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World’s largest working pipe organ is in ... Macy’s

Before there was Muzak, there was the Wanamaker. Newly restored, it restores the shopper’s mood.

By By Mary Beth McCauleyCorrespondent / October 15, 2008

Knocking off socks in lingerie: The Wanamaker, the world's largest operating pipe organ, is played daily at noon and 7 p.m. (except Sundays) at the Philadelphia Macy’s department store.

Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor




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When you see the Wanamaker organ soar heavenward, you want to look around for the rest of the cathedral. When its sound makes pillars tremble, you know it speaks for the powers above. But where stained glass windows should be – there is ladies apparel. In the would-be pews, people are trying on boots. And that scent wafting through the air is not votive candles, it’s Chanel No. 5.

Wait. This is no church. This is ... Macy’s?

Here, occupying prime retail space, there are nearly 30,000 organ pipes in chambers towering up through seven floors, making the Wanamaker the largest operating pipe organ in the world. For precious square footage to be given over thus is rare. Even modest organs tend to be located not in stores but in churches, private homes, or municipal buildings; built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company, the Wanamaker is one of only two known department-store organs in the world.

As spectacular as the instrument is, so, too, is the space it inhabits. The 1911 masterpiece of a building designed by Daniel Burnham, a pioneer of urban planning and skyscraper architecture, is like a renaissance palace. A national historic landmark, it covers a city block, running from Chestnut Street to Market, from 13th to Juniper, and encompassing a 150-foot-high center court lush with decorative plaster, laced with arches, and rich with marble. The Grand Court, open to shoppers peering from the floors above, is the space that retail pioneer John Wanamaker sought to fill with the sounds of the organ he brought here from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

That Mr. Wanamaker should bring such a treasure into a mere marketplace was typical of his character. At this, the flagship of the 17-store chain that bore his name, Wanamaker introduced the concept of the modern department store as he evolved from a men’s clothing seller into a pioneer of truth in advertising, the money-back guarantee, the in-store restaurant, in-store electricity and phone, and free medical care for employees.

Wanamaker’s son Rodman shared his father’s passion for the organ, and more pipes were added over the years so the music could better fill the massive court. But after Rodman died in 1928, interest in it waned. It fell into disrepair and conditions declined into the 1980s and beyond, as the Wanamaker chain was sold and resold several times. By the time it became Lord and Taylor in 1997, barely 20 percent of the pipes worked. Yet the instrument never went entirely silent. It has been played every business day since it was installed in 1911.

Finally Macy’s, with a Wanamaker-like love of the big show, embraced the beast when it took over the store two years ago, restoring it to its full capacity – even moving the orchestral division of pipes from exile in a remote corner of the store to a location where they are properly heard (which happens to be expensive office space now).

Last month when the Philadelphia Orchestra visited for a joint Saturday evening benefit concert, part of a Macy’s 150-year anniversary program, the pristine organ showed her stuff. Together, the organ and orchestra, with Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte at the console, performed Joseph Jongen’s “Symphonie Concertante,” an organ-orchestra piece written for the Wanamaker organ back in 1926 but never played on the instrument for which it was commissioned. The orchestra’s Rossen Milanov, who conducted, saw the concert as “a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” the first time the orchestra and organ played together since the days when the great conductor Leopold Stokowski would bring his orchestra to Wanamaker’s in the 1920s.