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Group wants huge organ moved to Palace of Fine Arts

February 23, 2012 6:25:59 PM PST
If you have a storage room or garage at home, chances are you keep all kinds of old stuff in there because you figure you might need it someday, or you just can't bring yourself to throw it out.

The city of San Francisco has a room like that and it contains a monumental pipe organ, an instrument the city once offered to sell for a dollar.

In the timeless environs around San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, listen carefully. With imagination, there are some people who swear they hear residual organ music drifting through there. "An organ will bring out emotions you didn't think you had," organ aficionado Michael Evje says. For him, that music comes from the very same place where almost 100 years ago, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition. It is the sound of an almost mythical pipe organ, 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide, that played concerts for thousands of people there every day. It's an organ you have probably never heard of.

"They have no idea what this instrument can do, or is, I don't think," Vic Ferrer says. And so, the formation of "Friends of the Exposition Organ." Ferrer, among others, has collected the sights, sounds, and memories of that instrument in the hope of hearing it live someday, though that will take some doing. The exposition organ still exists beneath, of all places, San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza. You can find it downstairs behind locked doors in the old Brooks Hall, a room filled with the unused, the unread, the un-researched, and tucked away in the deepest corner, the unheard.

"The tallest pipe is 37-feet long and weighs 700 pounds," Evje says. It is one large pipe among 10,000 of them, 40 tons of organ strewn around the floor. It is a piece of local music history, unclaimed by any city department, cloaked in dust and darkness. The last time the organ played in public in San Francisco, it was 1989 just before the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The instrument's life in limbo began as San Francisco burned, inside the Civic Auditorium which had become the organ's home after the exposition. Evje says a wall collapsed "pretty much covering the exposed pipes with plaster and debris." Restoration work in Hartford, Connecticut took years. By the time the organ returned, Civic Auditorium had a new tenant. So, San Francisco stored the organ in Brooks Hall where it has remained for 18 years, boxed up, ready to reassemble and play, homeless and forgotten now, by all but a few.

It might seem strange to hear such passion for pipe organs, but you would understand better if you sat in a room vibrating with the sound of one. "Pipe organs have this bad rap of being about funerals, weddings, churches, churchy-ness, dirges, and Dracula," Ferrer says. But actually, pipe organ music remains alive and well in the hands and feet of younger players like Keenan Boswell, who is equally comfortable playing a Bach fugue or "Telephone" by Lady Gaga. "My generation's open, much more, to acoustic music than people think we are. And, we just want to hear something real and authentic" he says.

Maybe it's a pipe dream, but Friends of the Exposition Organ would like to see the instrument in the Palace of Fine Arts, a space now occupied by the Exploratorium, which will move in 2013, before a retrofit. Asked what the attraction would be for the organ in a place like the Palace of Fine Arts, Evje said, "Oh my gosh, it'll play every kind of music in the world."

Or, as long as it remains underground, it will play nothing at all, a multi-million dollar civic treasure languishing in silence.


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