by Durward R. Center
Over the course of the years of my restoration work, I have found instruments by Michael Welte & Sons to be of special interest. Whether the appeal is their ornately carved cases with brass and tin pipes behind glass or the sound of organ pipes playing orchestral and operatic transcriptions or the German technology and workmanship, my appreciation of them has always been strong. So, too, was it for the clients of Welte who chose their instruments for home or commercial locations.
Of the thousand plus orchestrions built by Welte only 76 have survived into modern times. While most are in private collections or museums, it is interesting to note that seven are still in their original locations. The following describes each organ with a bit of history, which may explain why and how they have remained in situ.
The earliest Welte orchestrion in its original home is Concert Orchestrion No. 57, Style #6, 1893, installed in Henry Clay Frick’s Pittsburgh estate, Clayton. This organ is roll operated and was originally weight driven by dual weight motors, but electrified within the first year. Installed in the front parlor, it was moved in 1899 to the enclosed porch area where it spoke through a window into the house. The Frick records indicate that Emil Welte replaced the motor again in 1904.
After Frick’s death in 1919, his daughter Helen Clay Frick remained in the house and made it her priority to keep the house like her father had wanted. This included maintaining the orchestrion. To that end when the aging instrument began to fail, she sent the organ to Howard Haverstock in Syracuse, NY, in 1954 for rebuilding. By the 1960s more problems developed. This was at a time when the appreciation for the historical value of these instruments was nil. A local collector and rebuilder, Larry Givens, was chosen to do the work. The pump linkage and cranks shafts were removed, feeder bellows screwed shut, a blower and suction unit added, wind motor removed and gear motors added for both play and rewind functions. This may have extended the organ’s usefulness, but with much noise and grinding. By the 1980’s the organ was unplayable.
Helen Clay died in 1984 leaving strict instructions and endowment for the house to be maintained in exactly the way her father left it. Today, Clayton is a part of the Frick Art & Historical Center. The organ was restored and converted back to its original c.1893 electrified state in 1991 by your author. A new set of recut rolls was acquired. The Welte is played daily for tours through the mansion.
For more information click here for The Frick website.
Concert Orchestrion No. 241, Style #5, c. 1896, survives in the Sultan’s Mother-in-law’s quarters of the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. This is now a national museum. The organ was roll played and weight operated with dual clockwork motors. When inspected by your author in 1998, the organ was missing most of its pipework. It appeared to have been dismantled, moved and the parts, less pipes, just thrown inside the case in a random order. In addition, woodworms were having a feast on the case. Permission was given by the Director for a guide to escort me through the basements of the palace to search for the missing pipework, quite a privilege. Alas, the Style 5 pipework was not found.
However, large pinned cylinders for another orchestrion were found. They were so riddled with wood worm that they had collapsed on themselves like egg shells. These cylinders probably were for the orchestrion which stands in a palace hallway, empty with only the key frame and the pressure pump remaining. The key frame and weight motor have characteristics of Imhof, but its maker is not known. Also found were some small sets of wood organ pipes, likely from the cylinder orchestrion or some sort of flute organ.
While a major restoration effort is possible, the Welte is probably not high on their list. Hopefully, the worm problem has been stabilized.
For more information click here for the Dolmabahçe Palace web page.
Concert Orchestrion No. 340, Style #7, 1899, remains in a remarkable state of preservation in Peleș Castle, Sinaia, Romania. Built by King Carol I between 1873 and 1914, this Neo-Renaissance castle could not be a better match for the Renaissance styling of the Welte case. When last seen in 1991, this Style 7 looked as clean as when it left the factory with only its electric motor missing. It has two matching roll cabinets as ornate as the organ itself. A restoration of this organ would be very straight forward and result in a fabulous sounding instrument. It is the largest of the Concert Orchestrion styles known to exist.
The castle, owned by King Michael I, is run by the government as a museum. Major restoration work is ongoing. Perhaps the Welte is playing once again?
For more information click here for a YouTube tour of Peleș Castle.
Cottage Orchestrion Style #3 can still be found in the second floor hallway of the Asa Packer mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA. (formerly known as Mauch Chunk, PA) Packer owned the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad which hauled coal from the mountains. He built his house in 1861 in the Italianate style. His daughter, Mary Packer Cummings thought much along the lines of Helen Clay Frick. In 1912, she left the house to the Borough of Mauch Chunk as a memorial to her father. It remained closed like a time capsule until 1956 when it was opened to the public.1
This Welte was originally weight driven, but was electrified long ago. All parts removed were carefully stored in the house. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, the organ was well maintained by the late Mike Kitner. The clean mountain air had kept all the leathers in excellent condition. Service was dropped on the organ well before Mike’s death. Its present condition is not known.
The website for the Packer house dates the Welte at 1905, but it is likely earlier. Indeed, the description of the organ is quite fanciful. I recall once overhearing a tour guide describing the Welte: “This organ is like a giant cuckoo clock, only the pumping pedals have been removed.” Oh my!
For more information click here for the Asa Packer museum website.
Cottage Orchestrion No. 1631, Style #3, 1908, Zaharakos, an ice cream parlor, Columbus, Indiana, is the last original commercial installation remaining in the world. The three Zaharakos brothers opened their confectionery in 1900. In 1904 they visited the St. Louis World Fair where they purchased a pair of marble and onyx soda fountains. They may have heard the Welte exhibit there. In any case, they bought a Style #3 Cottage Orchestrion from Welte in 1908. The business was a grand success becoming a social center for the little town. Very few changes were made other than lighting and the store façade in 1959. This was only because a car crashed through it.
The store remained in the family until 2006. Because of health concerns, the business closed. The future looked bleak. The Welte was sold to a California collector. Your author was chosen to restore the organ and sadly dismantled and removed it from its 98 year location. During the course of restoration, Tony Moravec, a local business man stepped up, bought the business and building. He then began a meticulous three year restoration. He was determined to reacquire the Welte and was finally successful. The best of all possible worlds! The store now gleams in its restored splendor. The Welte proudly sits where it always did and entertains diners while they enjoy a Green River soda or a Gom sandwich. It sometimes plays as many as fifty times a day.
The restoration of this organ posed its own challenges. Having been in service for 98 years, many parts had become worn and replaced with less than elegant parts. The pumps had their original leather, but with patches on top of patches attached with every glue known to man—even staples. When found, the organ was running so fast to keep up with leakage; it was literally shaking itself to death. After restoring this organ and returning it to its home, I was asked to demonstrate it for the remaining Zaharakos family members. Their mouths fell open. I doubt if any of them had ever heard the organ playing to its capability. That is a fond memory.
For more information click here for the Zaharakos website.
Philharmonic Organ, 1914, Salomons, Tunbridge Wells, UK. This instrument is a full fledged pipe organ, German built with Welte’s orchestrion vacuum tubular technology and so is included here. It was built for Sir David Salomons’ Science Theater to replace his smaller Style #10 Concert Orchestrion which replaced his even smaller Style #4 Concert Orchestrion. It has three manuals and pedal and was designed to play either the Style 10 Concert Orchestrion rolls or the later 150 key pipe organ rolls. This is the only place in the world today where one can hear Style 10 rolls.
Philharmonic Organ No. 4228, 1915, plays in the Spedden mansion in Tuxedo Park, NY. This is another pipe organ that used Welte’s vacuum orchestrion technology. It has two manuals and pedal and plays the 150 key roll. The house was vacant and neglected for many years. Portions of the roof collapsed. The organ did not sustain direct water damage, but the humidity caused major damage.
A major film score composer bought the property in the early 1990’s. He proceeded to restore the house and the organ, also. It is still a private residence.
The house was built in 1910 by Frederic O. Spedden. Spedden and his family were Titanic survivors. Their six year old son Douglas was photographed on the deck of the ill fated ship spinning a top. The photographer disembarked before the shipped sailed out to sea, hence the photo survived. While the entire family was fortunate to survive the disaster, Douglas was unfortunate to die in a car accident three years later. His father added a music room to their house in 1915 as a memorial to his son.2 This is where the Welte is still located.
One can always hope that the elusive Style #10 will come to light in some private palace or castle, but as time goes on, this is less and less likely. News of other original installations is always welcome.
Durward R. Center, author; Editing and re-flow of text and conversion into HTML format by Terry Hathaway.
Salomons, Style #4 & #10 from Salomons Estate.
Salomons Philharmonic by Chris Marwood.
Spedden House from New York Building Structures Inventory Form 13 April 1977, courtesy of the Tuxedo Park Library.
Douglas Spedden aboard Titanic by Father Francis Browne.
1. Asa Packer website.
2. New York Building Structures Inventory Form, 13 April 1977.