Wanamaker - A Pipe Organ Tradition

By Don Feely

Following the early success in Philadelphia, John Wanamaker opened his first New York store in 1896. In 1902, he built an equally large annex across the street. This annex featured a 1500 seat auditorium and a 4/42 Austin Organ. The critically-acclaimed organ events at the New York store convinced Wanamaker that a large organ could be popular in the Philadelphia store. The new Philadelphia store opened in 1911.

Wanamaker hired George Alexander Russell (1880-1953) to be concert director and organist of the New York store. Russell was an accomplished organist, pianist and music scholar who graduated from Syracuse University in 1901, served on its faculty, and later studied in Berlin and Paris.  In addition to playing daily recitals on the Wanamaker Auditorium organ, Russell was supervised the sale of musical instruments in the store and arranged musical performances by employees and outside groups. By 1919, Alexander Russell was in charge of arranging organ concerts at both the New York and Philadelphia stores.

When John Wanamaker died in 1922, his son Rodman was named sole inheritor of the retail business. Upon Rodman's death in 1928, the businesses were put into a trust, with family members as the beneficiaries. The Wanamaker trust sold the New York store in 1954. The organ (then at 118 ranks) was sold at auction, as evidenced by this intriguing photo.

Just prior to its demolition in 1956, the New York building caught fire and burned out of control for a full day before firemen could contain the blaze. The cast-iron construction withstood the fire, only to fall to the wrecker's ball. Today, a 21-story apartment block, built in 1960 and named Stewart House, occupies the site; the 1902 Wanamaker annex is an office building.

The Philadelphia Grand Court Organ

Commanding the organ 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.

Are there really eight Tibias? According to Andrew Nardone, Organ Shop Assistant, most are Tibias in name only:
"Here, as I think is the case also in Atlantic City, when you have an organ of this size, how many names can you think of for 8' flutes? The original organ contained a Tibia Plena and Tibia Clausa in the Great, but both were merely large scale flutes and did not trem. The first expansion saw the Tibia Plena relocated to a new chest and revoiced on twice the pressure, and a Mezzo Tibia was added. The 1904 Tibia slot was filled with a new Tibia Minor.

Even with all the new construction, there were still no trems added to the Great or its expansion chests and all were open wooden flutes. As for the Pedal, the Tibias are the same story. Tibia I 8 & 4 are from the first expansion and are two independent ranks. Again, these were conceived as large flutes but not necessarily Tibias and do not trem. Originally, they were called Gross Flutes. The II Tibias 8 & 4 are a unit with the Open Flute 16 and date from the second expansion. The original 1904 stoplist had a stop called Contra Flauto 16 in the pedal, which still exists cut down as the Open Quint 10 2/3. This stop looks like a 16' Concert Flute, with large protruding caps and inverted upper lips. The Open Flute unit 16/8/4 seems to be an attempt to improve upon the original Contra Flauto on higher pressure, and its pipes are constructed in the same way.

The only two REAL Tibias we have are the two in the Orchestral, which do trem and behave like Tibias. There is a Tibia Plena and Tibia Clausa."

The organ contains seven 32' stops, including a 32' Sub-Principal on the great and a 32' Contra Gamba. The 88-rank string division (with pipework by Kimball) occupies the largest organ chamber in the world - 60' wide by 30' long and 22' high.

On June 2010, the organ grew by one more rank. A new rank, the "Centennial Tuba" was installed on the 7th floor. The Tuba pipes are hooded, bent over at the top, so the sound is projected directly into the grand court in the manner of a Trompette en Chamade. The organ now contains 463 ranks.

From a monumental beginning in 1904, the organ continues to amaze and delight listeners—from all over the world.

The largest organ in the world?

Well... in the theatre organ world, we often look at the number of ranks as an indication of size. For example, most would agree that a 4/36 Wurlitzer is larger than a 5/21 Wurlitzer. Consider this: the Wanamaker Organ is 6/463, while the Atlantic City Convention Hall organ is 7/449.

However, the Wanamaker organ is not highly unified, so the Convention Hall, with 33,112 pipes, exceeds the Grand Court Organ's 28,482 pipes. The Convention Hall organ is recognized by The Guinness Book as the largest organ, which also lists its Grand Ophicleide 16′ (at 100" wind) as the loudest organ stop in the world. But - the Grand Court organ reputedly weighs almost twice as much (287 tons opposed to the approximated 150 tons of the Auditorium Organ), so feel free to discuss...