ATLANTIC CITY — Carl Loeser strains his voice above the loud hiss of an air leak as he talks about the countless hours spent over four years to repair Boardwalk Hall’s Kimball pipe organ.
The still-audible leak in the organ’s musty pipe chambers is one of the things that remains to be fixed in the Depression-era fixture that’s been silenced for more than a decade.
But most importantly, the 82-year-old instrument is playable again, said Loeser, the organ’s curator. About $250,000 has been spent on restoring the organ, which has suffered from years of neglect and mistreatment. Much of the damage took place while Boardwalk Hall was undergoing a $90 million restoration project in 2000 and 2001 that turned it into the concert and sports arena it is today.
Loeser knows nearly every inch of the organ’s 55 sets of pipes stacked in a three-story labyrinth of chambers behind the art-deco walls of the Adrian Phillips Ballroom. The tightly packed pipe chambers — accessible only by climbing wooden ladders tacked to the walls — are a treehouse of sorts for organ buffs such as Loeser, who knows how to shimmy along footboards to make his way from the trumpet section to the clarinets. He can point to an area where water damage had rendered the instrument unplayable.
“One thing about pipe organs is if you had a leak in the opposite end of this building, somehow it would get here. They’re like water magnets,” Loeser said.
Small adjustments are still being made, but members of the Historic Organ Restoration Committee are planning a public unveiling of the instrument. They hope the organ can be used regularly in conjunction with events. Neither the Kimball nor its larger Boardwalk Hall partner, the Midmer-Losh organ — which holds the distinction of being the world’s largest pipe organ, with more than 33,000 pipes — has been played publicly since the late 1990s.
The pipes of the Midmer-Losh, which was built for $450,000 between 1929 and 1932, are housed in eight chambers surrounding the arena, with its main console on stage. Creating a replica today would likely cost between $40 million and $60 million, Loeser said.
“In some respects, these instruments never really got their due here in terms of play, since this was a convention center. But the thought was in terms of cost, you paid once, and then you had the sounds of an entire orchestra and you only had to hire one person to play it,” Loeser said.
Recordings of both organs were made prior to the restoration efforts, but even then the sounds were not nearly as grand as they were when the instruments, designed by state Sen. Emerson Richards, were built about 1930.
By the time the recording of the Midmer-Losh was made, just one of its eight chambers was still in working condition. The organ’s pipes are so large that much of it was constructed within the building. There would have been no way to move the pipes — the largest at 64 feet tall — into the building otherwise.
Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority Executive Director Jeffrey Vasser, who heads the restoration committee, said he hopes that some day the organs can be used in concert, noting that superstars such as Lady Gaga could incorporate them into their shows. The issue, however, is funding.
New Jersey set aside about $1 million for restoration from the damage done to the instruments during the renovation of Boardwalk Hall. Yet that’s only about 10 percent of the estimated cost to fully restore both instruments, expected to be between $8 million and $10 million.
Vasser said he hopes that with the Kimball in playable condition, hosting an unveiling and other events might generate more interest in the restoration. Enabling at least one chamber of the Midmer-Losh organ to play could also go a long way in generating interest, Loeser said.
“The funding is obviously going to be a challenge. When projects such as these are successful, it’s generally because you get large donors who put in something like 90 percent of the cost, but that interest has to be there,” Loeser said. “One of the challenges of doing a project such as this in Atlantic City is that you don’t necessarily have the same kind of arts community that you would have in Philadelphia, for instance.”
The restoration process is slow. Even if all the necessary funding were in place, it would take at least five years for the work to be completed. With funding constraints, the project will more likely take 10 to 12 years. Loeser is the only paid individual working on the project. The rest of the help comes from dedicated volunteers such as 84-year-old Buddy Grover, who comes to the organ shop behind the stage three days a week to help.
Other challenges are even more unique. Replacing the parts isn’t as easy as reordering new ones, Loeser said, pointing to a 3-inch-long electric valve.
The Midmer-Losh has 5,000 valves in the organ, but there were no replacement parts when Loeser arrived on the job in 2008. Loeser contacted the company that had once manufactured the parts.
Tools used to make the parts still existed, but it was thought it would be better to retool the part from a longer-lasting plastic rather than the original zinc the valves were made from. Re-engineering the parts took two years from design to completion.
“Those are some of the types of challenges with this organ — things that there just is no off-the-shelf replacement for,” Loeser said.
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