The labor-intensive process of refurbishing and reinstalling Portland’s world-famous Kotzschmar Organ continues behind the scenes at Merrill Auditorium. The two-year, $2.6 million project is beginning to show itself publicly, and the group overseeing the project says a September deadline for completion is on target.
The windchest has been rebuilt, about a quarter of the organ’s nearly 7,000 pipes have been installed, and workers are busy rebuilding parts of the infrastructure that supports the organ. This week, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ will announce plans for its 2014-15 concert season, including a gala celebration Sept. 27 that will include a piece of music for organ and brass commissioned for the occasion.
In addition, the golden pipes that form the organ’s visible facade have been washed, repaired and returned to their place of prominence at the back of the Merrill stage.
January has seen a flurry of activity because of the slower performance schedule at Merrill after a busy holiday season.
“We’re moving along, right on schedule,” said the organization’s executive director, Kathleen Grammer. “We have to work around the Merrill schedule, so the next big window is June. We’ll bring the rest of the organ back then and reinstall it. We’re on target for our September celebration.”
Most of the organ remains in Tolland, Conn., home of Foley-Baker Inc., the organ company that is leading the project. Foley-Baker began removing the century-old organ in August 2012, and has spent most of the past 18 months cleaning, fixing and refreshing the grand instrument.
The Kotzschmar is one of the more famous organs in North America, and one of the signature components of Portland arts and cultural life.
David Wallace, a Maine-based organ maker hired by Foley-Baker to assist with the project, said he felt honored and privileged for the opportunity to participate.
“I am so happy this has happened in my lifetime,” Wallace said Monday. “I saw the organ at its worst, back in 1980 or ’81. It’s thrilling to see the shape it’s in now, and I can’t wait to hear it when the project is complete. It will survive the next 100 years better than the first 100 years because we are more savvy about taking care of it. That’s the legacy we are leaving for the next five generations.”
The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ formed in 1981, during those dark days that Wallace talked about. The organization led the effort to secure funding for this project. The city approved bonds for half the $2.6 million cost, and the friends are raising money to cover the rest.
Over its first century, the organ was moved twice for renovations to City Hall, including a major renovation in the 1990s that resulted in the creation of Merrill Auditorium. Among other things, the windchest was damaged, resulting in leaks that diminished the capacity of the organ.
The organ was dedicated in August 1912, a gift to the city from Cyrus Curtis, who grew up in Portland and made his fortune in publishing. Curtis named the organ for his friend Hermann Kotzschmar, a native of Germany who came to Portland in the mid-1800s and stayed in the city until he died in 1908. He taught music, and was among the first arts advocates in the city.
The organ was the first municipal organ built in the U.S., and Portland remains one of two cities in America that own an organ and employ a municipal organist. San Diego is the other.
Almost all other municipal organs have been lost to time and neglect.
Part of the Kotzschmar story can be told with numbers.
It has just fewer than 7,000 pipes, which are made of wood and various kinds of metal. Some are very large, others the size of a pencil. Most of the pipes visible from the auditorium are for show. Only a handful that patrons see function.
The organ has 100 miles of wiring, and its various components weigh about 50 tons.
Its windchest, which supports the pipes above it, is the size of a tractor-trailer. Leaks in the windchest, which resulted from neglect and structural alterations over the years, diminished the organ’s capacity. In order to rebuild the windchest, Foley-Baker had to remove all the pipes and the mechanisms that control them. Given that, it made sense to refurbish all elements of the organ.
When it is reinstalled, it should sound richer than at any time since its original installation in 1912, Grammer said.
“Every time I come back into the organ I find myself in awe of what has been accomplished,” she said. “I just can’t wait to hear the sound when they first turn it on. This generation has never heard the magnificence of this instrument as they will when it comes back.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at