My day job as an account director for an ad agency brings me to Philadelphia’s famous Wanamaker Building. The upper floors of the building are offices, where I’m visiting TBWA another ad agency. While the backstory is not very interesting, what is interesting is the world’s largest pipe organ – The Wanamaker Organ. But first, a little history on the building.
John Wanamaker, the legendary Philadelphia businessman, built this store in 1910. One of the first department stores in the United States, Wanamaker’s was the very first store to use price tags. Also, the first store to have a telephone and electric lights. Now occupied by a Macy’s, the store is a National Historic Landmark.
The store was the filming location for the 1987 movie Mannequin starring Kim Cattrall and Andrew McCarthy.
Before cell phones, before texts, there was the meeting point. Your group visits the store and breaks up to shop on your own and agree to meet up in an hour or 45 minutes. Where should you meet? “Meet me at the Eagle.”
The sign near the Eagle explains:
This majestic bronze beauty proudly hails from Frankfurt, Germany, home of its creator, sculptor August Gaul. Department store pioneer John Wanamaker purchased the eagle for his flagship store following its debut at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Before long, “Meet me at the eagle” became the catchphrase for shoppers and visitors meeting in Center City.
The eagle has remained right here for over a century; the floor beneath reinforced with extra girders to accommodate its massive weight of 2,500 pounds. All 5,000 feathers, including 1,600 on the head alone, were wrought by hand.
Needing a centerpiece for his store’s Grand Court, John Wanamaker brought it to the store from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis.
In the women’s department, among the racks of dress shirts and turtlenecks lies the Wanamaker Organ. The largest fully operational pipe organ in the world with 28,750 pipes. Some consider the Wanamaker Organ the largest musical instrument in the world.
Near the organ is a video screen that will show you some video of the organ in concert.
Like the Eagle, this organ also came from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Thirteen freight cars were required to ship the entire organ from St. Louis, and installation took two years. The Grand Organ was first heard in the Store’s seven-story atrium on June 22, 1911, at the exact moment when England’s King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Despite its immense size, the tone was judged inadequate to fill the huge court. Rodman Wanamaker, son of John, opened a private pipe-organ factory in the store attic, employing up to 40 full-time employees to enlarge the instrument.
During my visit, the decorative pipes were undercover due to a refurbishment project. These decorative pipes don’t actually make any sound. The real pipes are above and behind these pipes.
This is what it looks like when they’re not hidden from view.
Back at the organ, the organist and his assistants ready the day’s recital. Peter Richard Conte has been the organist here since 1989.
Without further ado, what does this thing sound like? Have a listen below.
Free recitals are held twice every day except Sunday. Once a year, usually in June, “Wanamaker Organ Day” is held, which is a free recital that lasts most of the day. Check the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ website for all the recital details.