Portland’s Mighty Kotzschmar Memorial Organ Prepares for Comeback

Sept. 27 will mark the historic organ’s triumphant return to its home in Merrill Auditorium.

In September, the mighty Kotzschmar Organ in Portland’s Merrill Auditorium will make its triumphant return to its home after a two-year out-of-hall renovation costing $2.5 million. It will be a historic, joyous occasion. The Kotzschmar was donated to the city of Portland in 1912 by Cyrus H.K. Curtis, in honor of his music teacher Hermann Kotzschmar, and was at the time the largest concert organ in the Western Hemisphere. One of the first municipal organs, it was followed by hundreds more in American cities large and small. These served as surrogate symphonies and providers of music of all kinds: popular, opera and the symphonic literature as well as “pure” organ music.

Of them all, today only two remain: Portland’s Kotzschmar and a similar, smaller, sister organ in San Diego, California. That organ, the Spreckles, is installed in an outside venue near the San Diego airport. While a century ago, nearly every city that had a municipal organ also had a municipal organist, there also remain only two today: Ray Cornils, who has presided over the Kotzschmar for 25 years, and his counterpart in San Diego.

The road to a complete renovation for the Kotzschmar was not an easy one. In 1981, the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, Inc. (FOKO) was founded to support the organ, which by then, like so many others, had fallen on hard times. Only about half of its more than 7,000 pipes were then in working order. Over the years the Friends gradually brought the instrument back to decent playing condition, but as its 100th anniversary was arriving, it became clear that if it were to survive for another century and even another decade, serious work needed to be done. In partnership with the city of Portland, the Friends raised the necessary funds.

After a “Grand Centennial Closing” series of concerts, lectures and workshops in August 2012, the organ was shut down, removed from Merrill Auditorium in its entirety and shipped to the Foley-Baker Co. in Tolland, Connecticut. The massive instrument and its tens of thousands of parts and pieces filled up 18 tractor-trailer loads!

In the hands of skilled craftsmen, who practice an ancient but highly sophisticated art, every part of the organ has been rebuilt, renewed and rewired. The total renovation is now almost complete.

The organ will be first heard during its grand re-opening concert Sept. 27. Interest in this wonderful instrument has been growing steadily over the last several years. More than 60,000 people annually hear it in all manner of situations. Every graduate of Portland and Deering high schools for generations has marched across the stage to the sounds of the Kotzschmar. Thousands more each year have heard it in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s iconic “Magic of Christmas” concerts. Many thousands more have enjoyed the silent movie series presented by the Friends. And, of course, most people hear it doing what it does best – playing the grand organ literature of the centuries, both classical and popular.

Looking to its bright new future, the Kotzschmar will be heard more than ever before. Its gorgeous palette of sounds – ranging from the softest ethereal strings in the ceiling to the booming roar of the 32-foot-long pipes – will be clear and crisp. Its brand-new walk-in wind chest will no longer leak air, hiss or moan. In its famous “Toy Box” the xylophones, marimbas, snare drums, harps and cymbals will be at the ready, along with new sounds including a train whistle, a doorbell, a car horn, some birds, hoofbeats and a fire gong! Several new ranks of pipes have been added, including a row of huge wooden pipes with thunderous bass sounds. The organ and its massive innards will be open to the public for tours on a regular basis.

The Kotzschmar is not just a beloved Portland icon. It is a world-renowned instrument that attracts the highest-quality players from around the globe. The combined efforts of Friends and the city of Portland to renovate it have caught the attention of cities nationwide. When the last pipe is finally installed and the organ roars forth in September, much of the music world will be watching. They will not be disappointed. May our grand Kotzschmar live and thunder for another 100 years.

— Peter S. Plumb, FOKO Founding President

Featured in the Portland Press Herald in July, 2014

Phil Carpenter of Foley-Baker deftly carries in a bass pipe.
Phil Carpenter of Foley-Baker deftly carries in a bass pipe.