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Wanamaker Organ, Philadelphia

Categories: Landmarks, Tourist Spots
Inspirock Rating:
4.5/5 based on 440+ reviews on the web
The world’s largest playing organ, and an internationally renowned instrument of incomparable quality and beauty, the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s Center City Philadelphia celebrates its centennial year ion 2011. The Grand Organ was first heard in the Store’s seven-story atrium on June 22, 1911 at its dedication, at the exact moment that Britain’s King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Wanamaker Organ was designed by noted organ architect George Ashdown Audsley, author of The Art of Organ-Building. This heroic original instrument had more than 10,000 pipes, and its construction was on such a lavish scale that costs soared to $105,000, bankrupting the builder.

In 1909, Philadelphia merchant-prince John Wanamaker bought the instrument for his new Philadelphia department store, itself the largest in the world, then under construction. Thirteen freight cars were required to ship the entire organ from St. Louis, and installation took two years. The organ premiered during the same year – 1911 – that the new John Wanamaker’s store opened its doors, with President William Howard Taft dedicating the store in December.

Despite its immense size, the organ’s tone was quickly 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 craftsmen to enlarge the instrument. William Boone Fleming, the original factory supervisor, was hired to direct the work. Lavish construction and elegant workmanship made the Wanamaker Organ both a tonal wonder and a monument to superb craftsmanship.

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.

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.

Organ virtuoso Virgil Fox recorded a concert on the Grand Organ for a large audience in 1964 as part of the American Guild of Organists annual meeting, one of many times Fox performed on the noble instrument.

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 $70 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, its pipework encompassing the resources of three symphony orchestras.
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  • The Wanamaker organ one hears at the daytime concerts is nice enough, but it is only whispering then. It becomes an entirely different creature at the occasional evening concerts after store hours. Th...  read more »
  • This organ is called the Wanamaker Organ because the department store was called Wanamaker before Macy's. Wanamaker is an old Philadelphia department store. Each Christmas they would play Christmas ca...  read more »
  • We like the organs and the music; so we couldn't miss this. It is within Macy's on the Market and escapes at first glance; surrounded by floors of clothes and accessories, Golden and appears incomplete. Who knows ' if every now and then they do a concert. Too bad it's not valued.
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