Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Just behind the women’s sweaters on the second floor of Macy’s Center City are two floor-to-ceiling doors painted white. Behind them? A maze of a room stuck in the ’50s that holds the secrets to the world’s largest fully functioning musical instrument.
This back room with wood panels, floors and posts has a series of tiny staircases that lead to thousands of pipes, ranging in size from a quarter-inch to 32 feet tall. And it’s where the world-famous Wanamaker Organ, which can be seen when it’s played on the second floor of Macy’s, really operates.
“It’s a great tradition and the organ is louder than any speaker,” curator of organs L. Curt Mangel III told us on a recent trip in the back rooms of Macy’s. “The organ — you feel it.”
The Wanamaker Building itself that now holds Macy’s is one of the most significant retail spaces in the country and holds recognition as a National Historical Landmark. In 1878, Wanamaker’s was the first department store with electricity. In 1912, it was the first store in the country to have a wireless transmission of news that the Titanic had sunk.
And the history of the massive Wanamaker Organ has been well-documented over the years, but it’s just one portion — albeit the most famous — of the operation that makes Macy’s Center City draw a quarter million people every year to its Christmas Light Show and Dickens Village walk-through.
If you stand in the center of the Grand Court in Macy’s at noon, right next to the 2,500-pound bronze Wanamaker Eagle that sits on the middle of the 140-foot tall room, you can catch a glimpse of the organ being played if you look up toward the second floor.
In a box-like structure stained in dark wooden tones often sits Peter Richard Conte, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organist who has been playing the instrument for 25 years and is just the fourth person named “grand court organist” since it came to the city in 1909.
During the Christmas season when the famous light show is taking place for about 11 minutes in the Grand Court, Conte pulls out a small drawer on the organ, presses a “mute” button, and turns off the electronic speakers. The rich sounds of the organ fill the room with “Deck the Halls” to finish out the show of lights.
It’s a familiar sound for four generations of Philadelphians who have in many ways grown up with the organ as a symbol of Christmas time.
The famous organ designed by architect George Ashdown Audsley was first built in 1904 for the St. Louis World Fair by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company and was a hit in the midwest, but its cost of $105,000 bankrupted the builder, and the organ was relegated to storage.
John Wanamaker knew he wanted an organ for his massive department store in Philadelphia, and so in 1909, he bought the organ and had it shipped in 13 freight cars from St. Louis, and installation of the thing ended up taking two years. It was first played in the store in June 1911 and was dedicated later that year with President William Taft present.
But despite 10,000 pipes, Wanamaker wasn’t satisfied with the sound. It wasn’t filling the massive grand court room. So on the top floor of the store, he employed 40 people in what became literally a pipe organ factory to make the instrument larger. By 1930, the organ had 28,500 pipes, weighing some 287 tons.
Today, the organ is valued at $57 million and has been played by some of the world’s greatest organists.
In the back room with the series of staircases and many of the pipes — it’s behind the facade of the light show — employees, including Mangel, spend every day working to restore the organ and keep it in tip-top shape. “There’s always something to do,” he says.
To get to some of the chests and divisions, which are collections of similarly-sized pipes, employees walk up thin, steep staircases on rickety wood (I nearly hit my head on a low beam) and maneuver themselves into the pipes that are both metal and wood. Old photos hang on the wall of John Wanamaker Jr. and Mary Vogt, the grand court organist from 1917 to 1966.
When Mangel arrived as organ curator 14 years ago, he said only 20 percent of the organ was playable. Today, it’s functioning at 100 percent and several upgrades and improvements have been made. Employees are in the process of replacing some 28,000 pneumatics, which are small devices on every pipe that let air in and out and need to be replaced every 50 years.
Under Mangel, the control system was upgraded about a year ago because in the past, the organist could out-play the instrument because of the time it took for signals to go from the keyboard and pedals to the output. Now, the pipes keep up with the person playing them.
“We’ve pretty much made history,” Mangel says, “really bringing it back to life.”
The light show
Just about 20 yards to the left of the white doors that lead to the maze of organ pipes is a black door that leads into a storage hallway, then through a dark room. On the other side is a dip in the facade of the Grand Court where employees sit to operate the Christmas light show that illuminates characters and the Christmas tree to music multiple times a day.
The show, which began in 1955, has greatly changed over the years. Back in the day, hundreds of small fountains were in front of the organ pipes and, though Mangel says the show was a bit “crude” by today’s standards, it was well ahead of its time.
Today, the fountains are gone and replaced with dozens of Christmas images and characters made of lights as well as thousands of LED lights in six colors that adorn a 40-foot tree topped with a high-powered, electronic star.
Back in the 50’s, the light show was operated by a large control panel manned by four guys pushing buttons and pulling levers.
Now, it’s fully automated with sound files stored on computers (they used to be on CD’s) and, yes, it runs on a custom-made Windows program. While most of the time there’s an on/off switch that runs the light show, the employees will put on custom shows when the place gets busy right around Christmas just to move people through.
In a separate room is where the computer and processors sit that run the show (along with a stuffed bear they call the mascot), and large, high-voltage wiring pours out of the room and to the stage where the Christmas tree sits.
The third floor of Macy’s is home to Dickens Village, a walk-through experience popular with kids that has little animated, moving people that bring to life “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. The village was housed in Strawbridge and Clothier — which was a re-brand before the place opened as Lord and Taylor — up until 2006 when the store was converted to a Macy’s.
Macy’s restored what’s known as Greek Hall, a large room with its own, smaller organ found on the third floor that’s often used for corporate meetings and as an overflow room when the lines at Dickens Village get long. As part of the restoration, Macy’s moved Dickens Village from the Strawbridge’s area right next to Greek Hall.
The mechanical experience is entirely automated and maintained by staff, and also features people in period garb. At the end of the experience that usually comes after kids check out the light show, hear the organ and walk through Dickens Village? Santa Claus.
Mangel says during busy times right before Christmas, they actually have three different Santas sitting behind closed doors for kids and families to file into.
He quipped: “Hopefully the kids don’t find out.”