We had originally planned to use this space to write deep profundities, but were pleasantly sidetracked by news from what used to be Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. The store’s Grand Court Organ—the largest functioning pipe organ in the world—was recently restored, and can now be heard again in full glory for the first time in 27 years.
John Wanamaker was a Philadelphia merchant who turned an old railroad station into a large store in 1875, creating Philadelphia’s first department store and one of the earliest department stores in the country. Wanamaker is credited with a number of innovations taken for granted today: he was one of the first retailers to use price tags, guarantee merchandise quality, and provide cash refunds to dissatisfied customers.
Among Wanamaker’s talents was a gift for draping the shopping experience in grandeur and allure. His original store was replaced in 1911 by an even larger and more luxurious building with a majestic seven-story central atrium called the Grand Court, whose crowning touch was a gigantic pipe organ originally built for the 1904 St. Louis Fair. The behemoth filled 13 boxcars when it was shipped to Philadelphia.
Although the organ came with 10,000 pipes, this was just chump change for Wanamaker’s. The company built an organ shop in the store’s attic and eventually installed 18,000 more pipes between 1911 and 1930, for a final total of 28,482.
The Grand Court Organ has attracted the attention of numerous musicians over the years, including soloists Charles Courboin, Louis Vierne, Nadia Boulanger, Marco Enrico Bossi, and Alfred Hollins. Marcel Dupré was inspired by the organ to compose his “Symphonie-Passion,” and in 1926 Joseph Jongen wrote his “Symphonie Concertante” for the Wanamaker organ. This piece was featured at the organ’s first post-restoration concert on September 27, 2008, along with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” in D Minor, Dupré's “Cortege and Litany for Organ and Orchestra,” and a fanfare by Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the Lord of the Rings movies. The Philadelphia Orchestra played back-up.
The instrument has its own supporting organization, the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, which has spearheaded preservation and promotion efforts. The organization produces a monthly radio show of Wanamaker organ recordings, streamed on the Internet at www.wrti.org , and a quarterly newsletter appropriately named The Stentor.
We’re told there’s an even bigger organ down the road in Atlantic City… but apparently the thing hasn’t worked in years, meaning that the Grand Court Organ is probably the world’s largest functioning musical instrument. Isn’t it interesting that the biggest working organ in the world is in a Philadelphia department store and not a church or temple somewhere? This reminds us of the glorious madness that sometimes used to capture American retailers, usually evidenced by the desire to turn shopping into a uniquely luxurious and wonderful experience.
Wanamaker himself really was a sort of mad genius, alternately a benevolent public servant and a greedy, self-interested tycoon. As Postmaster General he supervised the development of rural free delivery, an enormous benefit to farmers and other country residents (to say nothing of catalog retailers), but at the same time was accused of making millions in boodle by awarding the contract for postal uniforms to a supplier in which he held an ownership interest.
Wanamaker is credited with two of marketing’s most famous maxims: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half,” and “The customer is always right.”
His stores remained in the family until 1978, when they were sold to Carter Hawley Hale, Inc. After various name changes and further consolidation they passed into the hands of the May Department Stores Company in 1995, and today the historic Philadelphia store is a Macy’s. But under anyone’s banner the Grand Court Organ still makes a glorious racket. We’re betting that more than a few people have been captivated by this unusual hobbyhorse. Buying socks just isn’t the same thing anywhere else.