Ask an organist what pipe organ is the biggest in the world is, they will tell you the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ; now called Boardwalk Hall Organs. The organ was the dream of Senator Emerson Richards and built by Midmer-Losh of Merrick, Long Island. It holds the record for being the largest and loudest musical instrument ever built. It was said the full organ was a “wall of sound”. Hearing 20% of the organ working in February of 2017 I can testify to this being an accurate statement! The pipe organ has four reeds voiced on 100 inches of wind. This is a mind-boggling wind pressure. The organ officially has 33,112 organ pipes. But, biggest and loudest does not mean best or quality. The quality of design and workmanship of the organs in Boardwalk Hall is clearly evident. The Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ might have remained an almost mythological instrument as mysterious as the wizard of Oz’s organ. Much folklore surrounds the instrument. One story was, having to call the electric company to turn on an extra generator when the organ was played – this was sort of true, but that is for the next blog post. The Worlds Biggest Pipe Organ was born a pipe dream but its restoration remained a pipe dream.
In the spring of 1943 a series of half-hour organ recitals were played in the Atlantic City Convention Hall and they drew large audiences. The organ was very popular. This was ended abruptly in September of 1944 by a hurricane. Funds to repair the damage to the pipe organ were re-directed to the public-address system in the hall. The Atlantic City Organ was left barely playable. The organ lived on in the minds of organists all over the world! Many dreamed of its restoration. Throughout history there are dreamers and doers. Then there are dreamers who do things in a highly planned and organized manner. The latter are those who normally turn dreams into reality.
The Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society was created to raise awareness of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ. In 2002 the organization published “Atlantic City’s Musical Masterpiece. The Story of the World’s Largest Pipe Organ” by Stephen D. Smith. They started the ball rolling. They over saw protecting the organ during the halls renovation and started to repair the organ.
In 2013 Dr. Steven Ball was named organist. In 2014 the Historic Organ Restoration Committee was formed as a 501 c3 entity. Curt Mangel was elected the organization’s President. In 2015 Nathan Bryson became the fifth Curator of Organs at now “Boardwalk Hall”. Many people who were directly involved in the resurrection of the second largest pipe organ in the world, The Wanamaker Organ, are now working to restore the biggest pipe organ in the world in Boardwalk Hall.
Visiting the organ in September of 2009 and then again in February of 2017 the fruits of all of these people’s efforts are plainly obvious. In 2009 the right chamber barely functioned and the left chamber did not function at all. Through the social media posts I was delighted to hear the organ. I met Nathan Bryson and some of his team at the 2016 AIO (American Institute of Organbuilders) Convention in Boston. Nathan Bryson extended an invitation to visit the hall and see the organ.
In February of 2017 I traveled from Washington DC to Atlantic City. The instrument was about 20% playable, but what was there was not what I expected at all. The organ still had many problems but the improvement from 2009 was remarkable. What I didn’t hear but saw impressed me more. The swell division pipes had been entirely removed. The organ pipes were all being cleaned and receiving new tuning slides. The actions had been releathered. The leather work that I saw was immaculate. Walking through the Swell Organ with Nathan and Curt I could not help thinking that just the Swell Organ was much bigger than some very large pipe organs. Curt proudly showed me the recreated/redesigned swell motors for the shades.
The quality and intelligence of the original tonal design, pipe construction and voicing is something I doubt anyone expected from any American Organ Builder of the 1920s. The principal choruses are well developed with very well voiced mixtures. The great choruses are almost like a Flentrop on steroids! Dr. Steven Ball said the Midmer-Losh organ in Boardwalk Hall was the first American Classic Organ. I think there is a lot of accuracy in that statement. The organ is sort of like a Sauer Organ with highly developed choruses and tons of symphonic voices. The amount of sound energy that just the functioning 20% of the Midmer-Losh in Boardwalk Hall outputs is tremendous. It doesn’t scream like a 1960s Moller organ. It just speaks with massive chest tone.
Had it not been for the vision of many dedicated organists, organ builders and people who love pipe organs the Midmer-Losh might have ended up as scrap. Through the efforts of many this pipe dream will be made real one day and we will all rejoice. JAV Recordings plans are to visit the organ every six months for an audio/video update.
To dream is one thing, to dream, plan and take action is another.