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The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at Macy's Center City

May 15, 2015 | Events
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The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at Macy's Center City in Philadelphia is the largest playing organ in the world.

Every day of the week but Sunday, two times a day, pipe organ music cascades over the regal Grand Court of the Macy’s Center City store in Philadelphia, filling the soaring space with rich orchestral tones. Like the hall it occupies, the 111-year-old Wanamaker Grand Court Organ is an unparalleled example of craftsmanship that speaks to the opulent construction standards of an earlier era. Yet, the instrument—the world’s largest playing organ—is even more captivating today than when it was first built.


Pipe Dreams

Designed by renowned organ architect, George Ashdown Audsley, and built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Wanamaker Organ originally incorporated more than 10,000 pipes. The huge cost of construction ($105,000) actually bankrupted the builder.

Fortunately, the Organ found a new home with John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant who founded the groundbreaking Wanamaker’s department store.

A firm believer in music’s capacity to benefit civic life, he purchased the organ in 1909 and had it installed over a two-year period in the palatial seven-story atrium of his Philadelphia emporium. Seeking an even bigger sound to suit its palatial proportions, Wanamaker created an on-site factory to expand the Organ and hired 40 full-time employees to add 8,000 more pipes between 1911 and 1917, and another 10,000 pipes between 1924 and 1930.

Today, the Organ weighs in at 287 tons, incorporates an astounding 28,500 pipes, six ivory keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons (under the keyboards) and 42 foot controls. The largest pipe, made of three-inch-thick Oregon sugar pine, is more than 32 feet long and the smallest is a quarter-inch long.

Acoustic Blockbusters: The Organ’s Rich Musical Legacy

With its stunning pipework, the Wanamaker Organ is capable of playing all the great organ masterworks as well as a full range of orchestral compositions—it powerfully emulates the sounds of three symphony orchestras.

The Organ was first heard in the downtown Philadelphia Wanamaker’s store on June 22, 1911, just as England’s King George V was being crowned. Over the years that John Wanamaker and his son Rodman presided over their retail business, they invited some of the world’s most renowned musicians as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform concerts on the Wanamaker Organ and these drew thousands of listeners to the Grand Court. Since that time, many virtuosos have made special pilgrimages here to perform on the instrument.

Macy’s Continues the Illustrious Tradition

The historic Wanamaker Building houses Macy's Center City in Philadelphia.

In 2006, Macy’s took up residence in the Wanamaker Building, one of the most architecturally significant and awe-inspiring retail spaces in the country, a National Historic Landmark (since 1978) and a top shopping destination. Macy’s began earnestly reinvigorating the cherished traditions that John Wanamaker had initiated, including the Wanamaker Organ concerts given by exceptional musicians. In fact, the company celebrated its 150th birthday in the Center City store with a concert featuring the Organ and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The stunning acoustics of the marble-clad Macy’s Grand Court are an ideal match for the Organ’s majestic sound. Elaborate music events sponsored by the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ (a world-wide group of sponsors and supporters formed in 1991 to encourage its preservation and musical mission) continue to attract visitors from all over the globe.

Only four musicians have been designated Grand Court Organists since the organ was first played in 1911. The fourth and present one, Peter Richard Conte, is presently celebrating his 25th anniversary in the role. When he’s not touring, he performs free 45-minute recitals on the Wanamaker Grand Organ, twice a day, six days a week. Other top organists take his place when he is on the road.

Macy’s visitors who identify themselves as Wanamaker Organ visitors can stop by the information desk at Macy's Center City to get special shopping discounts.

Tours at Macy’s Center City Philadelphia

Visitors can see the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ up close by signing up in advance for a 45-minute Historic Tour, offered daily at the Macy's Center City store. Participants will learn about the history of Macy’s, the Wanamaker Building and the Grand Court Eagle.

The Eagle in the Grand Court at Macy's Center City in Philadelphia.

For more information or to book a tour, contact Macy’s Center City Visitor Center at 215-241-9000, ext. 2408.

About the Author

Meet Keri Hanson

Wine. Food. Travel. Repeat.