Largest pipe organ in the world celebrates itself on its 110th birthday

Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Center City is 110 years old. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Center City is 110 years old. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After 110 years, the Wanamaker organ has developed its own fan base.

The largest fully operational pipe organ in the world was performed for its own birthday on Tuesday, inside the 5-story Grand Court at Macy’s in Philadelphia. Since 1911 the organ has been played twice a day, every day the store has opened its doors, through two global pandemics, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and several changes of ownership.

Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte figures the Wanamaker has had the largest cumulative audience of any instrument, ever.

“I mean, it’s heard twice a day during business hours for the past 110 years,” said Conte. “Do the math. That’s a lot of people walking through the grand court hearing this incredible instrument.”

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Grand Court Organist Peter Richard Conte performs on the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Center City, marking the organ’s 110th birthday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Of course, many people come to the Grand Court to look for a new pair of shoes or buy a watch, not to hear the iconic organ. But when the bellows start blowing, the pipes start singing, and the reverberations bounce off the fifth floor vaulted balconies, music dominates every cubic inch of the “Cathedral of Commerce.”

Every day, organ fans gather on the second-floor balcony to get both an eye- and ear-full of the organ. For three decades the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ support group has been rallying around its preservation and programming. People across the country apply for the privilege of coming to Philadelphia to work – for free – on maintaining its 28,765 pipes.

One of the organ’s fans is Larry Lorenz of Annapolis, Maryland. He first learned about the Wanamaker organ when he was 12 years old. He was singing in a church choir, becoming enamored of organ music when his father told him about the amazing instrument in Philadelphia.

Lorenz has heard the Wanamaker in recordings, but never in person. Family trips through Philadelphia were always too short to take a detour into the Grand Court.

He’s now 74. Coming to the Wanamaker building and hearing the organ has been on Lorenz’s bucket list for 62 years. On Tuesday he brought his granddaughter Olivia, visiting from Ohio, up to Philly to finally feel the visceral power of the Wanamaker on its 110th birthday.

“Organ music in person, you get the feeling on your body that you don’t get when you hear it on recordings,” he said, while listening to Conte play Edward Elgar’s “Empire March.” “This is fabulous.”

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Both grandfather and granddaughter recorded the concert on their cell phones.

Larry Lorenz of Annapolis brought his granddaughter, Olivia Lorenz, to see the Wanamaker Organ during their three-day visit to Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We’re visiting Philadelphia and this is something that came up as happening here. We, like, had to see it,” said Olivia. “It’s cool.”

Over its long history, people have gravitated toward the Wanamaker organ. Its first performance – June 22, 1911 – was a nod to King George V, who was being crowned at the same moment across the Atlantic in England. In the 1920s, the French composer Marcel Dupré performed an extensive improvisation on the Wanamaker, which later became his “Symphonie-Passion.” The American organist Virgil Fox, of Baltimore, would travel to Philadelphia to be able to compose on the Wanamaker after close of business.

When Conte became the Grand Court organist in 1989, he said the organ was in poor condition, at just 10% capacity. He now praises Macy’s for its dedicated stewardship of the organ since it took over the grand retail space in 2006.

“It is a cathedral-esque space with five seconds of reverberation,” said Conte. “There’s a shoe department downstairs and there’s this incredible cathedral pipe organ in the building. It’s a remarkable marriage that has worked over the past 110 years. Thanks to Macy’s, the organ now is 100% playable for the first time in a long time.”

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