PORTLAND — It wheezes and the pipes are a little weak, but what else would you expect at 98 years old?

The Kotzschmar organ is in need of an overhaul and the organization that supports the operation of the huge instrument hopes to start the $2.5 million job right after it turns 100.

“It’s a survivor,” said Kathleen Grammer, executive director of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, which has been housed in Portland City Hall’s auditorium since 1912.

The Portland City Council will vote next month on floating a $1.5 million bond for the job, with $1.25 million for the organ and $250,000 for some upgraded light and sound equipment for Merrill Auditorium. The city’s money will come from continuation of a $2 per ticket surcharge, which has been used to pay off part of the cost of the renovation of the hall, which was completed 15 years ago.

The friends group plans to announce details of a fundraising effort for its share of the cost of the overhaul next month, Grammer said.

The organ will continue to be in use up to its 100th anniversary on Aug. 22, 2012, Grammer said, and then be out of commission for 18 months for repairs.

Grammer said the only other municipal organ in the country is in Balboa Park in San Diego. She said most large pipe organs get a thorough overhaul every 40 to 50 years, but the Kotzschmar has never had one. It was, however, moved a couple of times to accommodate the auditorium renovation, and that created or exacerbated problems.

The wind chest, a box-like structure that sits under the pipes and forces air through them, has developed leaks, she said, that can no longer be patched over.

“It’s like having a hole in your lung — you don’t breathe as well and your vocal chords don’t work as well,” she said.

Listeners, she said, can probably detect a wind-like sound when the organ is being played, a sign that the leaks are serious.

Beyond that, many of the pipes are sagging due to metal fatigue, the slots that the pipes sit in need to be fixed and the pipes need to be thoroughly cleaned, Grammer said.

Councilor John Anton, whose Finance Committee recommended the bond and the allocation, said he supports the overhaul of the organ.

“The organ is a very special piece,” he said. “There’s only a few of these left in the country and it’s one of the centerpieces of Merrill.”

Grammer said the problems have made the organ “90 percent” playable, meaning organists have to be careful about which pieces they play, in order to avoid those that require using parts of the organ that aren’t completely operable. It’s comparable to playing a piano with a few dead keys, she said.

“It’s not sounding the way it’s supposed to sound,” she said.

The organ’s centennial, she added, is an appropriate time for work to be done to get the Kotzschmar sounding the way it did in 1912.

“It’s a historic landmark and a national icon,” and deserves to be restored to fully playable condition, Grammer said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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