PHILADELPHIA — What do you do if you buy a famous downtown department store and find an organ with 28,482 pipes occupying thousands of square feet of perfectly good retail space?
If you’re Macy’s, you let devotees of the instrument put in 61 more pipes and give them thousands more square feet to set up an organ repair shop.
Diapasons, it would seem, are as much music to Macy’s as cash registers, coin counters and customers at its Center City store here, a Philadelphia institution that was originally a Wanamaker’s.
So the company let the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, a private group of aficionados who have been helping to maintain the instrument for years, install another stop and set up a repair shop after Macy’s took over the store.
“Every lunchtime, people hear the organ and feel good — and people are in a mind to shop when they’re feeling good,” explained James Kenny, the store manager. “It’s the ultimate feel-good experience.”
The organ, the world’s largest operating musical instrument, has never sounded better, according to the store’s staff organist, Peter Richard Conte.
The instrument started life at the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904.
It was a smash hit at the fair, but bankrupted the company. Then it languished in storage until 1909, when John Wanamaker bought it for the Philadelphia store that he was planning to open two years later.
His son, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, saw the vast, 149-foot-high Grand Court center space in the building Daniel Hudson Burnham had designed for them as the ideal place for “the finest organ in the world,” and 40,000 people and President William Howard Taft came to the dedication ceremonies on Dec. 30, 1911.
Martine Reardon, the Macy’s national headquarters executive overseeing holiday events, including now the annual Christmas organ and light show in the Philadelphia store, said, “The Wanamaker Organ’s legacy is as legendary as the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Fourth of July fireworks.”