Location, location, location….an unexpected setting for a story.

As locations go, a department store would make an interesting one for a story, or at least a scene within a story: multiple floors, hundreds of staff (some content; many others disgruntled), thousands of shoppers, rivalry between sections (think a monthly sales target war: luggage vs. lingerie), all those behind the scenes areas.

But add the world’s largest operational pipe organ installed inside the store, and suddenly that location takes on another dimension entirely.

I came across the Wanamaker Organ by chance, but now that I have discovered it, I wonder why and how I’ve never heard of it before.

Stranded in Philadelphia by Hurricane Sandy and desperate to finally get out of the hotel, I found myself walking the city’s streets and decided to take a detour into Macy’s. Formally known as Wanamaker’s Department Store (and many other stores over the years as its fortunes changed), it is home to this amazing instrument. Originally built for the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904, the organ (in a much smaller incarnation) was eventually purchased by John Wanamaker for his store in Philadelphia. With time (and, surely, devotion) it was expanded and extended upwards over seven floors of the building’s atrium. I don’t know much about these astonishing machines, but the fact that it has something like 28,600 pipes in over 460 ranks is enough to convince me that this is a rather special object.

And I’m not alone in that opinion. At 12pm every day, (as well, I have since discovered, as special concerts and events), this organ is played for expectant shoppers and visitors. It is also played for unsuspecting innocents like myself who happen to be rifling through 50%-off Y-fronts. The first unexpected strains of organ music rippling through menswear instantly caught our attention and drew us into the atrium where a smattering of people were craning their necks upwards. As we followed their gaze the organ burst fully into life with that heart-searing resonance that only they can produce. As you can see from the pictures, the main rank of pipes are royally impressive, as are the six (yes, six) lines of keys in the ‘cockpit’ of the machine.

Wanamaker Organ. Philadelphia.



I have no idea how many stops and pedals are required to operate this majestic beast, but it must take an impressive degree of hand/feet/eye/brain/ear coordination.

It took a while before I recognised the piece being played. Could that really be The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? It then took another minute to realise that it was Halloween, and therefore the perfect choice for the occasion.

Sadly, my phone was charging back a the hotel, so I have no record for you of how amazing this experience was; however, this clip will give you an idea of what a giant organ sounds like inside a mammoth department store. It’s a flash mob staged in Macy’s by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and is worth watching for the sheer joy of it.

And this one is of Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice as played on a different organ, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC.

Now that I’m back home my head is reeling with ideas of how to incorporate an organ like this into a story: perhaps one of the guys hired to install it met an unfortunate end inside one of the giant pipes; or how about that ageing make-up counter assistant who spends hours applying her ‘face’ every morning? She once had dreams of becoming an organ player but was sent out to work by her desperate parents and this is as close as she can get to realising her dream; then again, imagine a bitter rivalry between two virtuoso organ players, both bent on having the honour of playing a world premiere of a new piece written for that one instrument.

The possibilities…..and all that from a chance encounter with a giant called Wanamaker.

3 comments on “Location, location, location….an unexpected setting for a story.

  1. John Wiswell says:

    Wow! This is positively most neat. Thanks for sharing the reflections and the shots of it. Organs are such evocative musical instruments, even to my damaged ears. The notion of a record-holding one is attractive.

  2. Wow that’s amazing. What a wonderful thing to have for the shoppers to enjoy!

  3. Hi Justin — what a fantastic thing: 7 floors of Phantom of the Opera in a department store. Who would’ve thought? St.

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