The history of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park

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The Spreckels Organ Pavilion has been a San Diego landmark for more than 100 years. On any given day — but especially Sundays — you can hear the echoes of familiar songs, from Bach to Queen, reverberating from the pipes of the behemoth at the center of Balboa Park. Those are the sounds of history.

Here’s an ode to the landmark’s history, note by note. 🎶

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 1915

This 1915 photo shows a crowd at a nighttime event. | Photo by M.E. Lewis via SD City Clerk Archives

🎼 Let’s take it from the top

Sugar magnate brothers John D. + Adolph B. Spreckels donated the Spreckels Organ to the City of San Diego in 1914 for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Many local historians credit the event for putting San Diego on the map as the first US port of call for ships traveling north as they passed through the newly-opened Panama Canal.

Sitting at Pan American Place, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion quickly became a gathering spot at Balboa Park. Since 1917, San Diego has employed a civic organist who performs free weekly concerts.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 1935

Royal Albert Brown, the city’s second civic organist, at the keys in 1935. | Photo via SD City Clerk Archives

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 1915

John D. + Adolph Spreckels donated the organ to the city for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. | Photo via SD City Clerk Archives.

Humphrey Stewart was the city’s first civic organist, playing the inaugural recital on New Year’s Day in 1915. From 1932-1954, Royal Albert Brown served as the second civic organist. Today, that storied position is held by Raúl Prieto Ramírez — who is known to wear custom-made shoes that help his feet move swiftly across the pedal keyboard.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 2022

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion today. | Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

🎹 The equipment + architecture

Featuring 5,000+ pipes — ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet — the Spreckels Organ is the largest open-air musical instrument in the world. It’s housed in an ornate, vaulted structure with embellished gables designed by architect Harrison Albright (who also designed downtown’s US Grant Hotel), matching much of the architecture of Balboa Park. The pavilion’s Italian Renaissance style features semi-circular colonnades and intricate details — and is often illuminated for special events.

If you look to the right of the stage, you’ll notice a dedication plaque dated, “January First A.D. nineteen hundred and fifteen.”

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 2022

A close-up of the plaque detailing the gift from the Spreckels brothers. | Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

🎵 Music to our ears

Today — 107 years later — the Spreckels Organ Pavilion continues to be a gathering place for free concerts + festivals. As part of the original Deed of Gift from the Spreckels brothers, all organ concerts at the landmark are offered to the public for free. According to Balboa Park, at least 62 concerts are scheduled at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion during a typical year.

These are some ways to enjoy this ongoing gift of music:

  • Year-round, one-hour concerts are performed at 2 p.m. every Sunday — rain or shine — spanning genres, but always featuring a major work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Check the weekly program for details.
  • The San Diego International Summer Organ Festival brings free Monday concerts at 7:30 p.m. through Mon., Sept. 5, and this year, the shows pay tribute to women in music.
  • During summer evenings, there are also Twilight in the Park concerts at the pavilion Tuesday, Wednesday + Thursday; this year, those run through Thurs., Aug. 25.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion 2022

There’s plenty of seating today for those free concerts. | Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

Spreckels Organ Pavilion 2022

There she is — right on Pan American Place. | Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

💵 Preserving the pipes

The Spreckels Organ is supported by funds from the city, corporate sponsors, and private donations from locals + people all over the world. Members of the Spreckels Organ Society support the group’s mission to make quality music available to all and protect the landmark for future generations.

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