Groups work to save Portland’s 100-year-old, 50-ton Kotzschmar Organ

Posted Sept. 21, 2013, at 8:47 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 21, 2013, at 6:32 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — To understand the scope of the $2.5 million renovation of Portland’s century-old Kotzschmar Organ, touted as one of two municipal pipe organs left in the country, one must step inside the instrument.

At 50 tons, the organ includes a 60-foot-long, 10-foot-wide windchest that fills with pressured air and then — when an organist plays — releases that air through any of 6,800 tuned pipes overhead. The intricate operation is controlled by wired connections to the organist’s console, making the instrument something like an ancestor to today’s supercomputers.

On Friday, Portland city officials and members of the organization Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ offered media tours of the massive instrument to mark the progress of the restoration project.

Just more than a year ago, after a week of activities and concerts celebrated the organ’s centennial, the instrument was disassembled and transported by four tractor-trailer trucks to the Connecticut home of restoration firm Foley-Baker Inc.

Now, thousands of restored or replaced valves and wires and springs and levers are being fitted back inside the cavernous organ, representing a chronological halfway point in what is expected to be a two-summer renovation.

“This summer Foley-Baker has been doing what we call the mechanical installation. All of the mechanical functions of the organ are complete, they’re renovated, and almost all of them are now inside the organ working,” said John Bishop, head of the Friends group’s organ committee, which is overseeing the project. “Next summer will come the rest of the pipes and the rebuilt organ console, so the organ can be turned back into a functioning musical instrument.”

Bishop said the Friends organization learned the organ was failing in early 2007 from consultants who evaluated it as the group began planning for additions to the piece. The news was bleak, he said.

“It was a big deal for the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ to wrap our brains around the idea that we were facing a project of this size,” he recalled. “We had some conversations about whether the organ would actually fall down without the renovations. We’re pretty sure that it wouldn’t have, but at the same time, we didn’t think it was safe.”

The Friends group set out to raise $1.25 million for the project, an amount matched by the city of Portland, which renewed a pre-existing $2 ticket surcharge for Merrill Auditorium events to offset its half of the renovation costs.

“There’s no secret that the budgets of Portland, Maine, are strained by things other than organ maintenance,” said Bishop. “I think it means a great deal to the public that the city is behind this.”

City Manager Mark Rees called the project a worthwhile investment that dovetailed with city goals adopted several years ago as part of Portland’s economic development plan.

“We found we were unique as a haven for artists and writers, and we wanted to build on that,” Rees said. “Having an asset like the Kotzschmar Organ is really valuable as we pursue that economic development strategy. It really is an attraction for the types of people we want to attract here and makes us unique.”

The organ was given to the city in 1912 by publishing magnate Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, whose early publications included Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, and named after the local 19th century icon and donor’s namesake, Hermann Kotzschmar.

“He was like ‘The Music Man’ of Portland for 50 years,” Kathleen Grammer, executive director of the Friends group, said of the popular musician Kotzschmar. “He was central to this culture of this community.”

The alternative to repairing the organ that carries the legacies of those men forward, Rees said, “would have been a terrible loss to the city.”

When installed, the organ was the largest such instrument in the Western Hemisphere, and it remains only the second municipal pipe organ left in America, Bishop said. The other is in San Diego, he said.

Now, the Universal Windchest inside the Portland organ is enjoying new life after having been “patched, plugged, taped and caulked,” according to a city announcement.

In about a year, it will be ready for concerts again.