'Like-new' Kotzschmar organ returns to Portland's Merrill Auditorium

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PORTLAND — After two years of off-site restoration, the historic Kotzschmar Memorial Organ is back at City Hall and ready for its next hundred years.

“It is incredibly different, it has so much more clarity, the colors come through, it is magnificent. It is like new,” Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ Executive Director Kathleen Grammer said Monday about the renovated, refurbished 102-year-old Merrill Auditorium centerpiece.

On Saturday, a sold-out concert featuring municipal organist Ray Cornils and Peter Richard Conte, organist of the Macy’s Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia, will officially welcome back the organ donated to the city in 1912 by publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis.

The Kotzschmar, at one time the second-largest musical instrument in the world and today the country’s oldest municipal organ, will also be heard throughout a season of concerts, including accompanying the silent film “Phantom of the Opera” on Halloween night.

First Friday Art Walk visitors on Oct. 3 will be able to tour and hear the Kotzschmar from 5-8 p.m. On Oct. 5, free tours will be offered at the 18 Myrtle St. venue beginning at 2 p.m.

The restoration required moving 6,900 metal and wooden organ pipes, which range in length from less than an inch to 32 feet, to Tolland, Connecticut, for cleaning at Foley-Baker, a company that specializes in pipe organ reconditioning.

This week, Grammer said, Cornils is working with Mike Foley and Foley-Baker staff on the final tweaks before the concert.

“While they tune every pipe in the workshop, when you bring it back, it is going to sound different in its own acoustic setting,” she said.

The organ facade was also rebuilt and its wind chest – an 825-square-foot, walk-in chamber – made air-tight to allow better circulation of air to the pipes.

“The walls of the wind chest are new, everything above has been renovated and refurbished,” Grammer said. “It is the lungs of the instrument.”

Named in honor of local musician Hermann Kotzschmar, a friend of the Curtis family, the organ was built in Hartford, Connecticut, by the Austin Organ Co.

The restoration and renovation is the first in the Kotzschmar’s history, although the organ was moved twice during auditorium renovations in the 1960s and 1990s.

The $2.5 million renovation project is part of a wider $4 million capital campaign launched in 2011 to restore the organ and create an endowment fund for its care. Grammer, executive director of the Friends since 2006, said the project and fundraising was widely embraced by the board, city officials, and enjoyed strong local business support

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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After two years of cleaning, polishing and restoration in Connecticut, the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ pipes will be heard again at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Saturday night.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.