July 8, 2013 – Once upon a time, in a magical land known as Wanamaker’s, Philadelphians shopped for fine clothes, jewelry and perfume, and everything they needed to decorate and maintain their homes. The department store, the brainchild of Philadelphia native John Wanamaker, was the first opened in the city, and one of the first in the United States.
Wanamaker’s department store opened its doors at 13th and Market Streets in 1877, and by the early 1900s, it became more than a place to shop. Inside its beautifully architected walls, sat the magnificent Crystal Tea Room, where one could dine or enjoy afternoon tea while listening to the famous Wanamaker Organ. The organ became a staple, and then the star attraction at the Christmas light show spectacular each holiday season. It is the largest active pipe organ in the world.
Built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the organ was made to sound like a full size orchestra. Following the fair, the Kansas City Convention Hall intended to buy the organ, but the deal fell through, and John Wanamaker bought it for the store. It took thirteen freight cars to move the organ to its new home, and two years for to build it again to working condition. The organ first played inside Wanamaker’s on June 22, 1911.
Although Wanamaker’s closed its doors in 1995, the organ remains operational and situated in the seven-story courtyard inside the original building. The store is now Macy’s, yet the organ remains the Wanamaker Organ, and has serenaded shoppers for 103 years.
The Wanamaker Organ plays each day, Monday through Saturday at the lunch hour, and more frequently during the Christmas season. The organ also plays a part in several special concerts held throughout the year, including events featuring the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Festival Chorus and Brass Ensemble.
Organist Peter Richard Conte is the fourth person act as musician, and his tenure began in 1989.
“It’s a great gig,” said Conte. “It’s every organist’s dream.”
He adds, “If the Liberty Bell is Philadelphia’s heart, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ is its soul.”
Check out the other options in the lunchtime tourist series. These excursions are perfect if you want to explore Philly on your lunch hour (and work downtown), or if you’re a visitor with an hour or so to spare.