Next Job: Help Restore World’s Largest Pipe Organ

Allen DeVries Takes On Boardwalk Hall Famed Keyboard
By PAT JOHNSON | Sep 04, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson WORTHY EFFORT: Allen DeVries opens a coffee table book describing the inner workings of the 1932 pipe organ inside Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention Hall.

Tuckerton — Some men when they retire like to take up a hobby, maybe whittling duck decoys or putting ship models together.

Allen DeVries of Tuckerton decided to volunteer to restore the world’s biggest pipe organ, located in Boardwalk Convention Hall in Atlantic City.

“I like music in general, keyboard music in particular, and in 2015 I was listening to Bach organ music online. You know, pipe organs have a powerful sound,” said DeVries. “I went online to find out that the largest pipe organ in the world is in Atlantic City. Cool.

“It’s also the largest musical instrument in the world. And as time goes on, it may be the best.

“Big is good. But quality, plus quantity, is best. We’re working on the quality aspects as we restore it and put it back together.”

Then Allen learned he could take tours of it.

“So my wife and I did a tour, and I was tremendously impressed. I made a promise to myself that when I retired from my real job, I would get involved in the restoration. Last year in September, I retired from 30 years at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant.”

DeVries spent six years as a U.S. Navy electrician working on guided missile systems and nuclear submarines. With his engineering and technical background, 30 years ago he found that job at the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant. Opened in December 1969, Oyster Creek recently ceased operation 10 years ahead of its 2029 operating license extension, in order to avoid a state mandate to build cooling towers.

“I took a month off, and then went to AC and talked with the curator of the organ, Nathan Bryson,” DeVries related. “He was impressed with my background.

“He asked when I would like to start working and I said, ‘Now!’ I was put under the wing of an expert.

“It’s a beautiful musical instrument, a work of engineering art,” said DeVries.

The Midmer-Losh Company on Long Island made the pipe organ. Emerson Lewis Richards, an Atlantic City native, state senator from Atlantic County and pipe organ aficionado, designed it.

In the 1920s, Atlantic City was the “Playground of the East Coast,” said DeVries. “All the big shots, the wheelers and dealers, came in their private railroad cars to go to their plush hotels,” he said. “There was a competition between cities as to who was going to have the biggest and best of everything. If Philadelphia was going to build a convention hall, then Atlantic City would do one better.”

The Boardwalk Convention Hall opened in 1929. Richards started work on the pipe organ in May of that year and it was completed in 1932. This was the early years of the Great Depression.

“The organ was well thought out and planned, and the auditorium was designed around it,” said DeVries. “There are two main organ chambers, on the left and right stage behind the grills. Moving away from the stage, there are six more (chambers) for a total of eight. Two are in the ceiling.

“You could walk around inside the pipe organ for hours and not see the whole thing.”

There are 449 ranks of pipes –from low to high registers of the same tone: whistles, trombones, flutes, for a total of 33,000 pipes. There is an entire grand piano inside, and a complete percussion section.

The main console has 1,235 stop tabs and seven keyboards. It has the largest organ pipe – 64 feet long and weighing 2½ tons.

“When that pipe sounds, you feel it more with your body than with your ears,” DeVries described.

“The senator’s idea was he could hire an orchestra to play music each time there was an event; or he could design and have built the biggest, loudest pipe organ.

“It was used in all kinds of events, including the Miss America Contests,” said DeVries.

Then it fell into neglect, disuse and disrepair, and was all but forgotten. During the Hurricane of 1944, the parts of the pipe organ called the combination action were below the ground floor and were flooded, hastening deterioration.

Atlantic City finished a complete restoration of Boardwalk Convention Hall in the 1990s, but in so doing, did more damage to the organ.

“The pipe organ was in the way of the modernization, so the pipes and wind lines were trampled on. Due to the shortsightedness – or ignorance – of some people, the pipe organ was damaged.”

But now the curator has a step-by-step plan to restore everything, he said.

The combination action was restored using modern, digital technology and is now more cost-effective. “It was finished in June, just in time for the AGO convention – the American Guild of Organists – on July 3. It was phenomenal!” said DeVries.

Restoration work on the organ is about half finished. “We’re limited in our pace by the funding we receive,” DeVries commented. No taxpayer dollars are going into the effort. Everything is paid for through donations.

Every weekday at noon, from June through September, a free program is held where organists play the instrument for half hour recitals, plus a half-hour tour of the organ. Donations are welcome. The two-hour curator’s in-depth tour of the organ and restoration shop is held year round on Wednesday mornings at 10 a.m. This $10 tour is followed by a half-hour recital. There is also a small museum.

“We get good crowds, 50 or so. It’s a lot of fun. Kids like it a lot,” said DeVries.

The Fans of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall Organ announced that a twin-CD package of music by various players recorded on the organ is in the works. DeVries hopes it will be ready by the holiday giving season.

“We really need the word to get out about how great this instrument is, and for donations to help complete the restoration.”

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