December 19, 2013

The Wanamaker Organ and Light Show: A Philadelphia Holiday Tradition

  • By: Beth Lennon
View from the lobby in the old Wanamaker's Department Store.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

View from the lobby in the old Wanamaker's Department Store, a National Historic Landmark.

A visit to one of the last remaining downtown department stores during the holidays is considered a must-do for many in the Philadelphia area, and not just for shopping. What is now Macy’s in Center City was once the Wanamaker Department Store, one of the first department stores in the country—and much more.

Only here can you still do your shopping while hearing the reverberation of music from the largest operating pipe organ in the world, and delight in the holiday light show in an historic building. Online shopping doesn’t hold a candle to this experience.

Opened in 1911 by John Wanamaker, the store at 13th and Market is a sight to behold, with its 7-story high marble-lined atrium known as the Grand Court. Wanamaker, thought of by many as the father of modern advertising, was also a collector of unusual and unique items to showcase in his store. Two of these acquisitions have become Philadelphia icons, delighting shoppers for over 100 years.

Closeup of the Wanamaker Organ and console.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

The Wanamaker Organ and console.

The Wanamaker Organ

Known as the largest operational pipe organ in the world with over 28,000 pipes, the organ was built by for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the St. Louis World's Fair.)

After the completion of the fair the organ was to have a permanent home in the Kansas City Convention Hall but those plans fell through, and the organ was placed in storage. Wanamaker purchased the organ in 1909, and the two-year installation was capped off with a visit of then-President Taft to the store.

Plaque commemorating President William Taft's dedication of Wanamaker's Department Store.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

The Taft Star commemorates president William Taft's dedication of Wanamaker's Department Store.

Though the business within the four walls of this historic building ceased to be Wanamaker’s in 1995, a complete renovation of the organ began in 1997. Macy’s has continued investing in the legacy of this important international musical icon since they took over in 2006.

Peter Richard Conte, the Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Organ, attests to the support this national retailer has given to this local tradition: “Macy’s gets it. When they first took over the organ was 15% playable, but with their commitment to this Philadelphia institution, it is now 100% playable.”

Through the decades the store has played host to many famous musicians performing concerts and daily recitals, as well as special holiday programs.

A bronze eagle, acquired in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

Bronze eagle, purchased from the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

Meet Me At The Eagle

Another acquisition from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair is the giant bronze eagle that keeps a watchful eye over the lobby of the atrium. Posed on a granite base and weighing over 2,500 lbs, the floor of the Grand Court had to be strengthened with girders in order to accommodate it.

Now, Philadelphians have been saying, “Meet Me at the Eagle” for over 100 years, as the massive statue has become a place to rendezvous.

Beginning of the Wanamaker Organ light show.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

Beginning of the annual Wanamaker light show.

The Holiday Light Show

With a 3-story magic Christmas tree and an intricate lighting display that extends up to the atrium’s arched ceiling, the holiday light show has been delighting children and adults alike since it was introduced in 1956.

A combination of music, lights, and narration, the show draws everyone in the store together when it overtakes the store every even hour on the hour during the holiday season.

Finale of the Wanamaker Organ's light show.

photo by: Beth Lennon, Retro Roadmap

Grand finale of the annual Wanamaker light show.

Each year has brought changes and improvements to the show, like changing the lighting from incandescent bulbs to LED (at a 90% reduction in energy consumption) while being mindful of the importance of keeping the traditional elements that parents remember from when they were children.

A special treat for many during the holiday season is when the noon Wanamaker organ concert schedule aligns with the popular holiday light show. The massive sound of O’Tannenbaum and other classics ringing throughout the atrium at the crescendo of the show brings even the most hurried shoppers to a stop, making them part of this unique holiday tradition.

Visit the website to plan your visit to the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Center City, Philadelphia. Can't make it there in person? Watch this Retro Roadmap video to see the sights and hear the organ:

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