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Inside the Icon: Spreckels Organ Pavilion

The Spreckels Organ recently became the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. It has been playing the soundtrack of Balboa Park, free of charge, every week for over 100 years.
Photo: Robert E. Lang, Spreckels Organ Society

By Dan Letchworth

This Month

Write Out Loud celebrates 100 years of Roald Dahl throughout Balboa Park on September 18. Stop by the pavilion at 1 p.m. for family activities and a concert featuring recitals of Dahl poems at 2 p.m.

Organ Donor

Real estate magnate John D. Spreckels, who had learned to play the organ in his youth, commissioned the pavilion in 1899 for $33,500—well over $1 million after inflation. The organ was finally dedicated on December 31, 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson pressed a telegraph key in Washington, D.C. that set off fireworks over the pavilion, signaling the opening of the park’s Panama–California Exposition.

Built to Last

An outdoor pipe organ was considered a risky investment, since it requires stable temperatures and humidity to stay in tune. Many passed on the project before the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut took it on. They continued supplying the organ with new pipes as recently as 1990.

Feel the Music

During World War II, Balboa Park was closed to civilians. The Navy used its buildings as barracks and training grounds, and many soldiers wounded at Pearl Harbor recovered in hospital wards established there. Specialist First Class D. Robert Smith gave recitals at the organ pavilion for shell-shocked servicemen and their families.

Pipe Dream

Only 15 of the 63 golden pipes on the organ’s façade are functional; the remaining thousands are hidden from view in the pavilion’s second floor. The various kinds of pipes are designed to mimic the sound of strings, brass, and woodwinds, creating the effect of a full orchestra. The organist also controls dozens of unusual instruments, like a xylophone, glockenspiel, gong, train whistle, and doorbell, for silent-movie sound effects.

Carol of the Bells

San Diego’s Dr. Carol Williams is the only civic organist in the United States, and the only woman ever to hold that position. She holds the world record for continuous organ playing: 12 hours and 15 minutes on Memorial Day 2015, to benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Donations raised that day exceeded $20,000.

Hertz So Good

The pipes span the full range of human hearing: ten octaves. The largest is 32 feet long and plays C0, or 16 hertz. The smallest is pencil-sized and plays D#10, about 20,000 hertz, the highest note most adults can hear.

A Show for All Seasons

The Spreckels Organ Society hosts a free one-hour concert every Sunday at 2 p.m., which is also streamed live on Since 1988, the International Summer Organ Festival brings additional weekly two-hour concerts summer evenings, plus a silent movie concert on Halloween.

Visit the Icon: Pan American Road East, Balboa Park

Inside the Icon: Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Photo: Robert E. Lang, Spreckels Organ Society

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