[Retro Roadmap] The Wanamaker Organ and Light Show: A Philadelphia Holiday Tradition

Posted on: December 19th, 2013 by Beth Lennon 15 Comments

View from the lobby in Macy's Center City, Philadelphia. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com
View from the lobby in the old Wanamaker's Department Store (now Macy's Center City, Philadelphia), a National Historic Landmark.

A visit to one of the last remaining downtown department stores during the holidays is considered a must-do for many in the Philadelphia area, and not just for shopping. What is now Macy’s in Center City was once the Wanamaker Department Store, one of the first department stores in the country -- and much more.

Only here can you still do your shopping while hearing the reverberation of music from the largest operating pipe organ in the world, and delight in the holiday light show in an historic building. Online shopping doesn’t hold a candle to this experience.

Opened in 1911 by John Wanamaker, the store at 13th and Market is a sight to behold, with its 7-story high marble-lined atrium known as the Grand Court. Wanamaker, thought of by many as the father of modern advertising, was also a collector of unusual and unique items to showcase in his store. Two of these acquisitions have become Philadelphia icons, delighting shoppers for over 100 years.

The Wanamaker Organ

The Wanamaker Organ console. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com
The Wanamaker Organ console

Known as the largest operational pipe organ in the world with over 28,000 pipes, the organ was built by for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the St. Louis World's Fair.)

After the completion of the fair the organ was to have a permanent home in the Kansas City Convention Hall but those plans fell through, and the organ was placed in storage. Wanamaker purchased the organ in 1909, with the two-year installation capped off with a visit of then-President Taft to the store.

President Taft marker. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Though the business within the four walls of this historic building ceased to be Wanamaker’s in 1995, a complete renovation of the organ began in 1997. Macy’s has continued investing in the legacy of this important international musical icon since they took over in 2006.

Peter Richard Conte, the Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Organ, attests to the support this national retailer has given to this local tradition: “Macy’s gets it. When they first took over the organ was 15% playable, but with their commitment to this Philadelphia institution it is now 100% playable.”

Through the decades the store has played host to many famous musicians performing concerts and daily recitals, as well as special holiday programs.

Meet Me At The Eagle

The Bronze Eagle in the old Wanamaker's, Philadelphia, Pa. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Another acquisition from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair is the giant bronze eagle that keeps a watchful eye over the lobby of the atrium. Posed on a granite base and weighing over 2,500 lbs, the floor of the Grand Court had to be strengthened with girders in order to accommodate it.

Now, Philadelphians have been saying, “Meet Me at the Eagle” for over 100 years, as the massive statue has become a place to rendezvous.

"Meet Me At The Eagle." Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

This is also one of the prime viewing spots for families to watch the holiday light show every year -- another tradition upheld from the Wanamaker days.

The Holiday Light Show

The Wanamaker/Macy's Christmas Tree. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

With a 3-story magic Christmas tree and a light show that extends up to the atrium’s arched ceiling, the holiday light show has been delighting children and adults alike since it was introduced in 1956.

A combination of music, lights, and narration, the show draws everyone in the store together when it overtakes the store every even hour on the hour during the holiday season.

The Wanamaker Holiday Light Show on full display. Credit: Beth Lennon, RetroRoadmap.com

Each year has brought changes and improvements to the show, like changing the lighting from incandescent bulbs to LED (at a 90% reduction in energy consumption) while being mindful of the importance of keeping the traditional elements that parents remember from when they were children.

A special treat for many during the holiday season is when the noon Wanamaker organ concert schedule aligns with the popular holiday light show. The massive sound of O’Tannenbaum and other classics ringing throughout the atrium at the crescendo of the show brings even the most hurried shoppers to a stop, making them part of this unique holiday tradition.

Visit the website to plan your visit to the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Center City, Philadelphia. Can't make it there in person? Watch this Retro Roadmap video to see the sights and hear the organ:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Beth Lennon

Beth Lennon is the creator of the website RetroRoadmap.com. As "Mod Betty," she delights as the retro travel "hostess with the mostess," scouting out cool vintage places and sharing them with the world.

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15 Responses

  1. Sean

    December 19, 2013

    Loves the video

  2. Stacy

    December 19, 2013

    How cool to learn about this amazing pipe organ! What a fun holiday tradition. Another great installment of Retro Roadmap.

  3. Tom

    December 19, 2013

    Great video! I want to see more please!

  4. Marcyrw

    December 19, 2013

    This is fantastic. I’ve loved the Wanamaker Building organ since I was a little girl. So great to see it showcased here. Thank you, Mod Betty. :-)

  5. Kathy H.

    December 19, 2013

    Great story about a unique holiday tradition! Makes me want to hop on a train and go to Philly! Especially loved the accompanying photos and video. They made the entire experience come alive for me. Can’t wait to read — and watch — more from Beth Lennon and Retro Roadmap!

  6. John Young

    December 19, 2013

    Thanks for giving these fabulous landmarks the attention they deserve, ModBetty! All these things that I sort of know about — you breathe fresh life into them! Why, I’m hankering to go visit right now!

  7. Candace

    December 19, 2013

    Thank you for shining a much needed spotlight on the wonderful tradition of the holiday light show, and especially that amazing organ! Many of us living in the burbs forget about the great things happening in Philadelphia. It’s a city that very often gets overlooked. I am looking forward to seeing where you end up next. Keep up the fab work Mod Betty!

  8. Rich Wilhelm

    December 19, 2013

    Great story and video from Mod Betty/Beth Lennon! As a lifelong Philadelphia-area resident, I can attest to how deeply woven in our Christmas traditions a visit to Wanamakers can be, event today!

  9. Scott Marks

    December 20, 2013

    Awesome! Makes me want to hop in the car and drive to Philadelphia immediately!

  10. Jolene

    December 20, 2013

    History comes alive in another must read article, “[Retro Roadmap] The Wanamaker Organ and Light Show: A Philadelphia Holiday Tradition” Thank you Beth Lennon! Five Stars.

  11. NS

    December 20, 2013

    The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ is played year-round at the following times (except holidays): Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 12:00pm and 5:30pm; Wednesday and Friday at 12:00pm and 7:00pm. Visitors are welcome to see the console and meet the organist after each recital. More information is available by calling The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ at 484-684-7250.

    The Christmas Light Show runs from Black Friday until New Year’s Eve at 10am, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm, 6pm, and 8pm daily except Christmas Day. More information is available by calling Macy’s Center City Philadelphia at 215-241-9000.

  12. Heather

    December 20, 2013

    I remember being in awe of this as a kid. Time to visit again! Thanks for the memories, Mod Betty!

  13. Diana

    December 20, 2013

    What a great article/video, makes me want to go there! Thank you ModBetty!

  14. Suzanne McG

    December 20, 2013

    Well now I want to book a trip to Philly at Christmas time just to see the lights and hear this organ in person.

    Thanks so much to Beth Lennon/Mod Betty for this story and to PreservationNation blog for sharing the RetroRoadMap!!