Portland eyes borrowing $1.5M to fix century-old Kotzschmar organ

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PORTLAND — On Aug, 22, 2012, the Kotzschmar organ will be a century old, making it the oldest working municipal organ in the U.S.

Its birthday present may be a $2.6 million make-over.

The City Council is expected to conduct a first reading July 18 of a proposal to borrow up to $1.5 million to help pay for the repairs.

Kathleen Grammer, executive director of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, said the historic organ is showing its age, especially in the instrument’s wind chest.

The wind chest is a sealed, walk-in room that fills with air when the organ is turned on. A 25-watt fan forces air into the chamber, causing the walls to expand. When keys on the organ controller is pressed, that air is released to corresponding pipes, producing sound.

But Grammer said the 825-square foot wind chest is wearing down and leaking air, which produces an unintended overtone that taints the music.

Grammer said organist Ray Cornils recently spent more than an hour trying to track down and repair a leak.

During a tour of the organ last Friday at Merrill Auditorium, Grammer pointed out black tape that seems to cover every seam in the wind chest, which spans the entire width of the auditorium stage.

She said the organ has been disassembled and removed from the auditorium twice, once in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.

“Most organs are never moved,” she said. “It was traumatic for the instrument.”

Now, the friends are looking at an overhaul of the wind chest, and the reconditioning of the more than 6,800 wooden and soft metal pipes, which range in length from 1 inch to 32 feet.

Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance said in a May memo to the Finance Committee that a bond could be paid for through a surcharge on ticket sales for shows at Merrill Auditorium.

LaChance said a $2 surcharge has been assessed on since 1995 to pay for the most recent round of Merrill renovations. That $2.3 million is was scheduled to be paid off in 2015, but the city expects to make the last payment with a few months, she said.

In addition to the organ repairs, upgrades are also proposed for the hall’s lighting, sound and video systems. Also, the front-house ceiling would be painted.

“Currently, Merrill has a very limited sound system and limited lighting,” LaChance said. “Enhancing these systems will make Merrill more attractive to many promoters.”

Grammer said the friends group, formed in 1981 to care for the organ and promote about 18 concerts a year, is planning to launch a capital campaign to cover about half of the costs. In addition to private fundraising, the group will also pursue grants, she said.

Grammer said the project has been in the pipeline since 2007, when a group of seven organists and restoration experts got together to offer a recommendation. The group unanimously said the instrument should be preserved.

“This organ is a survivor, a national icon and it needs to be saved,” she said.

Grammer said the project will likely take 18 months to complete.

If funding is secured, the project would start the day after the organ’s 100th birthday celebration, a week-long event planned for Aug. 17-22, 2012. Events will feature former organ players and will include tours, concerts, workshops and silent films, among others.

Afterwards, the organ will fall silent for about a year and a half.

“We have to take it out of City Hall,” Grammer said.

But 18 months will be worth the wait, she said, for those who want to hear the organ sing.

“It will be pristine,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

Kathleen Grammer, executive director of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, in front of the oldest working municipal organ, in Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.

Kathleen Grammer of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organpoints out tape that has been used to seal leaks in the organ’s wind chest.

Inside the organ

PORTLAND — According to Friends of the Kotzschmar, the organ was the second largest in the world when it was installed in City Hall Auditorium in 1912. It has been upgraded four times over the last 99 years.

Ranks for the swellers and percussion stops were added in 1927; the wind chest was enlarged in 1990; a custom-designed manual console was installed in 2000, and 244 pipes were added in 2003.

The facade, which includes a bust of the organ’s namesake Hermann Kotzschmar, a beloved Portland organist and music teacher who died in 1908, shields the inner workings of the wind chest and more than 6,800 metal and wooden pipes.

A set of 1,500 antiphonal pipes are located above the front-of-house seating area.

Only 12 of the pipes visible from the stage actually produce sound.

— Randy Billings