Ticket buyers to help fund $2.5M in repairs to historic Portland organ

The 50-ton Kotzschmar Organ is slated to undergo $2.5 million in repairs after the Portland City Council this week approved a bond to help pay for the work. The 1912 organ has nearly 6,900 pipes and its internal wind chest could hold 92 standing people.
Courtesy Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ
The 50-ton Kotzschmar Organ is slated to undergo $2.5 million in repairs after the Portland City Council this week approved a bond to help pay for the work. The 1912 organ has nearly 6,900 pipes and its internal wind chest could hold 92 standing people.
Posted Sept. 08, 2011, at 9:32 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s Kotzschmar Organ, the largest such instrument in the hemisphere when it was installed in City Hall in 1912, is in line for $2.5 million in repairs.

Concert and theater fans who attend performances at the city’s Merrill Auditorium will pay for about half of that.

According to a report provided to the City Council by the organization Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, the enormous wind chest chamber, which must be airtight for the organ to function, is now “in danger of giving out completely” after having been “patched, plugged, taped and caulked” over the years.

To help pay for the extensive repairs, the council on Wednesday approved a $1.5 million bond, the annual payments on which will be offset by continuation of a $2 surcharge on tickets to events at Merrill Auditorium, where the organ is housed.

The surcharge was put in place in 1995 to pay for renovations to the auditorium itself, but that project is due to be paid off “within the next few months” — nearly four years ahead of schedule — according to Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance.

By keeping the fee on Merrill tickets, the council is redirecting the revenue stream, which has ranged from about $200,000 to more than $310,000 annually, to cover the organ rehab and related auditorium upgrades. The Friends organization has pledged to raise the other half of the project costs.

The project will involve disassembling and moving the 50-ton organ for the third time in its history, this time all the way to Tolland, Conn., where Foley Baker Inc. will perform the painstaking work. In addition to a rebuild of the wind chest — in which 92 people theoretically can fit even when the organ is being played — the scope of the project includes cleaning and restoration of the instrument’s nearly 6,900 pipes as well as what a city announcement called “engineering updates to the wind system.”

“This will require untold hours of labor by organ experts with very specific training,” the Friends organization told the council in its report.

Past moves of the organ came in the 1960s and in the 1990s, when renovations were done to the auditorium. Maintenance work on the cavernous wind chest was slated to be done during the latter of the two transports, a fact that was not lost on one Portland resident who addressed the council Wednesday.

“The city ought to have a designated person to oversee the project and make sure the money is spent the way it needs to be in order to ensure we aren’t told in another 12 years or so that the organ has to be taken apart again and rehabbed because it wasn’t done quite right,” Robert Hains told the council.

City Manager Mark Rees told Hains that LaChance, who oversaw the Merrill renovations, will be the city’s point person on the organ repair project as well.

District 3 Councilor Edward Suslovic said members of the Friends organization gave him a tour of the organ before the Wednesday night meeting, as well as a primer on plans moving forward.

“They have a long-term maintenance plan and budget in place to make sure the organ will be maintained in tip-top condition for years to come,” Suslovic, who called the organ a “cultural asset,” told those in attendance Wednesday.

According to the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, more than 60,000 people visit the massive organ every year. If the pipes were laid down end to end, they would stretch 3.6 miles, and the main organ chamber is spacious enough to fit 66 minivans, the Friends website boasts.

Related auditorium upgrades funded by the city as part of the wide-ranging organ project include replacement of the orchestra ceiling battens (for $10,000), painting of the auditorium ceiling ($90,000), purchase of a video projector and screen ($15,000), and installation of an enhanced light and sound package ($250,000).

The council unanimously approved the $1.5 million bond Wednesday night, with Mayor Nicholas Mavodones giving further support for the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ’s capital campaign, timed to celebrate the instrument’s 2012 100th anniversary.

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