Wanamaker Organ


Originally designed for the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, the organ purchased by John Wanamaker (1838-1922) for his unprecedented Philadelphia department store at Thirteenth and Market Streets expanded over time to produce the sound power of three symphony orchestras. Regarded as the largest playable instrument in the world, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ remained a highlight of the Center City store that became Macy’s in 2006.

John Wanamaker, featured in this 1915 photograph, purchased the organ to add music and spectacle to the shopping experience in his innovative department store. (Library of Congress)

Renowned artist and architect George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) designed the organ, which was built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the St. Louis World’s Fair), held from April 30 to December 1, 1904. Construction of the organ cost $105,000—a 2018 value of approximately $2,824,521—which eventually bankrupted the builder. For the duration of the fair, the organ entertained fairgoers with grandiose musical performances in Festival Hall. However, after the fair, plans to have it permanently installed at the Kansas City Convention Center or exhibited at Coney Island fell through, and the organ languished in storage, unused for the next five years.

Wanamaker went to great lengths to implement innovative policies and architectural features in his store, not only to draw customers but more importantly to ensure their satisfaction with their overall experience. After attending the St. Louis fair, he purchased Germany’s six-foot, six-inch bronze eagle by August Gaul (1869-1921)—an emblem of craftsmanship—to display in the store. A firm believer in the ability of music to improve employee and shopper disposition and store atmosphere, Wanamaker proceeded to purchase the organ in 1909. Transporting it to Philadelphia required thirteen freight cars and, along with other improvements and renovations to the store, it took two years to complete installation of the organ in the store’s 149-foot-high, marble-clad center, the Grand Court of Honor. John’s son Rodman Wanamaker (1863–1928) considered the store—an architectural marvel of its era—the ideal place for the “finest organ in the world.” Wanamaker’s official opening of the newly remodeled store and the Wanamaker Organ’s dedication in 1911 drew a crowd of over forty thousand people, including President William Howard Taft (1857-1930).

Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, John Wanamaker’s son who took over the business in 1922, was a dedicated patron of the arts and oversaw two massive expansions of the organ during his lifetime. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

As an advocate for the arts, Rodman (like his father) believed that music would improve the experiences of both shoppers and employees; however, even with its more than 10,000 pipes, Rodman deemed the organ insufficient in size and sonority to fill the Grand Court with its warm music. He ordered an extensive enlargement, resulting in 17,222 pipes by 1917. To increase organ-expansion efficiency, an organ shop was built in the attic of the two-million-square-feet building and employed a full-time staff of organ builders. Subsequent expansions eventually produced a 287-ton organ with almost 29,000 pipes ranging from 1 inch to 32 feet in length. Although the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ’s ultimate size fell about 2,000 pipes short of the total of the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Wanamaker organ remained 100 percent operational and thus became recognized as the largest playable instrument in the world. Most organs of its size and age deteriorated over time; the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ, for example, maintained 50 percent functionality.

With its 466 stops (ranks of pipes), the Wanamaker organ could reproduce the sound of numerous string and woodwind instruments and horns, including but not limited to violins, cellos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, French horns, tubas, and trombones, giving it the ability to produce the all-encompassing sound power of three entire symphonies. Over the years, famous organists sought to play classical as well as signature pieces written specifically for the organ, including Charles M. Courboin (1884–1973), the organist from 1919 to 1929 for evening concerts, special events, and performances accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra. A favorite among the Wanamaker organists, he oversaw the second enlargement of the organ in 1924.

The expansion and renovation of the Wanamaker organ, along with its extensive programs, have ensured its place as a staple destination for tourists and families. (Photograph by Breanna Ransome for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

The organ shop in the store continued to maintain and improve the organ, aided by a volunteer restoration team. However, after Rodman Wanamaker died, ownership of the store changed multiple times and the organ fell into disrepair. The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the organ’s history and prominence, formed in 1991 to provide tours and information and to raise funds for organ maintenance. Wanamaker Organ Day, an annual free post-Memorial Day concert, began in 1994 and featured guest performers who conducted several concerts throughout the day with supplementary brass and percussion instruments and a chorus.

Macy’s continued to carry out many of the Wanamaker Organ traditions, including Wanamaker Organ Day.  Since 2008, the organ has been fully refurbished. More than a century after the organ arrived at John Wanamaker’s department store, daily afternoon and evening performances (excluding Sunday) and special and seasonal event performances continued to fill the Grand Court with orchestra-like music.

Breanna Ransome graduated with her Master of Arts in English from Rutgers University–Camden in May 2019. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


John Wanamaker, 1915

Library of Congress

A native of Philadelphia, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) originally wanted to join the U.S. army but was unable to due to health issues. Instead, he became a legendary businessman who immensely impacted retailing. In 1861 he and his brother-in-law founded a clothing store, and in 1876 Wanamaker bought a deserted Pennsylvania Railroad station at Thirteenth and Market Streets and renovated it into his vision of “a Grand Depot” that mirrored retailers in Europe. The store succeeded, partially due to its opening date coinciding with the Philadelphia-based Centennial Exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, the most important part of the Wanamaker Grand Depot legacy is its influence in introducing retailing practices such as requiring price tags to make it easier for consumers to browse and select purchases.

In addition, Wanamakers was the first to allow goods to be returned to the store for a cash refund, a novel concept at the time, and was the first department store to house a restaurant so that patrons could eat while they shopped. Indeed, many of Wanamaker’s policies aimed not only to boost sales but also to ensure costumers had a pleasurable experience. With the Wanamaker organ, installed in 1911, patrons could listen to music while they shopped. Although Wanamakers changed ownership in the late twentieth century, eventually bought by Macy’s in 2006, the Philadelphia store’s policies had a resounding effect on retail businesses around the world.

Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, 1918

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The son of John Wanamaker (1838-1922), Lewis Rodman Wanamaker (1863–1928), worked for his father’s company from a young age and helped revolutionize his father’s business in New York. However, the younger Wanamaker became best known for his philanthropy and dedication to improving the arts. A music enthusiast, he collected antique instruments and often allowed them to be played at the Philadelphia Wanamakers store. Wanamaker often sponsored grand orchestral performances at the store featuring famous musicians such as Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), Marcel Dupre (1886-1971), and Fernando Germani (1906-98). During his tenure as head of the Wanamaker business, Rodman Wanamaker oversaw two expansions of the Wanamaker organ that resulted in a total of 29,000 pipes and 466 stops (ranks of pipes). After these enlargements, the organ weighed 287 tons.

Renovated Wanamaker Department Store

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1910, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) renovated his “Grand Depot” and constructed a much larger, opulent building on the same site. The building, totaling nearly 150,000 square feet on twelve floors, was designed by Daniel H. Burnham in the Florentine style with a façade of marble, granite, and painted cast iron and marble interior for its expansive grand court. Opened in 1911, this grand building provided shoppers with a luxury experience, including the music of the Wanamaker organ. Today the building is a Macy’s department store and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark listed on the Philadelphia and National Registers of Historic Places.

Wanamaker Organ and Gaul’s Eagle

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Following expansion of Wanamaker’s department store, completed in 1911, the retailer installed an eagle sculpture by August Gaul (1869-1921) and the enormous 10,000-pipe organ from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The pieces of the organ came to Philadelphia on thirteen freight cars and required two years to install. On June 22, 1911, the Wanamakers store had its grand opening, an affair so spectacular that hundreds of customers flocked to see the store and hear the organ resonate its first notes. The lavish event occurred at the precise moment that King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in England. Later that year, President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) came to Philadelphia to dedicate the store.

The Wanamaker Organ

Since its unveiling in 1911, the Wanamaker organ has undergone extensive renovations. Originally, eight electric blowers, running constantly, assured a proper level of humidity for the instrument. As the organ grew in size, so did its console. Customized after the organ’s installation and weighing two and a half tons, over time the console gained such innovations as an electronic screen to allow the organist and any accompanying orchestra or choir to see each other on video during performances.

After the organ fell into disrepair following the death of Lewis Rodman Wanamaker (1863–1928), a non-profit organization called the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ formed in 1991 to raise funds to repair the iconic instrument. In 1994 the organization also created the Wanamaker Organ Day, a free annual post-Memorial Day concert that has become a well-known Philadelphia event, and continued to put on concerts. Christmas at the former Wanamakers has continued as a staple family outing, with a light show and entertainment accompanied by festive music played on the famed organ. Since 2008, the organ has been fully restored and it remains a point of pride for Philadelphians and a tourist attraction. (Photograph by Breanna Ransome for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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Related Reading

Appel, J. The Business Biography of John Wanamaker, Founder and Builder; America’s Merchant Pioneer from 1861 to 1922; with Glimpses of Rodman Wanamaker and Thomas B. Wanamaker. New York: AMS Press,1970.

Armstrong, A., et al. Organ Historical Society Philadelphia 2016: Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Anthology. Villanova, Pa.: Organ Historical Society Press, n.d.

Biswanger, Ray. Music in the Marketplace: The Story of Philadelphia’s Historic Wanamaker Organ: From John Wanamaker to Lord & Taylor. Philadelphia: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, 1999.

Ershkowitz, Herbert. John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant, Combined Publishing, 1999.

John Wanamaker Firm. The Great Organ, J. Wanamaker, 1970.

John Wanamaker Firm. The Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia, 15th ed., J. Wanamaker, 1925.

“Let There Be Music: Store Houses a Symphonic Masterpiece.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 28, 1995.

“Wanamaker Department Stores to Be Sold.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 1995.

Whitney, Craig R. “Amid the Shirts and Socks, a Concert Can Break Out.” New York Times, June 9, 2007.

Varga, Elivi. “Wanamaker Organ Day Benefits a City Treasure.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 2016.

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