Having risen from the ashes of the great quake and fire of 1906, The City was ready to invite the world to a party.

To celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of the city, San Francisco played host to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Many architecturally rich, though temporary structures were built for this world event. One such structure, Festival Hall, was a large dome-shaped auditorium and served as the first home of the Exposition Organ.

The search for the perfect pipe organ befitting the fair’s tradition of exhibiting the latest advances in technology began in 1913. The new organ was to have a four-manual movable console, 7,500 pipes and not to exceed $50,000 (the equivalent of roughly $1.5 million today). Thirty-one American organ builders vied for the honor of constructing the instrument.

Competition among these prominent builders was fierce, but in March of 1914 the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut was awarded the contract. The Austin firm had only eleven months to build and install one of the largest pipe organs in the world. The organ was so technologically advanced that its reputation alone attracted attention and brought notoriety to the Exposition.

San Francisco’s Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons, longtime installers of Austin organs, took on the heroic task of installing this monumental pipe organ. Eventually, four generations of Schoensteins would care for the instrument over several decades.

The organ was shipped in five large railroad cars and arrived in San Francisco in late October, 1914. A team of horses and a flat body truck were needed to move the material from the train and through the mud of the unfinished fairgrounds. Actual installation began on November 7, 1914. With carpenters, plasterers and painters still constructing Festival Hall, installation was frenzied. Pandemonium reigned in the huge structure as the various contractors took an “every man for himself” attitude. The fair had attached a $100 per day fine for unfinished exhibits to each of their contracts.

The Schoensteins had only three and a half months to finish the installation and eventually worked in double shifts: during the day they assembled the mechanical parts of the organ and during the quiet of night tuned each of the 7,500 pipes.


On the morning of February 21, 1915, whistles were blowing and spirits were high; it was opening day of the World’s Fair. Seated at the Exposition Organ’s console was the fair’s official organist, Wallace Sabin. With a large chorus and orchestra, Sabin opened the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

A lavish nine month program of musical entertainment followed. In addition to orchestral programs featuring the organ, daily recitals were given by some 60 of the nation’s leading organists. But none was more legendary than world famous Edwin H. Lemare.

Lemare’s contract with the Exposition Company forced him to leave his pregnant wife behind in Liverpool just days before the birth of his daughter. In the midst of the Great War, Lemare braved a U-boat infested Atlantic ocean and arrived in America mid-August.

Despite the urgency to reach San Francisco on time, Lemare’s first recital was heard by only 400, a mere 10% of Festival Hall’s capacity. Attendance however soared once word spread that the greatest living organist was performing. Soon the concerts were sold-out affairs. The front rows were filled with organists who paid the 50-cent admission to the fairgrounds just to hear Lemare play. His wife, son and new born baby would soon join him in San Francisco.

Nearly every day Lemare played at noon and again at 8:30 in the evening. Each performance with a different repertoire. At every concert Lemare improvised on themes sent up by the audience. His concerts became so popular that fair officials approved the expansion of seating in Festival Hall. By closing day, 18.5 million people had come to the fair and Lemare had played 121 concerts to almost 150,000 people.

Unlike most world fairs, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition closed with profits. The Exposition Company decided to donate these unexpected funds to the City of San Francisco. A large building called Exposition Auditorium had already been erected in the city’s Civic Center. It, along with the Exposition Organ, were deeded to the city. Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons was contracted to dismantle and reinstall the instrument in the new Civic Auditorium. The dismantling process began two days after the close of the fair. Lemare was contracted to supervise the revoicing and reinstallation.


Several months after the fair ended, Lemare was honored with the position of San Francisco’s first Municipal Organist in which he was contracted to perform two concerts weekly. San Francisco had become home.

Lemare’s salary was ten times that of the average worker and was guaranteed, regardless of ticket sales. Lemare was one of the highest paid organist in the world. But his impressive salary did not go unnoticed. City supervisor J. Emmet Hayden–earning a modest 15% of Lemare’s annual wage–publicly attacked Lemare’s salary and performance, encouraging city officials to reconsider the musician’s value to San Francisco.

When the time came to renew Lemare’s contract, the city offered a mere 60% of his original earnings. After heated negotiations, Lemare agreed to a salary that was only slightly better. This was to be only the first of many political battles to come.

Angrily clutching a handful of Lemare’s concert programs, rival Hayden questioned why a competent musician would play the same piece at every concert: “There it is in black and white,” he exclaimed, “Improvisation!”

The final blow came from the city elections of November 1920. A proposed ordinance submitted by Supervisor Hayden and the Board of Supervisors, would reduce the salary of the city’s municipal organist to $3,600, a far cry from the $10,000 salary originally paid to Lemare. Despite opposition by The American Guild of Organists and then Mayor James R. Rolph, the voters approved the ordinance. On Sunday, June 26, 1921, Lemare performed his 190th and last official concert on the organ he had come to cherish. Feeling rejected by the city he loved, Lemare accepted a position as the municipal organist for Portland, Maine and, later, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He eventually retired in Hollywood, California.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s the Civic Auditorium and organ would remain the cultural focal point of San Francisco. Both the symphony and the opera would perform in the auditorium until the new Opera House opened in September of 1932. Historically significant concerts by world famous organists and composers including Marcel Dupre and Camille Saint- Saens would over time be featured on the historic Exposition Organ.


Throughout the 1940s and ’50s the Exposition Organ was used occasionally for conventions, graduation ceremonies and large religious events. But for the most part, the popularity of organ recitals and interest in municipal organs began to decline. New sources of musical entertainment such as phonographs and radios, the growing popularity of big bands, distractions and restrictions during World War II and a tendency among professional musicians to disregard the artistic limitations of “average concertgoers” began the downward momentum.

In 1962 a $20 million bond issue was voted in by the citizens of San Francisco. These funds allowed for the rehabilitation, reconstruction and modernization of the Civic Auditorium. Considered a part of the building, the Exposition Organ was entitled to a small portion of these funds and underwent a thorough cleaning, releathering and installation of a new console. But the windfall proved to be a double-edged sword as the ill-conceived remodeling robbed the auditorium of its good acoustics, dampening the sonic character of the organ. Furthermore, a “casino-style” curtain was hung in front of the Exposition Organ muting its tone and concealing the great instrument from public view.

As a result of cost overruns on the Civic Auditorium reconstruction/modernization project, the city stopped appropriating funds for maintenance of the instrument and it fell into disrepair. Now cloaked in a curtain of darkness, the once distinguished Exposition Organ faded into obscurity.


In 1984 the Citizens Committee to Preserve the San Francisco Municipal Organ was formed. Spearheaded by organ historian Charles Swisher, the committee began an effort to renovate the instrument. Over a period of several years Schoenstein & Company (formerly Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons) began working pro-bono to restore the instrument to playing condition.


Just as the restoration was nearly complete and the Exposition Organ was ready to be brought back into the spotlight…tragedy struck. The wrath of the 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake caused the back inner wall of the Civic Auditorium to crash down on the fragile pipework. Four feet of plaster and debris covered the floor of the huge pipe chamber. Unplayable and suspended in silence, the great Exposition Organ lingered in uncertainty…behind the velvet curtain.

Two years of political discourse ensued as the fate of the historical instrument was debated in City Hall. The Civic Auditorium needed major repairs, so it was determined that the organ would have to be removed. FEMA funds had been secured and the Citizens Committee persuaded San Francisco to go forward with repairing the organ rather than selling it.

A complete overhaul of the organ would be necessary. So in late 1991, the instrument was sent back to the Austin organ factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Seventy-five years after the great Exposition Organ was born, almost all of the 40-ton instrument was loaded into three tractor-trailers and moved nearly 3,000 miles back to its place of birth.

The staff at Austin Organs, Inc. was very excited to undertake the restoration of this important legacy from their past. Work began right away dismantling windchests, stripping reservoirs, revoicing reeds and repairing and replacing damaged pipes.

While work on the organ continued expeditiously, the large formerly occupied space in the Civic Auditorium was beginning to look quite useful to the city for other purposes. Several months after refurbishment had begun, a cease-work directive was received in Hartford. All organ components, whether whole or in pieces, were to be packed and shipped back to the West Coast for storage. The reason for the city backing away from the project was a combination of cost overruns on the Civic Center repair project along with the realization that the organ was occupying space that might be put to other purposes. The order was a bitter blow for the Hartford staff whose enthusiasm for the project was high.

The shocking news was also felt throughout the nationwide organ community. Here was a historic instrument on the verge of a rebirth–having survived physical abuse, a major earthquake and the indignity of changing tastes–now to be relegated to certain oblivion.

San Francisco historians and citizens were concerned as well. The San Francisco Fox Theater, considered to be the most elegant and opulent of all the Fox Theaters was lost to the wrecking ball in late 1963. The City of Paris Department Store, a beaux arts architectural master piece with its genuine Tiffany Dome, was lost in 1980 and The Fitzheau Building, the Train Station and several landmark hotels were also gone.



treasureIn late 1997 the City of San Francisco began the last phase of the Embarcadero reconstruction project. The Embarcadero looked nothing like it did before the Loma-Prieta quake. A beautiful tree-lined boulevard and rail system now replaced the ugly two tiered freeway. A new pier, wider sidewalks and new outdoor public spaces had also enhanced the waterfront.

In April of 1998 an article appeared in the newsletter of the San Francisco Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. It said “Flash! The City of San Francisco (with help from SF/AGO) is developing a likely new venue for the 1915 Exposition Organ (Austin Opus 500). Recent meetings with Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Sue Bierman have advanced the project…”

The site under consideration was a half-block of open space, bordered by the Embarcadero, Market, Steuart and Mission Streets. It was being developed as part of the Mid-Embarcadero Waterfront Transportation Project.

By mid-1999 the City of San Francisco had approved plans to install the Exposition Organ in a proposed pavilion at the waterfront. The project became known as the Embarcadero Music Concourse and Organ Pavilion. It would provide a large open space where downtown workers, tourists, waterfront visitors and ferry and streetcar commuters could take a break and enjoy free daily organ recitals, special concerts and even silent movies. The Music Concourse was designed to provide outdoor seating for 3,000, becoming the center for many community events.

By the early 2004, a ballot measure to raise funds for the organ and several other projects had been put before voters of San Francisco. It was defeated. Also numerous businesses surrounding the proposed Music Concourse site protested the idea for a music pavilion because they feared the volume of the organ would be too loud and disrupt their businesses. The Music Concourse faded into oblivion.

Determined not to let the Exposition Organ linger and perhaps be destroyed, The Friends of the Exposition Organ was formed to keep the fire alive and to safeguard the instrument from neglect and destruction.
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