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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
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.

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.

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]."

Charles Swisher agrees. Swisher is a San Francisco audio engineer who led a previous effort to restore the organ, before the earthquake wrecked his plans. Shortly after he heard about the outdoor project, he wrote a letter to Willie Brown explaining his distaste for the idea, arguing that weather, traffic noise, the need for constant tuning, and lack of acoustics would all either harm the instrument or prevent it from being heard. "I am afraid for the most part that this great old instrument would end up sitting there, little used, and languish for evermore, just as it did in the Civic Auditorium once the public lost interest in it after 1921," he wrote.

To the project's detractors, temperature is one of the biggest concerns. For all their weight and might, pipe organs are extremely sensitive; small changes in temperature, even over a short period of time, can shift an organ out of tune. "As little as two or three degrees can change the tuning," says Al Sefl, who tuned and maintained the organ in the '60s, when it resided in the Civic Auditorium. "You can start with a nice-sounding organ on a nice summer afternoon, and as the fog rolls in it winds up sounding like an accordion."

Tuning an organ with over 6,000 pipes can be an arduous, daylong process; in relatively stable indoor environments, it need only be done a few times each year. Outdoors, however, ups and downs in temperature call for the tuning to be done more regularly, which could be problematic for the organ in the long run. "The organ has to be kept at a constant temperature," says Charles Swisher, "and you can't keep constantly adjusting reeds. After a while, they get wonky."

Sorting out the details of temperature and acoustics is the job of San Francisco's ROMA Design Group, the pavilion's architects. ROMA President Boris Dramov received a call from James Haas in 1998, asking him to look into the idea of creating an outdoor pavilion for the organ. He is still figuring out what protection the pipes will have against the elements; the pavilion will certainly have a roof and a door to protect the organ when it isn't being played, but other controls are still being dealt with. "It's a balanced approach," Dramov says. "If you were looking for a perfect acoustical environment for the organ, you wouldn't put it outside. But you make compromises. It's not the optimum situation acoustically, but the organ is more available for people to hear. It's more a part of the city. That's a valid trade-off, I think."

Apart from how good the music will sound, some critics wonder how many people will even be able to hear it. The current proposal puts the organ near traffic noise, preserves the grass (it's city park land), and offers little surrounding acoustical support except nearby buildings. When Haas recently received a letter from a San Franciscan concerned that the organ might be too loud, even John Fenstermaker responded with a fear that the organ will, in fact, sound too soft. In an e-mail to Haas, Fenstermaker wrote, "I am worried that the organ will be able to be sufficiently heard with the traffic and urban decibel level. There is some worry amongst the organbuilders and organists that the music will get lost in the general civic din."

Haas argues that issues of acoustics and temperature are surmountable problems. "The organ will be maintained in the proper manner," he says. "Nobody's concerned that we can't do this."

This year, Haas commissioned an acoustical study of the organ's proposed location. The report found average noise levels in the center of the park to be between 63 and 65 decibels, and it argues that the organ will perform at a volume well above that level. The report, in acknowledging that "it is difficult to accurately predict the environmental interference with the organ music," uses as its benchmark an outdoor organ in San Diego.

Haas and others often cite the outdoor organ in San Diego's Balboa Park as a model for the San Francisco project. It is of a similar size, the same age, and also manufactured by Austin Organs, and it draws healthy crowds on a regular basis; according to Lyle Blackinton, the organ's curator, concerts there attract audiences as large as 3,000 people. But the San Diego organ is in several important ways a poor comparison. It is in a relatively quiet environment, with a concrete floor and a colonnade that helps project and control the sound. And, as a number of observers have pointed out, San Diego's weather is much more stable and organ-friendly than San Francisco's.

The acoustical analysis commissioned by the Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Organ concluded that the volume of the San Francisco organ is "likely to be similar" to the San Diego organ. But Lanny Hochhalter, Austin Organs' West Coast representative, says the San Francisco organ will probably be quieter. "The one in San Francisco is not as loud as the one in Balboa Park," Hochhalter says. "The sound is going to drop off very dramatically very quickly outside."

San Diego's is not the only outdoor organ. One other that Haas mentions is in Sonoma County's Bohemian Grove, which every spring plays host to an annual power-broker jamboree. As with all things relating to Bohemian Grove, details about the condition of the organ are hard to come by, but Edward Stout has heard it perform. He politely calls it "curious and entertaining, kind of fun." He also recalls that the organ is placed among a protective "cathedral of trees" in a secluded area and is rarely played outside of the masters-of-the universe gathering.

Haas also cites an outdoor pipe organ in Ocean Grove, N.J. A spokesperson for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, however, says their organ is, in fact, indoors. Haas claims there is an outdoor pipe organ in the Denver Civic Center too. "I don't know much about how that one works," he says, apologetically.

That's understandable. There is no outdoor pipe organ in the Denver Civic Center -- or for that matter in the entire city of Denver, according to Diane Gallagher, dean of the Denver chapter of the American Guild of Organists. "Sometimes an electronic organ will be brought in for summer concerts there [in the Civic Center]," Gallagher says. "But you wouldn't put a pipe organ outside in Denver. That doesn't sound like a good idea."

Before Haas came up with his Music Concourse plan, all sorts of ideas had been considered for freeing the Austin Opus 500 from its prison in Brooks Hall. An airplane hangar on Treasure Island. The Mission District Armory. Even, briefly, Pacific Bell Park. Charles Swisher had suggested donating the organ to a proposed pipe organ museum in Oregon. At the same time, the city of Jacksonville, Fla., had put in a request for the organ if San Francisco didn't want it.

But Haas' proposal has now gained a modest momentum. He has just begun the process of appealing to private donors to cover the estimated $3.5 million necessary to build the pavilion and reinstall the organ, and another $2 million for an endowment to staff and maintain the organ. Public funds have been brought in as well -- through California Assemblywoman Carole Migden, $100,000 of state money has been set aside to finance the plan -- and Haas' proposal calls for the city to put up 20 percent of the pavilion's $472,000 annual operating budget.

Supporters are even trying to wangle $500,000 from the San Francisco Arts Commission -- against the Arts Commission's wishes. The money was originally intended for Embark, a giant sculpture of a foot that was commissioned for Justin Herman Plaza. When the idea was announced, during a slow news week in May 1999, it became a public laughingstock. After the Board of Supervisors voted down the project, Haas asked the Arts Commission to consider using the Embark funds to install the organ.

The Oct. 10, 1999, meeting of the Transportation Commission (which oversees the Arts Commission) took on the matter. Visibly nervous, Arts Commission Executive Director Rich Newirth struggled to explain that an organ installation fell outside of his department's mandate: "Art enrichment" means commissioning new and original works of art. Using Arts Commission funds for what is essentially a construction project, he explained, would set a dangerous precedent; what would stop the city from later asking his department to give money, say, to repair F Market trolleys because somebody thought F Market trolleys were "art"?

Supervisor Bierman, who in various meetings fondly recalled her sister's church-organ playing in her native Nebraska, became agitated. "I'm getting so angry at this whole thing," she snapped. "After it's installed, it's an art project." Supervisor Michael Yaki chimed in, arguing that the organ surely counted as "art enrichment."

"I'd prefer you not call it art enrichment," Newirth said.

Haas spoke on behalf of the project. "Raising $5 million is very difficult," he said. "We've begun to approach private donors, and $500,000 from the Arts Commission is an important sign that the city is behind this."

"Would you be happy if this goes to some other city?" Bierman asked Newirth. "We've worked very hard to keep this organ. To me, the Arts Commission is taking as uncooperative a stance to a music project as I've ever seen. Have you looked at a pipe organ lately?"

"I know it's a matter of splitting hairs," Newirth offered. "But the commission is feeling a threat that this might be a precedent-setting action that could harm the authority of the commission."

Bierman cut off the discussion. "You have turned us down, that's clear," she said dismissively, as if the Arts Commission were a child with whom she was severely disappointed.

At its next meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved urging the Arts Commission to give $500,000 to install the organ.

To Edward Millington Stout III, it's all wasted money. In his mind, as with many other critics, the only logical place for the San Francisco municipal organ is in an enclosed room, not an outdoor pavilion. "I would be very supportive with that organ going into a decent acoustical setting where it could shine forth as it was intended," Stout says.

"Everybody's gotten on this bandwagon that we've got to save the organ -- just for this desperate clinging-on, we've got to save the pipe organs," he says. "But if people don't enjoy it, and if it doesn't speak on its own behalf, people will say, "Why did we spend all this money on it?'"

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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