Deep beneath San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, in a windowless bunker called Brooks Hall, a 40-ton pipe organ gathers dust. Known variously as the Exposition Organ and Opus 500, the century-old instrument was a mechanical and musical wonder when it was unveiled in 1915, the seventh-largest organ in the world.
“The city of San Francisco, this pretentious fishing village, has never respected its own heritage or history.”
Back then, thousands of people a day attending the Panama-Pacific International Exposition applauded its soaring crescendos and rib-rattling swells. Today, the organ’s 7,500 pipes and countless other parts sit silent and in pieces, packed into boxes and crates spread across 3,600 square feet of concrete, basement floor—in some places, the crates are stacked 12 feet high. To prepare a new site for the instrument, move it, put the thing back together again, and then tune it could cost upwards of $2 million, assuming, of course, you could find a home for the finished instrument. So far, no one has.
That may be about to change. Although details are still under wraps, members of a group known as the Friends of the Exposition Organ have told us that after years of looking, they may have finally found a new home for Opus 500.
“In the past,” says Vic Ferrer, a documentary filmmaker and one of the Friends, “we have had discussions with potential takers from as far away as Korea. But this is San Francisco’s municipal organ. It’s the people’s instrument. It has been part of our city for almost 100 years. It belongs here because it’s a part of our cultural heritage, as important to San Francisco as the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately, we have found an owner of a local venue who loves the idea of this one-of-a-kind instrument being heard again in a new, permanent home. Now,” adds Ferrer, “we just have to raise the funds to make it happen.”
Built expressly for the Panama-Pacific, which ran from February to December of 1915, the organ was first housed in Festival Hall, a domed, 3,782-seat, Beaux Arts pile of plaster and burlap that filled and emptied twice a day with enthusiastic crowds eager to hear the great English organ virtuoso, Edwin H. Lemare, work his magic behind the organ’s state-of-the-art console. At the close of the Exposition, when most of the temporary structures built for the world’s fair were destroyed, the instrument was moved to the city’s new Exposition Auditorium, which was built across town near City Hall and paid for with surplus funds from the Exposition. Shortly after its construction, the building was renamed Civic Auditorium and is now known as Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Like Festival Hall, the city’s new Civic Auditorium was designed for Opus 500, which remains the largest, most important non-structural artifact from the Exposition. The first performance in its new home was held on Easter Sunday, 1917, with Lemare again manning the keys, pedals, and stops. The last sound the organ made occurred sometime before October 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake sent a wall of plaster crashing down on its pipes, baffles, and air box, all of which, by a cruel trick of fate, had only recently been restored.
Loma Prieta set neighborhoods on fire, flattened an elevated freeway, and shook a hole in the Bay Bridge, which is why repairing the damage to the Exposition Organ was not exactly at the top of anyone’s to-do list. In fact, it took almost five years for city officials to decide the fate of the wounded behemoth slumbering in the crippled auditorium. Finally, in mid-1994, FEMA funds in hand, all but the organ’s largest pipes and its pair of 20-horsepower blowers (each about the size of a VW Beetle) were trucked to the Austin Organ Company’s Connecticut headquarters, where the instrument had been built almost 100 years before.
Repairs were well under way when, in January of 1995, completely out of the blue, the city of San Francisco’s contractor halted work on the organ, claiming the $1,293,747 in federal monies earmarked expressly for the organ’s repair were now required for asbestos abatement back at the Civic Auditorium, which, by the way, was being remodeled as if the organ would never be returned to its rightful home. Organ supporters cried foul, and a good deal of finger pointing ensued until a compromise was struck to finish the work already in progress back at Austin, but nothing more. After Austin finished its interrupted work, the organ’s pieces were trucked back to San Francisco and unloaded into Brooks Hall, where Opus 500 has languished for almost two decades. In the end, the contractor was able to divert $450,000 in FEMA funds designated specifically for the organ’s repair to other purposes. In retrospect, this diversion of FEMA funds may have been illegal, but it’s way too late to do anything about that now.
Today, about 85 percent of the organ is ready for assembly. Many of its smaller pipes, some as delicate as penny whistles, are still packed in the boxes the Austin Organ Company shipped back to San Francisco in 1995. The larger façade pipes that never made the trip to Connecticut rest on specially designed cradles, while the organ’s longest pipe (32 feet) lays directly on Brooks Hall’s unforgiving concrete floor, the weight of the rolled-zinc pipe’s 600 pounds deforming its tube shape into a bloated oval, resembling a giant, dusty tapeworm rather than an instrument meant to deliver heavenly sounds to the ears of God.
Despite its hard-to-hide size and well-documented history, most San Franciscans have no idea this gargantuan beast sleeps in their midst. Indeed, some of its keenest supporters spent most of their lives in San Francisco clueless to the instrument’s presence. One such supporter is Michael Evje, a classically trained pianist, who along with Vic Ferrer and a former church organist named Justin Kielty comprise the Friends of the Exposition Organ.
“I was having dinner with Justin a number of years ago,” says Evje, “and he mentioned Opus 500. I said, ‘What’s Opus 500?’ and he told me the story. I’m a San Francisco native, but I didn’t go into Civic Auditorium very much, so I was totally unaware that there was an instrument in there, let alone the rest of its history. And I thought, ‘Why in the world is this thing not up and playing?’ That’s when I decided to do what I could to help.”
Filmmaker Vic Ferrer got involved with the Exposition Organ in 1997, when a group of organ enthusiasts were trying to drum up support for a plan to relocate the instrument from its purgatory in Brooks Hall to a new home they were calling the Embarcadero Music Concourse and Organ Pavilion, which was slated to be built near the Ferry Building on the San Francisco waterfront.
“The idea,” says Ferrer, “was to put it in an outside pavilion, much like the Spreckels Organ in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The group was starting to raise funds, and they had an architect who was designing a structure. I decided to document the organ’s story, from its beginning in 1915 to its anticipated grand rebirth on the Embarcadero. Unfortunately, voters nixed the Embarcadero project, of which the organ was only one part, in 2004, and so it never came to be. My story more or less died.”
During the organ’s years in Brooks Hall, successive waves of supporters came and went, from a group associated with the American Guild of Organists to those who had been working for its relocation to the Embarcadero. Often these supporters didn’t agree on what would be best for Opus 500, and in the end, says Ferrer, “everybody kind of gave up on the instrument, and I found myself holding the flame. That’s when I decided to recruit other people who were also interested in rescuing this instrument and bringing it back to life. And so Justin Kielty and I formed the Friends of the Exposition Organ. Justin brought in Michael, and for the last six or seven years now, the three of us have been pushing this project forward.”
Of the three Friends, Justin Kielty, who was a church organist for some 60 years, has the longest relationship with the instrument, going back to the mid-1950s, when he was in high school. “There was a convocation down at Civic Auditorium for the archdiocese of San Francisco,” Kielty remembers. “They used to rent the Civic Auditorium for graduation ceremonies and things like that.”
On one of those occasions, the acclaimed organist Brother Columban Derby was scheduled to play the Exposition Organ. During rehearsal, Kielty and a friend snuck up to the instrument’s console to copy down as many of its 100-plus stops (the knobs pulled to open specific “ranks” of pipes) as he could before anyone noticed. “I had a little brown binder that had the specifications of almost every organ in the city,” Kielty recalls of his youthful hobby. “One that I did not have was Civic.”
Unfortunately for Kielty, the legendary organ master Louis Schoenstein caught the youngster in this benign act. “He was not very happy,” recalls Kielty, in his best deadpan. “He asked me what I was doing, and when I told him I was copying down the specifications, he told me to get the hell out of there.”
As a young man, Schoenstein had helped his family’s business, Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons, install Opus 500 at both the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the Civic Auditorium. Given his long history with the instrument, Schoenstein personally oversaw the care and maintenance of the organ for the city of San Francisco, including keeping its secrets from the prying eyes of smart-aleck high-school kids.
As Kielty remembers it, though, Schoenstein also had a forgiving side, which he revealed later that same day by giving the inquisitive teenager a behind-the-scenes tour of the organ’s air box while the blowers were on.
“It was a fascinating experience,” Kielty remembers, as if it was yesterday. “You’d walk up to a little door, and I mean a little door, and there was a flap in the center, sort of like at a speakeasy where you’d ring a doorbell and someone would peek out to decide whether to let you in or not. When you pushed this hole in the door, the air pressure inside the box would exhaust the air lock, otherwise you couldn’t open it. Then you’d go into a little vestibule with another door beyond that, where you’d do the same thing. Your ears would pop as the little vestibule filled back up with air. Then and only then could you open the door to the main chamber. They used to say you could seat 75 people in there for dinner. As a matter of fact, the Schoensteins, who sometimes had to be on duty all day and night when conventions and things like that were going on, actually used to eat their lunch and dinner in there.”
Today, that chamber is in pieces, waiting to be reassembled and filled with the air that, at the organist’s command, is forced through more than 100 ranks, or groups, of the instrument’s 7,500 pipes.
Despite all these pieces, the Exposition organ is a relatively simple machine. There’s the console with its keys, pedals, and stops, a pair of blowers, the air box, and a whole lot of pipes. The organist sits at the console, which in the case of Opus 500 has four manuals or keyboards (each similar to a piano’s keyboard, but with 61 keys instead of 88) and a pedalboard, whose 32 notes are played with the feet. There are also more than 100 stops, which open up groups of pipes of various pitch when pulled (the manuals dictate the actual notes). While the pedal keyboard generally plays the lower base notes and the manual keyboards the higher registers, together the organ’s pitch-range exceeds that of any other instrument, or even most collections of instruments.
“Any type of organ in storage is in peril,” says Hochhalter. “There are just too many things that can go wrong.”
Regardless of their size, all pipes stand on top of the air box, which is pressurized by two 20-horsepower blowers. When the organist depresses a key or foot pedal, valves called pallets open at the base of the pipes associated with that note, letting the air in the chamber rush through any of the pipes that have previously been made accessible to airflow when the organist pulled open a stop. The console for Opus 500 is designed to send its signals to the pallets electronically, which is why there are more than 100 miles of wire running through the instrument.
The greatest organist ever to sit behind Opus 500’s console was Edwin Lemare, who performed 121 concerts on the organ when it was housed in Festival Hall in 1915. He was paid a then-staggering $10,000 to play the instrument, whose keys and stops were faced with ivory.
Lemare’s tenure began inauspiciously. In fact, according to historian Nelson Barden, it almost didn’t begin at all. In February of 1915, when the Exposition opened, Europe was at war, and the waters around England where Lemare lived had been declared an exclusion zone by Germany. Complicating matters, Lemare’s third wife, Charlotte, was expecting her second child. But Lemare was determined to get to San Francisco, lest his lucrative contract for 100 performances, which were supposed to begin in June, was cancelled. Thus, the family booked passage on the Lusitania, due to leave Liverpool on May 11 after it had steamed across the Atlantic from New York.
As any school kid who has studied World War I history knows, the ship never made it to England, sunk by a German torpedo, killing almost 1,200 passengers and crew. Crossing the Atlantic was now deemed a hazardous trip, but somehow, despite the tragedy of the Lusitania and the hostilities raging around him, Lemare managed to get a ship on August 4. A month later, his family, including his newborn daughter, secured berths on the last passenger steamship to leave Liverpool until the war’s end in 1918.
Against this emotional backdrop, it must have been a serious disappointment to Lemare when only 400 people showed up for his first recital on August 25, 1915. But that would be one of his few concerts not to sell out at 10 cents a ticket, a premium over and above the 50-cent admission to the Exposition itself. By the end of the Exposition, more than 150,000 people had paid their dimes to hear Lemare, which means he raised $5,000 more than his salary for Expo organizers.
Despite its magnificence, the organ was never the draw. Rather, it was what Lemare did with it. His repertoire typically included everything from Bach fugues to his own famous composition, “Andantino in D-flat,” which, in 1921, became a popular song of the day, “Moonlight and Roses” when Ben Black and Charles N. Daniels added lyrics to the melody (Lemare had to sue to collect his share of the royalties). Lemare also took requests, though not for songs or specific pieces of music. Instead, musically literate audience members would write three-bar themes on slips of paper, and then Lemare would choose the ones he liked best and improvise on them. For encores at Festival Hall, Lemare gave the crowds gathered for the world’s fair a deliberately patriotic rouser, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
After the Exposition closed, Lemare was hired as the city of San Francisco’s first, and last, Municipal Organist, for which he was paid his by-now familiar rate of $10,000 per year. At a time when the average annual U.S. salary was only $1,000, and the head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, J. Emmet Hayden, was making $1,500, this rubbed many the wrong way. Indeed, Hayden led the campaign to lower Lemare’s salary. In a bid to appear magnanimous, Lemare volunteered a reduction of own, though not as much as his critics were demanding. By November of 1920, Lemare’s salary had become such a political hot potato that voters approved an ordinance reducing his salary to just $3,600. While still handsome, this new rate struck Lemare as a personal rebuke, so he quitted San Francisco and went off to become the municipal organist of Portland, Maine, and then Chattanooga, Tennessee, each of which had its own Austin organ, which were built in Hartford, Connecticut, by the same Austin staffers who designed and assembled Opus 500. (A two-year, $2.6-million restoration and reinstallation effort in Portland is on budget and on schedule.)
Lemare returned to San Francisco in 1925 to play a sold-out engagement at the Civic Auditorium, but by then, organ recitals had largely fallen out of favor. The sonorous sounds produced by pipe organs seemed tired and treacly compared to the fun, fast-paced rhythms and toe-tapping beats of 1920s jazz, which was widely promoted in clubs and on a recent invention, the radio. In the decades that followed, the Exposition Organ in the city’s Civic Auditorium would be played less and less, a quaint albatross from a bygone era. In some respects, the instrument was already in storage, except that its parts were fully assembled and it was housed in a room designed to bring out its best. But in 1962, even that benefit was eliminated when an ill-conceived remodel of the hall sucked the life out of the organ’s acoustics. Those who heard it before 1962 and afterwards swear the instrument never sounded the same.
Edward Millington Stout III, considered the dean of the San Francisco organ scene, is one of those people who heard Opus 500 before and after the remodel. Stout knows how to get the most out of everything from modest movie-theater Wurlitzers to classical organs like the one at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where he served for 42 years as the institution’s organ curator. For Stout, the reason for Opus 500’s auditory decline after the Civic’s disastrous facelift in 1962 is hardly mysterious.
“Over the centuries,” Stout says, “cathedral designers figured out that the best position for an organ was in the back gallery, halfway up the wall. The position of the pipe chamber, the wind chest, and so forth is crucial. And then, how jubilant the organ sounds depends on the room it’s speaking into, in terms of both its cubic volume and reflective surfaces. So, when they lowered the ceiling in the Civic Auditorium above where the organ sat, it lost a lot of its luster and impact. They basically ruined a fine room by radically changing its acoustics. But the city of San Francisco,” Stout adds, “this pretentious fishing village, has never respected its own heritage or history. The cable cars would all be gone if some ladies hadn’t made a big squawk. It’s an old story.”
For supporters of the Exposition Organ, saving this irreplaceable piece of the city’s heritage is an opportunity to right a wrong, as well as to avoid painful mistakes that lost the city landmarks such as the incomparable Fox Theatre, which was unceremoniously leveled in 1963 to make way for the joyless, 29-story nightmare of an office building that replaced it (silver lining: the Fox’s 4,000-pipe Wurlitzer was saved, and is now housed in Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre).
“Hearing a pipe organ in an acoustically beautiful space, where the bass notes rumble your body and the high notes bloom, will change you,” says Vic Ferrer. “Pipe organs have this bad rap as being about weddings and funerals. They’ve become a joke, like the church lady on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ But that is so far from what a pipe organ really is. These are works of art worthy of preservation.”
After Louis Schoenstein retired and before Loma Prieta damaged the Exposition Organ in 1989, Jack Bethards was in charge of this work of art. “When I bought Schoenstein & Co. from the Schoenstein family in 1977,” he says, “I ended up being the main custodian of the organ, doing most of the tuning and so on. It was a wonderful experience to work on that beautiful instrument.”
Bethards admires Opus 500 for multiple reasons. “First of all, it is a solid, well-designed, beautifully voiced musical instrument. It’s not just a big curiosity. In addition, the Austin organ is a fantastically brilliant bit of technology and invention. It’s efficient to maintain, efficient to build, efficient to install. It’s really a wonder of the industrial age, a marvel of engineering. There’s no concert organ of its type anywhere in California, or even in the West,” he adds.
All of those sterling qualities are expensive, but back in the day, organs like Opus 500 were populist instruments, allowing listeners to enjoy a symphonic concert experience for only a dime. “You have to remember,” says Ferrer, “that not everybody got to go to the symphony back at the turn of the 20th century. A symphonic organ like Opus 500 is capable of producing all the different timbres to mimic what a symphony actually sounds like, allowing the organist to replicate what the composer meant his audiences to hear. The organ was a way for the masses to access Wagner.”
In fact, a quick scan of the organ’s stops, which are the knobs the organist pulls out to open ranks of pipes, reveals the orchestral roots of the instrument. On Opus 500, there are stops labeled Flute and Piccolo, others designating all sorts of flavors of Tuba, Trumpet, and Trombone. The Vox Humana stop produces choirs and choruses, while pulling out Voix Celeste summons strings.
That’s just a sample of what the organ can do, but it’s nothing more than an enormous noisemaker without the right room. “The pipe organ itself is only half of the instrument,” says Ferrer. “The other half is the room the instrument speaks into. The room becomes the sounding board, almost like a piano’s sounding board or the back of a cello. The room influences the sound.”
When the ceiling in the Civic Auditorium was lowered, the acoustic influence was largely negative, which may have been one of the unsaid justifications for kicking Opus 500 to the curb when it was sent back east for repair in 1994. After all, if the thing didn’t even sound like it was supposed to anymore, why bother to reinstall it? But that level of logic assumes that the powers that be actually cared about the Exposition Organ at all. More likely, someone just wanted the floor and wall space, unencumbered by an enormous pipe organ.
“It took up a huge amount of space,” says Lanny Hochhalter, a respected pipe organ tuner and technician, who happened to be working at Austin when more than 30 tons of Opus 500 were scattered about the company’s Connecticut headquarters for repair. “Its footprint was 46 feet wide by 20 feet deep, and it was set on a nice platform above the stage. That real estate probably looked pretty attractive to somebody, or at least that’s my theory.”
Hochhalter also blames changes in musical tastes for the instrument’s eviction, as classical music forms were steadily pushed aside by pop. “When Lemare played recitals on it, they filled up the Civic Auditorium,” he says. “But when he moved on, the novelty petered out. Churches would rent the Civic Auditorium for conventions, and the organ would get played on special occasions, like when the symphony wanted to use it for a particular piece. But the Civic Auditorium is such a vast building. You couldn’t have a normal organ recital in there.”
“Hearing a pipe organ in an acoustically beautiful space, where the bass notes rumble your body and the high notes bloom, will change you.”
“If you wanted to hold a concert in the Civic Auditorium,” agrees Justin Kielty, “you’d have to sell a hell of a lot of tickets. Just to have someone from the union turn on the electric blowers was a $500 deal. To use the Civic Auditorium for even a small concert, you were probably looking at five grand in expenses, at least.”
Despite these negatives, from the lowered ceiling that compromised the organ’s sound to the crazy expense of even turning the thing on, having the instrument exiled to Brooks Hall added injury to insult. “Ed Stout once told me that the worst thing you can do to a pipe organ is to remove it from its building,” remembers Vic Ferrer, “because once you remove it, there will always be nefarious forces out there who will want to keep it from coming back in. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened at the Civic Auditorium.”
Now that a new home for Opus 500 is on the horizon, the Friends are thinking about ways to make sure the organ will never be uprooted again. “We see the reinstallation of the Exposition Organ as an educational opportunity,” says Kielty, recalling the privileged tour he got of the instrument at an impressionable age. “We’re modeling our plans after several other successful pipe-organ installations around the country, in which the instrument is playable but can also function as an exhibit, with windows and access to allow students of all ages to get a behind-the-scenes view of how a pipe organ works. Understanding the basics of wind pressure, pipe design, and the organ’s control mechanisms affords the viewer an extraordinary demonstration of physics, mathematics, metallurgy, and, of course, music.”
Doing everything they can to make sure the Exposition Organ will be secure in its potential new home is critical because the Friends know the clock is ticking. On the most basic level, there’s a strong sense the instrument has worn out its welcome in Brooks Hall, and that the city would like to use the not-insignificant amount of floor space it consumes for other purposes.
“The city has other storage areas where they actually have to pay rent,” says Evje. “What they’d like to do is eventually clear the organ out of Brooks Hall to reduce their outside-storage costs for other things. Plus, there’s a whole generation of people in City Hall who don’t even know of its existence,” says Evje. “It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
Supporters are also concerned about the storage itself. “The things we worry most about are flooding, fire, and vandalism,” says Kielty. “We came close a couple of times on vandalism.”
“Any type of organ in storage is in peril,” agrees Hochhalter. “There are just too many things that can go wrong. For example, the organ’s underground, so if a water main breaks above it, that could easily destroy the organ. We’ve had rats and mice in there, and a few feral cats. All of that can cause damage. And those big, long pipes are meant to stand up. They’re not designed to lay on their sides.”
Time is also not their ally when it comes to the loss of continuity at Austin. “Imagine dismantling a pocket watch and putting it in a drawer for 20 years,” asks Hochhalter, “and then trying to reassemble it. I’ve talked to the guys at Austin, and they’re starting to forget what was done.” Sure, there was documentation, he says, but the erosion of the institutional memory at Austin will only make the remaining repairs that much more difficult, and costly.
And then there’s 2015, the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, perhaps the most important deadline of all. When it comes to bringing history to life for people, a centenary can be a powerful catalyst, prompting press attention and the interest of donors. For the Friends of the Exposition Organ, 2015, now less than a year away, is perhaps their most persuasive call to action to would-be supporters.
“We are on a very, very tight timeline,” says Kielty. “It’s not just a matter of moving this beast into its new home, but getting it up and running again. If pieces have to go back to Connecticut, that will take time. We know the façade pipes are going to need work, and somebody may have to build a few new tuba pipes. All of this is going to take time. You don’t just say, ‘Do it’ and then everything is fixed in a week. It doesn’t work that way. So we’re under the gun, and if we’re going to get it done in time for the celebrations being planned for the Exposition’s centenary, we’re going to have to get moving, like now.”
(Special thanks to the following people and organizations for their help with this article, including research sources and photographs: Jack Bethards; Lanny Hochhalter; Austin Organs, Inc.; Charles Swisher; Nelson Barden; Edward Millington Stout III; and The Seligman Family Foundation. For more information about the Exposition Organ, visit Friends of the Exposition Organ.)