was so fascinated she asked volunteer Bob Parkhurst if there was a way she could
help. His reply: “What are you doing tomorrow?” She came back the next day and
has hardly left.
Maul joined a small but dedicated team of volunteers — most, like her, in their
70s and 80s — who have taken on the Sisyphean-seeming task of disassembling,
cleaning, repairing and releathering the world’s largest organ, piece by piece.
Each of the organ’s 33,112 pipes is connected to a pressurized wind chest filled
with leather-wrapped valves that open when a corresponding key is pressed,
activated by electromagnetic relays. Each pipe — from pencil-thin flutes to one of
only two 64-foot stops in the world — connects to between one and five or more
leather valves. That leather has exhausted its 80-year life span and every inch, miles
in all, must be replaced by hand, while the wood and metal also must be refurbished.
The damage began almost from the start. In 1944 the Great Atlantic Hurricane soaked Boardwalk Hall with 40 million gallons of seawater, drowning the organ’s blower motors — the lungs of the great beast —
and rendering its electronic combination action — its brain — inoperable, as it
remains today. After several months of drying out, the organ could safely be turned
back on, but with a war raging across the Atlantic, materials weren’t available for
It functioned fitfully for some years, but its condition declined. During building
renovations, pipes were knocked around, moisture dripped from air conditioners,
and the wire coils that formed the organ’s spine were sheared through. This organ
seemed destined, like thousands of others, for the scrap heap.
Then, about a decade ago, the state of New Jersey chartered the Historic Organ
Restoration Committee (HORC), providing $2 million to begin the decadelong
task of restoring to full working condition the Midmer-Losh, as well as the Kimball
pipe organ housed in the hall’s ballroom. The project began in earnest about two
years ago, shortly before Maul joined the effort.
One afternoon this June, Maul and her co-workers are repairing the Kimball’s vibraharp, a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone connected to a series of wind-activated hammers that strike its keys in the manner of
a piano. Each hammer is held in place by two strips of wood, and Maul is tediously
scraping old felt from each and replacing it with a new strip. With her seemingly
endless supply of energy, she devotes three days a week to organ restoration and
“I can’t believe at my age I have a real love for something like this, but I do,” she
says. “I am behind this 100 percent. I love every minute that I’m here.”
The love Maul and others involved in the restoration feel for the organ is one
shared by those who built the Midmer-Losh in the first place.
Entertaining the masses was in the DNA of Emerson Richards, a New Jersey state senator and attorney who wrote the contracts for the construction of the Holland Tunnel. Scion of a prominent family that became wealthy by
devising a construction method for building on sand using sunken pilings (which
enabled much of Atlantic City’s entertainment empire to exist on a barrier island),
Richards owned several boardwalk bathhouses, where visitors could rent lockers
and shower after a day at the beach, and he lived in a mansion with two pipe organs.
“He was an unbelievably grand man, and everything was easy for him,” says
Curt Mangel, HORC president and curator of the Macy’s/Wanamaker Organ (the
world’s second-largest instrument) in Philadelphia. “He was also a spoiled brat —
you could see it in the way he carried himself. He knew he was good and had
absolute self-confidence in everything he did.”
Richards secured state funding to build Boardwalk Hall, America’s first modern
Top to bottom:
Billie Jane Boyer Maul ’57 assists Dennis Cook,
secretary of the Historic Organ Restoration
The Midmer-Losh organ needed to be large enough
to fill the 5. 5 million cubic feet of space contained
within Boardwalk Hall.
Organist Steven Ball performs at the console of
the Midmer-Losh organ.