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Kotzschmar's return: Portland City Hall organ hits high note in restoration

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Kotzschmar's return: Portland City Hall organ hits high note in restoration

PORTLAND — The city's Kotzschmar Organ, at one time the second-largest musical instrument in the world and today the country's oldest municipal organ, is getting a second wind – literally.

Installed at City Hall in 1912, the organ began a $2.5 million restoration last year. Now more than 50 percent of the work is done, and the project is on track to be complete by the fall of 2014, according to Kathleen Grammer, executive director of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ.

Workers recently reinstalled the 50-ton instrument's facade, the cupola-capped array of pipes that stretch nearly to the ceiling at the rear of the Merrill Auditorium stage. Repaired and cleaned, the pipes – made by hand of zinc and lead – now gleam with their original yellow-gold color.

"They're gorgeous," Grammer said, as she gazed upward at the center bank of 12 pipes, the only "speaking" pipes in the facade.

The others don't produce sound and are for show, she explained. Most of the organ's nearly 6,900 speaking pipes, which range in length from less than an inch to 32 feet, are behind the facade. A set of 1,500 antiphonal pipes speak from the hall's ceiling. Combinations of different pipes produce an almost limitless variety of sounds; to create the sound of a clarinet, for example, the Kotzschmar uses 61 pipes.

The city displayed the organ at a Sept. 20 press conference, but earlier Grammer led a reporter on a tour of the instrument.

Much of the renovation has focused on the organ's wind chest, an 825-square-foot, walk-in chamber that runs the width of the stage behind the facade. When the organ is turned on, a fan forces air into the chest, causing its movable walls to expand. When keys on the organ console are pressed, the air is released to corresponding pipes, producing sound.

For the wind chest to work properly, it must be air-tight when operating. Leaks reduce the organ's volume and produce an overtone that distorts the music. But after a century of use, the Kotzschmar's wind chest was "leaking like a sieve," Grammer said.

"Most organs undergo renovation after 30 or 40 years, but this one has never been completely overhauled," she said. However, the Kotzschmar was disassembled and moved twice, in the 1960s and in the 1990s, during the auditorium's renovation. The stress loosened the instrument's joints and did other damage.

"Organs are never moved. We've had to play catch up (with repairs) ever since," Grammer said.

The Friends began considering the organ's overhaul in 2007, after consultants found the instrument was in danger of falling apart. Since then, the group has raised $1.25 million for the project, an amount matched by the city though a renewed $2 ticket surcharge for Merrill Auditorium events. As costly as the repairs are, replacing the organ would have been even pricier – as much as $5 million, according to Grammer.

City Manager Mark Rees said the renovation is a good investment.

"Having an asset like the Kotzschmar Organ is really valuable as we pursue (the city's) economic development strategy," he said at the press conference. "It really is an attraction for the types of people we want to attract here and makes us unique."

Inside the wind chest, the results of the overhaul are now plain to see. Hand-made wooden plugs fill holes in the chamber's walls, which are made of Southern pine and poplar. Leather hinges between sections of the walls have been replaced. Moving parts that had warped over the years are now straight and flush. The wind chest has even been restored to its original height of about 8 feet.

As a crew from Foley-Baker, a Connecticut-based organ restorer, made finishing touches to the wind chest, Grammer explained the work that remains.

The console is still being repaired, many more pipes need to be installed, and electrical work must be done – the organ contains 100 miles of wiring. Finally, each of the pipes must be painstakingly re-tuned to the acoustics of the auditorium.

Grammer said the result will be the return of a "national icon," as magnificent as it was when publishing magnate Cyrus H.K. Curtis donated it to the city in memory of his friend, a prominent Portland music teacher, Hermann Kotzschmar.

"One hundred years ago, organs were central to the community, and a primary form of entertainment. Today we have a lot more offerings, and pipe organ music is not as well understood," she said. "But this organ is a survivor. It has a soul."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.