May 23, 2016

Photo Essay: The World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ

Although many of the buildings from the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17 were built with the intention of tearing them down after two years, there were a couple of "anchor" structures that were always meant to be permanent.

The California Building (now the San Diego Museum of Man) was one, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion was another.

In fact, as the "World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ," it still embodies that "World's Fair" type ethos—a long-standing testimony to the progress of man.

It's an achievement for sure, but it's technology is a bit antiquated now.

Most pipe organs you find are in churches and theaters—and, even then, many of them have been removed, displaced, disassembled, lost.

But a park as big as Balboa deserves a music pavilion as big as this one, and their current civic organist has managed to attract crowds (sometimes of 1000 or more) with somewhat more contemporary repertoire, even paying tribute to David Bowie after his death.

There have been free organ concerts in the park every Sunday since it opened (with the exception of when the Navy took over during World War II), but on this particular Sunday, we had the opportunity to brunch with the Spreckels Organ Society and take a tour of the organ itself—behind the pipes.

On the outside, the pavilion is a relatively conventional Italian Renaissance (whereas the rest of the park introduced Spanish Colonial to the people of San Diego), with stone ornamentation by the Tracy Brick and Art Stone Company of Chula Vista.

Its setting may not technically be ecclesiastical...

...but—like the California Building—it certainly feels like being in church.

The main pavilion structure—which serves as both band and bandshell—is relatively monstrous at 75 feet tall. Then again, it needs to be, with all those pipes it houses.

The organ console has been upgraded and improved throughout the years, with various stops being added...

...and each new civic organist having their own take on how to play it.

Some might choose to play it very loud, or very soft, depending on the tremulants they use.

Regardless of the organist, there's a certain hand-to-foot coordination necessary in order to operate the keyboards and pull the stops with hands and to press pedals and compensate for busy hands by using the feet. It's a full-body workout.

The inside of the pavilion structure acts as a kind of museum and hall of fame, displaying lots of historic photographs and artifacts.

It also houses the civic organist's office.

But most importantly, this is where all those pipes are—the tiniest of them measuring smaller than the size of a pencil.

But any good pipe organ (especially one as big as this) doesn't just play music by pumping air through pipes. It also gives its organist the opportunity to bang the drums...

...ring the chimes...

...crash a cymbal...

...strike the triangle...

...and sound the horn.

This is also where the compression chamber is—and entering it through a two-step pressurization process feels a bit like gaining access to a bank vault.

In there, the bellows are pumping air...

...and there's an intricate nerve center of electronics...

...where parts move systematically, like the inner workings of a clock...

...somehow creating a symphony of organized chaos that can project clear across the park (without the help of speakers).

It was a big statement at the time that it first opened, on New Year's Day 1915—just as John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels (sons of the wealthy "Sugar King" Claus Spreckels of San Francisco) intended it to be, when they spent around $100,000 on it as a gift to "the people of the world" and "the people of San Diego." (Adolph unfortunately passed away before its opening.)

In fact, without the contributions of multi-millionaire John Spreckels (at one point the wealthiest man in San Diego), the Exposition in Balboa Park may have never happened.

But the organ pavilion is the only thing that bears the Spreckels name—in Balboa Park, that is. His legacy also includes the Spreckels Theatre Building in Downtown San Diego and the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado (now operating at the Glorietta Bay Inn), which is situated right behind his Hotel del Coronado, whose candy shop is also named after him.

At the organ's grand opening, it started with 3400 pipes—and, in the time since, it has swelled to over 5000 pipes, edging a 1931 organ in Austria out of the top spot by adding 280 pipes, making it the world's largest in its centennial year.

Your move, Austria. You've got to add 57 pipes to reclaim your status.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: First Congregational Church Organ Crawl
Photo Essay: The View from Above Balboa Park's Former Expo Grounds
Photo Essay: Taking a Spin Into the Last Century in Balboa Park
Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour
Photo Essay: The Musical Instruments of the Nethercutt Collection

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