Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
A steady winter wind was blowing that night in January 1908. The temperature was 17 degrees and falling, making it a particularly bad night for City Hall to burn down.
But it did, to the ground.
It was a total disaster. In the end, there wasn’t much left except a few smoking walls. The total loss was worth $600,000. Unfortunately, the building was only insured for $80,000. The previous City Hall burned in the great fire of 1866, only 42 years before. Portland once again had to live up to its “resurgum” motto and phoenix mascot — and rise it did.
The new City Hall opened 105 years ago this week, on Aug. 22, 1912. Hidden inside was a treasure, a rare musical jewel, the second largest organ in the world.
The instrument is now known as the mighty Kotzschmar organ. The story behind how it ended up here, in an underinsured city auditorium, starts before the Civil War.
The organ bears the name of musician and composer Hermann Kotzschmar. Born in Germany, Kotzschmar lived in Portland from 1849 until his death in April 1908.
Kotzchmar rented a room from Cyrus Curtis’ family on Brown Street when he first got to town. He apparently became quite close with the family. When Curtis’ first child was born, he named him Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, in honor of the young musician.
Remember the name Cyrus H.K. Curtis. He’ll return to this tale in few paragraphs.
In 1850, Kotzschmar got a job playing the organ at the First Parish Church on Congress Street. He held the job for 47 years. Kotzschmar tickled the keys with flair and gusto, often improvising on the melody. Nobody in town played like him. He drew crowds from miles around, growing famous in the process.
He wasn’t just a player, either, he taught hundreds of students how to play and sing. Kotzschmar composed instrumental and vocal music, marches, dance tunes, piano solos and and hymns for his church choir. He wrote so much and so often, he had no idea how much he’d written.
In 1899, more than a thousand people gathered for a concert honoring Kotzschmar and his 50 musical years in town. Guest musicians included the Boston Festival Orchestra and vocal soloists from Boston and New York City.
In 1905, both Bowdoin College and Eberhardt College gave Kotzschmar honorary music degrees.
He died a few months after City Hall burned in 1908.
Enter Cyrus H. K. Curtis. By that time, he was the ultra-wealthy magazine publisher behind the Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. He offered to buy Portland an organ for its new City Hall. But his gift had two strings attached: The organ had to be built by the Austin Organ Co. of Hartford, Connecticut, and it had to be a memorial to Hermann Kotzschmar.
The city wisely agreed.
In 1927, Curtis gave the city more money to have the organ enlarged. It was also enlarged in the 1990s, in 2000 and 2003. Each time donors have footed the bill. Today. the Kotzschmar Organ boasts 7,101 pipes and a five-decker keyboard. It’s pretty amazing to hear.
I guess the 1908 fire wasn’t all bad.
Note: I couldn’t have made this post without the help of Ray Cornils and the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. They have a great schedule of concerts and have special days when the public can try the organ, Also, I should always thank the Maine memory Network for help with photos.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.