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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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Page 3 of 4

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.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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