in the background are typical of the many thousands that make up the organ. Different shapes correspond to different “voices’. There are ranks of clarinets, oboes, etc, etc. You can see holes in the chest to the right. Those are for pipes that are in the shop being restored by Scott and the several others who keep this enormous music machine working.

Wooden pipes in the shop for restoration/preservation.

The keyboard you see is just for tuning the pipes in this room because the real keyboard console is on the mezzanine of the main store and would take about ten minutes to get to from here.

The left half of the console. The Wanamaker Organ has been played twice a day for a century.

The console itself is a work of art and engineering (the history of the organ is fascinating, btw) that connects all those keys and stops to the pipes about fifty yards away (or more, the organ is spread around the building some). The main organ room is a cross between an eccentric’s dusty library and the innards of a steam ship boiler room. There are catwalks and ladders and rooms within rooms. The walls contain huge baffles that rotate to let the sound out and can be controlled to make the music louder or softer.

The larger pipes here are about 6" in diameter

More pipes in every nook and cranny. Boxes on the right are bellows that are pumped quickly for tremolo. That's a ladder in the background.

Yes, these photos were taken from inside the organ. We happened to be there as it was being played and were inside while air rushes through chests, ducted to the appropriate pipes, all the while the tremolo bellows are pumping away. We climbed up six stories to see the whole thing, high enough that Linda opted out of the last ladder-climb.

From up on high, the view here is of the main Macy's floor, way down below. This grill is where some of the music comes out.

I know I haven’t begun to do justice to the experience of that tour. We walked through sales racks of women’s fashions, through a nondescript door and into a huge wooden box full of complexity that was unlike anything I’d ever imagined. My photos can’t begin to show what this musical instrument is really like. I am still amazed at the amount of work it takes to keep it going and the dedication of Scott and the Wanamaker crew. Thanks again, Scott.

And to everyone, Linda and I wish you and yours a happy holiday season.

About Ron Hock

Owner of HOCK TOOLS (.com) and author of "The Perfect Edge, the Ultimate Guide to Sharpening for Woodworkers"
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One Response to The Wanamaker Organ

  1. Handi says:

    Ron,

    This is Very interesting. Thanks for the Tour and information on this. That’s Great and a Nice piece of work.

    Handi

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