organ is playable. But the task ahead remains immense.
Besides taking apart and reassembling a 150-ton instrument,
restoration volunteers say the most difficult challenge lies in
revealing the organ’s true potential. After all, the forest of pipes
and labyrinth of air ducts and wires comprising the Midmer-Losh was not designed to be seen. “The artistic meaning of
everything is not what you see but what you hear,” says Ball.
“There is sound color here that exists nowhere else, and
we don’t know how those colors sound because they haven’t
been heard since 1944,” he adds. “The organ as an instrument
requires a corporate listening experience — there’s only one
place you’ll be able to experience this instrument, and that’s
in Boardwalk Hall.”
This means that people like Maul, who in addition to her
restoration work leads daily summer tours of the organ and
coordinates silent-film screening fundraisers, are vitally
important to the project.
“Billie Jane believes so passionately in our community, and
she takes ownership of the things she believes in,” says Ball.
“I think that represents all the best that a Bucknell alumna
Maul recognizes the long path ahead — the restoration
project is expected to conclude in 2023 and needs millions
more in funding to stay on track. But Maul believes the
committee will reach its ambitious goal, and she’ll be there to
lend a hand as long as she can.
“I get nothing out of this but pleasure in knowing that
my hometown has this fabulous instrument, this fabulous
building, and I can be a part of promoting it,” Maul says.
“I want everybody to hear it. I want everybody to see it. I want
everybody to know the hard work that’s behind it. I believe
To hear the Midmer-Losh organ play the Bucknell fight song
and alma mater, visit bucknell.edu/bmagazine or download the
Bucknell Magazine app.
convention center, dedicated in 1929. (Local funding was
obtained with help from notorious Atlantic City political boss
Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, whose fictionalized version was
portrayed by Steve Buscemi on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.)
Richards’ sales pitch to Atlantic City authorities was that
the pricey initial cost of outfitting the hall with an organ —
about $350,000 — would be recovered in a few years by not
having to pay a staff orchestra. It wasn’t as hard a bargain then
as it might seem today. Back then, commercial radio and
recorded music were in their infancy, and pipe organs were the
main way the less affluent could enjoy orchestral music. More
than 7,000 organs were built in theaters and movie palaces in
the U.S. between 1915 and 1940; fewer than 50 remain today.
“It wasn’t even a question of if the hall should have an organ;
every public entertainment facility had one,” says Steven
Ball, Boardwalk Hall’s staff organist and, until recently, the
only paid member of the restoration crew (a curator was hired
in July). “What’s different here is that the architects had to
design a facility that instead of seating 1,000 to 3,000 people
sat 42,000 people. So everything was scaled to that: the
HVAC system, the lighting system, the stage equipment and
Richards knew pipe organs and quality materials — he
frequently traveled to Europe to gather technical data about
instruments. As the designer of Boardwalk Hall’s organs, he
specified every detail down to the brass screws, made to resist
corrosion from the salty, seaside air. “There was a convergence
of materials that were only available once in history,” Ball
says. Most of its largest pipes were cut from single spans of
sequoia, some more than 30 feet long and 2 inches thick. Its
zinc 32-foot stops were built locally and soldered together in
place — simply too big for it to be done offsite.
“Richards had an incredible contract,” says Ball, “He said,
‘The organ builder must replace parts, pipes or anything I
tell them to until I’m happy with the results.’ The company
owners signed it just for the honor of building the world’s
largest pipe organ.”
It was a decision the Midmer-Losh Organ Co. of Merrick,
Long Island, probably came to regret, as construction costs
climbed to nearly $500,000, contributing to the company’s
eventual bankruptcy. But its loss was Atlantic City’s gain.
Today, the organ would cost $30 million to replace, and it’s
been valued at as much as $750 million.
Organ construction started in August 1929, three months
before the stock market crash, and continued until 1932. Few
organ companies had work then, freeing up some of the best
minds in the business for the project.
“It’s the Manhattan Project of organ building,” Ball says.
“This set of minds was trying out technology and ideas and
creating things here that don’t exist anywhere else.”
After two years of work by volunteers like Maul and specialists who occasionally pitch in to help, the Midmer-Losh’s stage-left chamber has regained
about 20 percent of its capacity, and much of the Kimball
SEE THE WORLD’S
LARGEST PIPE ORGAN:
Billie Jane Boyer Maul ’57 and
other volunteers offer two-hour,
“behind the scenes” tours through
the chambers of the Boardwalk Hall
pipe organs every Wednesday at 10
a.m. all year. Half-hour concerts and
shorter tours run Monday–Friday at
noon May to October. All tours are
free to the public. For more information visit boardwalkhall.com or email
Maul at email@example.com.