What happened to Minneapolis’ famous “Mighty Kimball” organ?

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One of the greatest pipe organs ever produced in the United States was the pride of Minneapolis when it made its debut nearly a century ago. The audience at the Minneapolis Auditorium didn’t just listen to this thundering instrument. They felt it.

But the big pipes of the “Mighty Kimball” fell silent three decades ago – banished to storage at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which now occupies the former auditorium site. And some wonder if he will ever be heard from again.

“It seems like a waste to have a big, beautiful instrument, sitting in boxes,” said Plymouth resident Tyler Breuch, one of many people who have sought answers about the whereabouts of the instrument from Curious Minnesota, the reporting project powered by Star Tribune readers. .

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In 1987, shortly before the Minneapolis Auditorium was razed, the organ was carefully disassembled, cataloged, and stored in wooden crates. The plan was to reassemble it inside one of the convention center’s domed exhibit halls. To this day, an elaborate bronze plaque in the lobby of the building thanks those who donated money for “the preservation and reinstallation of the Mighty Kimball Organ”.

Instead, its myriad parts quietly occupy a maze of rooms that were originally intended to house its complicated mechanics.

“It’s ravishingly beautiful, and it has the potential to stir hearts and souls with its music, if given half a chance,” said Michael Baron, host and senior executive producer of “Pipedreams. “, which is produced in St. Paul by American Public Media and broadcast on 100 public radio stations nationwide. “It can range from a whisper – something very transparent, like incense – to the roar of a cannon salute.”

“Voice of Minneapolis”

Money, or lack thereof, is the common thread running through the Mighty Kimball story.

The Minneapolis Auditorium opened to much fanfare in 1927, hailed by a local business leader as “one of the greatest civic attractions we have.” It hosted concerts, exhibits, meetings, and sporting events, including Minneapolis Lakers basketball games beginning in the 1940s.

Shortly before the building opened, a fundraising campaign was launched to pay for a large pipe organ.

“Nothing comparable in size or layout has ever been built,” city organ committee chairman A. F. Benson said in 1927.

WW Kimball Co. should have demanded a full payment clause on its $100,000 price tag, which is approaching $1.6 million in today’s dollars. After paying about $26,000—nearly half of which came from donations from Minneapolis schoolchildren—the city’s finances were flattened by the Depression. Kimball ultimately settled for an extra $24,000 for the largest pipe organ ever produced, meaning the company took 50 cents on every dollar.

Everything about the instrument, also known as the “Voice of Minneapolis”, was colossal.

When its components were shipped from the Kimball factory in Chicago, they filled five railroad cars and weighed 30 tons. A team of five people took 12 months to complete the installation.

The June 1928 inauguration ceremony was preceded by a parade on Avenue Nicollet and 9,000 people attended the first public performance. Two gigantic, showy consoles – one is for theater music, the other is designed for concert repertoire – are needed to fully enjoy the glories of the organ.

It includes an impressive 10,000 handmade pipes, ranging in length from a few inches to 32 feet and made from wood, lead, tin and zinc. (By comparison, the Wurlitzer pipe organ at the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York City has 4,178 pipes).

A doomed revival

But it wasn’t long before public interest in pipe organs waned. Kimball built his last pipe organ in 1942, and the Mighty Kimball saw little use after World War II. Yet there was something of a renaissance in the 1980s, when a fervent group of supporters rallied to save him.

In the late 1980s, nearly $750,000 was spent extracting the Mighty Kimball from the auditorium (the move was dubbed the “Great Minnesota Organ Transplant”) and preparing it for its new home in the convention center.

Of that amount, $488,000 was raised privately through 3,200 donors and a series of benefit concerts, including a gala featuring the Minnesota Orchestra.

However, when the carefully planned reinstallation of the organ began in the early 1990s, disaster struck. Cost-conscious city leaders accepted what, in retrospect, was an absurdly low offer from a well-meaning but inexperienced contractor. The money quickly evaporated, and the city filed – and won – a lawsuit. With only 5% of the inner workings of the organ reinstalled, work stopped and never resumed.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Barone said.

(Jeff Johnson, executive director of the convention center, declined the Star Tribune’s request to photograph the organ. “It’s all in storage and doesn’t photograph well,” he replied in an email. The organ itself was never beautiful or easy to photograph. It was about the thousands of sounds it could make, not how it looked.”)

Cost estimates for resuscitating the Mighty Kimball have increased. In 1994 it was $1.6 million, and five years later that figure had risen to $2.1 million. Today, Barone estimates that it will take $3 million to $5 million to get the “Voice of Minneapolis” to sing again, and another million to maintain the instrument.

An instrument without a home

Barone, a leader in the 1980s campaign to save the organ, said finding a suitable place for the instrument was a major hurdle.

“Moving it to the convention center is a seriously compromised decision,” he said. “This truly wonderful instrument is so good it deserves to be in a place where it can be heard on a regular basis.”

In other words, not a showroom, “where few patrons have, in the back of their minds, an organ prelude or interlude,” Barone said. “Ideally it would be a space where the public could enjoy it effortlessly.”

A prime example is the Wanamaker Organ, which anchors the atrium of a historic department store in downtown Philadelphia. Its more than 28,000 pipes make it the largest pipe organ in the world, and the building’s current occupant, Macy’s, hosts brief concerts for shoppers – twice a day, six days a week.

Over the years, there have been behind-the-scenes campaigns to find a more suitable residence for the Mighty Kimball. Chris Larson, a retired convention center staffer who considered himself the unofficial keeper of the Mighty Kimball, said they tried to bond and build some excitement – ​​to no avail.

“There was a theater being restored in Iowa, but in the end it didn’t sound too good to give the ‘voice of Minneapolis’ to a town in Iowa,” he added. . “Although that’s better than having it stored away.”

One of the last recordings of the organ was released on Pipedreams in 1987 and is still available online.

“All you have to do is listen to recordings to realize how special it is,” he said. “I have recordings of them that, if played on a superb stereo system, will blow your mind.”

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