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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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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."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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