After flying in from being on view in the German arts and crafts exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, this 2,500-pound bronze eagle landed in the Grand Court of Wanamaker’s department store in 1911. For decades, Philadelphians made plans to meet their friends at the eagle for shopping and lunch at the Crystal Tea Room.
Today, the department store at the corner of 13th and Market Streets in Central City Philadelphia is known as Macy’s, but the eagle still stands on his granite perch amid visitors who come to the store to see and hear its legendary organ during daily 45-minute recitals.
The eagle and the organ are two of the ways John Wanamaker became a pioneer of the retail industry. In 1861, the native Philadelphian opened a men’s clothing store known as Oak Hall, running full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines for ready-to-wear clothing that the store’s tailors could alter for a perfect fit. He expanded his business by opening a dry goods store called The New Establishment in 1874. In the coming years, he increased his product offerings to include china, furniture, carpets, sporting goods, art, books, pianos and more.
By the late 1880s, the store popularly known as the Grand Depot had seen its share of firsts for a department store — first to guarantee the quality of its merchandise in print; first to have a guaranteed refund policy; first to open a public restaurant; first to be lit by electricity; first to use a telephone; first to install pneumatic tubes to carry cash; first to install elevators; first to offer mail-order shopping; and first to offer a White Sale during the slow month of January to sell a surplus of bed linen. In later years, the store would feature The Budget Home, which contained two model five-room apartments that were furnished for a range of budgets. Designed like the mirrored shops of Paris, Wanamaker’s Little Gray Salons provided a secluded, comfortable place for women to select their apparel.
The store’s logo was Wanamaker’s signature, and his final message to his associates is still displayed in the Grand Court.In 1901, Wanamaker commissioned Daniel Burnham, architect of Marshall Field’s new department store in Chicago, to design a new building. The 12-story Roman Doric-style structure featured rusticated ashlar siding, a five-story Grand Court and a two-story arched-window arcade.
President William Howard Taft dedicated the Wanamaker Composite Store on December 30, 1911.Wanamaker’s love of music prompted him to include a second-floor Egyptian Hall, which not only housed the store’s stock of instruments, but also was the site of public musical concerts. He also installed an organ that was designed and built for the same St. Louis Exposition of 1904. It was shipped from St. Louis to Philadelphia on 13 freight cars in 1909, and took two years to be installed in the store. It was first played on June 22, 1911, at the exact moment when King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
The Grand Court Organ has 28,500 pipes. The smallest is a quarter-inch long; the largest is made of Oregon sugar-pine that is three inches thick and more than 32 feet long, so large that a Shetland pony once posed inside it for publicity photos.
The two-and-a-half-ton console has six ivory keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons under the keyboards, and 42 foot controls. It has been named a National Historic Landmark and is valued at more than $57 million.
Wesley Parrot, one of the regular Grand Court organists, performed the Allegro and Intermezzo from Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 6; the Finale to Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 4; Psalm Prelude, by Herbert Howells; and Arthur Foote’s Festival March and Night Prelude during the recital I attended.
Free Wanamaker organ recitals take place Monday through Saturday at noon; Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at 5:30pm; and Wednesday and Friday 7pm. No recitals are given on Sundays. Visitors are welcome to tour the console area and meet the performing organist following the concert. Click here for more information, and here to listen to samples.
The Wanamaker Organ Hour, a monthly radio show, airs on the first Sunday of the month from 5:00 to 6:00 pm on Philadelphia’s WRTI-FM and can be heard online here. Archived shows are available here. On Saturday, October 15, Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott will join Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte for a special concert.
For more on John Wanamaker and his department store, see Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle, by Michael J. Lisicky; Music in the Marketplace: The Story of Philadelphia’s Historic Wanamaker Organ: From John Wanamaker to Lord & Taylor, by Ray Biswanger; A Friendly Guide to Philadelphia and the Wanamaker Store, published by John Wanamaker in 1926; and Grand Celebration: The Historic Grand Court Concert for Macy’s 150th Anniversary, a sound recording by Peter Richard Conte. To hear what Richard Elliott, principal organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has to say about the Wanamaker organ, click here.