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Organ Failure 

An ambitious plan to relocate a historic pipe organ to the Embarcadero threatens nothing but sour notes

Wednesday, Dec 26 2001
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Walking inside the massive pipe organ at Temple Emanu-El in Laurel Heights, organist John Fenstermaker is trying to be careful. He crouches as he moves under the low wooden railings that secure rows of wood and metal pipes, and he steps gingerly over the large air ducts that snake around the floor. Those ducts all feed into the powerful high-pressure bellows that breathe into the organ's 6,000 pipes, which range from a towering 30 feet tall to no longer than a toothpick.

A stray metal pipe, big as a pencil, lingers on the concrete floor, and Fenstermaker picks it up. "I'm doing a bad thing," he says. By merely holding it in his hands, he explains, he's changing the temperature of the pipe and therefore its pitch. He blows into the pipe, and it emits a healthy chirp.

Walking back to the organ console, Fenstermaker shows off what happens inside a pipe organ when it's played. With the sinister opening bars of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the organ slowly swells to life. A wall of wooden shutters flaps open and closed, controlling the volume. Bellows heave. Here, a "rank," or grouping, of metal pipes sings softly; there, the huge wooden pipes growl. When Fenstermaker hits the low bass notes feeding the tallest pipe -- a full octave below a piano's lowest note -- the floor begins to shudder. Watching -- feeling -- it happen is at once a breathtaking and a creepy experience. Tweak the lighting a little and you can set a horror movie here.

Or, perhaps, a fund-raiser. "You know, I imagine people would pay money to see the inside of this," Fenstermaker says after he's done with his sampling of the organ repertoire. Fenstermaker is one of a handful of locals who are hoping to convince donors that a pipe organ is something worth investing in, and the one they have in mind is in desperate need of help. Since 1915, the city of San Francisco has owned a pipe organ that, by all accounts, is one of the finest ever built. After a checkered history in the Civic Auditorium, it was all but destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and has since been mothballed, in pieces, in Brooks Hall.

But a group of civic boosters has an ambitious idea for restoring the San Francisco municipal pipe organ. Their grand plan is to install it outdoors, as the centerpiece of something they call the "Mid-Embarcadero Music Concourse." The Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Organ is planning to house the instrument in a stately enclosure on a patch of city land near the Ferry Building. By the summer of 2003, they envision regular noontime concerts that will draw hundreds or thousands of people from their downtown offices, energizing the area and even reviving interest in pipe organs in these pipe-organ-unfriendly times.

It's an enticing picture, except for one small detail -- many local organ lovers are appalled at the idea of putting such a magnificent and delicate instrument outdoors. They fear the project will be at best a civic embarrassment and at worst an unusable nightmare. Organ pipes are notoriously sensitive to temperature changes, and installing them outside, detractors say, threatens to put the pipes constantly out of tune, ruining their sound and, critics fear, causing permanent damage over time.

Besides that, most organ experts say, the municipal organ may have trouble being heard; it could be muffled by terrible acoustics and drowned out by nearby traffic. Even Fenstermaker, who supports the project, has his concerns for the organ. "It was designed to play in a reverberant room," he says. "People always say the most important stop on the organ is the room it's played in."

Despite those concerns, the project is being pushed through by local promoters and politicians, including Mayor Willie Brown, who celebrated the concept at a 1999 press conference. Standing before a scale model of the plan, he proclaimed that "the organ will be the centerpiece of the Music Concourse and will be there for all to enjoy in perpetuity. ... It is an incredible achievement, frankly, and it's something we're going to be very proud of."

He gestured at the scale model.

"Feast upon it here," he said, "because you will soon be using it there."

And that, ironically, is the biggest fear of many organ lovers. Despite everyone's good intentions, they say, moving the organ outdoors may simply be the final insult to an oft-insulted instrument and one of the finest symbols of San Francisco's old grandeur.


San Francisco's municipal pipe organ is nearing its 87th birthday. It was originally a gift to the city, the centerpiece of the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, which was officially meant to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, but which San Francisco hoped would showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake and buck up the spirits of a nation edging toward World War I.

Everything about the fair was larger than life: the grand architecture (of which the Palace of Fine Arts is the sole remaining structure), 25 theaters showing the latest in motion-picture technology, and even the world's biggest wheel of cheese, weighing in at 5 1/2 tons.

And in Festival Hall, the city installed one of the world's largest pipe organs.

Its given name is Austin Opus 500; it was the 500th organ produced by Connecticut-based Austin Organs, which still builds and maintains organs today. It boasted 117 ranks holding 6,546 pipes, the largest of which were 32 feet tall, cut from specially commissioned pine. It featured four manuals, or keyboards, and nearly 300 stops that could call up the sounds of tubas, flutes, and cellos -- or, if you pulled out all the stops, an entire symphony. There were 10 "windchests" that fed the bellows; in the largest one, an Austin brochure boasted, "it would be quite possible to seat comfortably at tables and serve a banquet to 75 persons." Taken together, the organ weighed 40 tons. It was, at the time, the seventh-largest pipe organ in the world.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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