Organ Failure

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

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.

To play such an instrument, the city hired the world's greatest organist, an Englishman named Edwin Lemare. He played twice a day before packed crowds eager to hear his takes on Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Wagner and his stirring "Stars and Stripes Forever." Lemare's concerts became so popular that in 1917 the city hired him as its "municipal organist," to play regular concerts at the organ's new home in the Civic Auditorium. For the next four years, he played 190 official recitals at the auditorium, and the organ became the cultural center of the city.

The Exposition Organ's debut in the Civic Auditorium 
on Easter Sunday, 1917.
Courtesy of Charles Swisher
The Exposition Organ's debut in the Civic Auditorium on Easter Sunday, 1917.
ROMA Design Group President Boris Dramov, with a 
scale model of the proposed organ pavilion.
Anthony Pidgeon
ROMA Design Group President Boris Dramov, with a scale model of the proposed organ pavilion.

But in 1921, Lemare had a falling out with the Board of Supervisors, which carped about his large salary ($10,000 a year) and at one point obligated him to play at a three-week livestock and trade show before an audience of oinking pigs and the din of newfangled washing machines.

The organ was played sparingly after Lemare's departure, and by the 1960s it had fallen into disuse and disrepair. The Loma Prieta earthquake nearly destroyed it. When the quake hit, the organ lurched a foot forward, tearing the bellows and straining the pipes. It then slammed backward; a large portion of a plaster wall behind the organ collapsed, sending pipes raining to the floor. "The entire instrument was shifted completely out of plumb by the tremendous force of the wall pushing forward as it fell," according to a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which estimated damage to the organ at $1.6 million.

Through a FEMA grant, the organ was shipped back to its maker, Austin Organs, for repairs, but the work was halted after the city's Department of Public Works decided it wasn't worth the cost to reinstall a little-used organ in the Civic Auditorium. The instrument was returned to San Francisco and stored in Brooks Hall, where it has languished ever since.

Restoring the organ and moving it to the Embarcadero is the brainchild of local land-use attorney James W. Haas. A self-declared "behind-the-scenes operative" in local politics, Haas was the chairman of the Committee for a Safe Embarcadero, which successfully lobbied to demolish the Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 quake. He has continued to work on Embarcadero-related projects since then, and one continuing question mark was a small patch of park land at the foot of Market Street, just south of Justin Herman Plaza. Nothing was being done with the area, so in 1998, when Haas heard of the organ's sorry fate through then-Supervisor Sue Bierman, it gave him an idea.

"We had two orphans, in a way," says Haas. "An orphaned park and an orphaned organ. Why not bring the two together?"

Haas worked quickly. Forming the Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Organ, he brought in local members of the American Guild of Organists, respected civic architect Boris Dramov, Supervisor Bierman, and others to promote the idea. Bierman sponsored a resolution officially endorsing the plan, which was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors.

Haas' current vision is that the organ will be played for 45 minutes around noon, two or three times a week, with additional weekend and holiday concerts.

Giving San Franciscans the chance to hear once again such a powerful and treasured instrument would seem a commendable goal, but the project has managed to attract a host of critics among organ aficionados.

"I think it's a dreadful idea," says Edward Millington Stout III, one of the most familiar and respected members of the local pipe organ community. In his 50 years at the profession, the Hayward-based organ builder has worked on (among many others) the organs at the Civic Auditorium, Grace Cathedral, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. He installed the Wurlitzer organ in the Castro Theater and maintained the one at the late, lamented Fox Theater -- which was demolished, organ and all, in 1962. A shoot-from-the-hip conversationalist to start with, he shifts into even higher gear when the proposed outdoor pavilion comes up.

"I think it's a stupid idea," Stout says. "There are some organ weenies who are salivating at the idea of 118 ranks of pipe outdoors, but 30 pipes in a good room would be more effective. The room is part of the instrument -- it is the instrument. Without a room, it'll sound like an old band organ wheezing away without acoustical support, with those chilling fogs and traffic. And they're insistent that the listening area be grass [which could deaden the acoustics]."

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