Cover feature: Spreckels Outdoor Organ

Spreckels Outdoor Organ at 100 years

In summer 2001, I had just finished my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music and was living in New York City when I read about an open position in San Diego as civic organist. I applied along with a hundred other organists. I love all kinds of music and just knew this was the job for me because that is just what the Spreckels Organ venue is about: music for all people of the world.

I was appointed Civic Organist and Artistic Director of the Spreckels Organ Society in October 2001. This venue demands a versatile music program every Sunday or the seats become empty. Little did I know that I was in for a roller-coaster ride of hard work. I soon found my footing as a self-appointed ambassador of the Spreckels Organ. As a concertizing organist, I encourage people to engage in the salubrious sounds of the pipe organ, and in doing so, hopefully gain a larger audience. We have always been blessed with appreciation and support from the people of San Diego and all those that visit from around the world.

As the seventh civic organist of San Diego, another position I hold is to work with the Spreckels Organ Society in producing their International Summer Organ Festival each year from June through September. Since this organ was given to San Diego under the condition that they cannot charge admission, the Spreckels Organ Society was formed to preserve, promote, and program this organ. The society has transformed this civic organ with their volunteer efforts, raising money for a new console, additional ranks, and the continued maintenance; the organ has become a world-class instrument.

With the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the organ, I wish to inform the reader of what has happened with the instrument and people who surround this venue.

When I began my tenure, I decided to have printed programs for every Sunday’s concert. The programs are always posted on the website the week before each performance, at 

I truly believe that when this instrument was given by the Spreckels brothers, they intended to enrich the community—not just through organ concerts, but also by using the great organ to help others. On these lines, I decided a series of benefit concerts would be a worthy way to give back to the community.

With my love of animals, I started “Bark in Balboa Park,” and all the donations for that Sunday concert have gone to the Humane Society of San Diego. They always bring animals and boutique items and this has turned into a family event. In 2015 we will have our tenth anniversary of this event.

Every January 1—whatever day of the week it falls on—we do an extra 2 p.m. concert, and this event will benefit a worthy charity in the San Diego area.

This year, I will do my second 12-hour organ marathon to raise money for our wounded vets. All donations will go to CAF’s Operation Rebound—a fantastic organization in San Diego. 

We are now live streaming the Sunday and Monday concerts. This was a dream I had a while ago, and I must thank the Spreckels team for making this happen.

If you have never visited this venue, then may I suggest you add the place to your “bucket list?” San Diego is a beautiful city and Balboa Park is the heart of the environment.

I have made wonderful friends with my predecessors. Here are some thoughts from key people around the organ.

Dr. Carol Williams, 

San Diego Civic Organist 

Artistic Director, Spreckels Organ Society 


A history of the venue and its people

The Spreckels Outdoor Organ and Pavilion was a most remarkable gift to the City of San Diego. It was a daring and courageous concept to think that a pipe organ could sound into the open air and that programs could be played throughout the year. That it is in outstanding use and condition for a full one hundred years is truly extraordinary. Seven Official Civic Organists (the correct title for the post) have served in all kinds of weather and performed all kinds of music, transcriptions, classical, and theatrical, and given to the general public the joy of a municipal organ. This writer has heard all seven of these musicians play and would like to express a few thoughts on each of these fine persons.

Humphrey John Stewart came to play as the 1915 Panama-California Exposition Organist, and then again in 1916 when the Exposition became International, and continued as the Official City Organist until his death on the 28th of December 1932. During the more than nine thousand concerts played almost daily by Dr. Stewart, he used colorful registrations and often concluded with a grand improvisation. The writer’s mother took her son to his programs! 

Royal Albert Brown had assisted Dr. Stewart and was appointed as the “Civic” organist in 1933. Except during the years of the Second World War, he played four times each week and all public holidays until his passing on October 28, 1954. 

Charles Rollin Shatto served from fall 1954 until late summer of 1957 and introduced many contemporary French organ composers. 

Douglas Ian Duncan had grown up hearing the park organ; when faced with its possible closure, he returned the programming to a lighter fare in the style of Mr. Brown. 

Jared Jacobsen became the Fifth Official Civic Organist in 1978 and is remembered for his brilliant playing and insightful historic comments. He served until 1984. 

Robert Plimpton became the sixth to serve the post, playing for well over sixteen years. His extensive musical background, having served in very important church positions, brought to Balboa Park a most extensive repertory. 

The seventh and current artist is Carol Anne Williams, the first woman to serve as a municipal organist. She has built on the past devotion of those who served before her and has carried the concerts to new heights.

The gift of John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels resounds loud and clear, in rain and cold, fair and warm days, giving its hometown a rich century of musical enjoyment and treasure. 

Douglas Ian Duncan 

Fourth Official Civic Organist

(1957–78, Retired)


Reflections on the Spreckels Organ, 1978–1984

My first encounter with the remarkable outdoor organ in the heart of Balboa Park was early in 1978. I had moved to San Diego eighteen months earlier, fresh out of graduate school, to serve an Episcopal parish in La Jolla that had just installed a new and very nice Austin organ; its curator, Lyle Blackinton, also took care of the 1915 Spreckels instrument. When it became apparent that the civic organist position might be opening up there, Lyle arranged for me to have some hands-on time.

I distinctly remember the hiss of sprinklers nourishing morning-sun-dappled grass as I parked my car behind the organ pavilion that first time (a sound that has welcomed me back every time in the ensuing thirty-six years). From the moment I sat at the Spreckels console, I felt at home there, and just a few months later, after an extensive audition process, I was named the Fifth Civic Organist of the City of San Diego, a post I was privileged to hold for the next seven years. It was my, and our city’s, great good fortune that my predecessor Douglas Ian Duncan had stubbornly refused to allow both the instrument and civic position to fade away during an especially stressful time in its history, enabling me to continue his stewardship and to continue building attendance and enthusiasm.

Shortly after I began my tenure two major arson fires were set within a month of each other, in the Aerospace Museum and the historic Old Globe Theatre, both near the Organ Pavilion. In the aftermath of these fires great interest began building to assess and then preserve the unique heritage of all of the buildings from the world’s fair for which the park was created in 1915. (Only the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the nearby Museum of Man were originally intended to be permanent; San Diego’s benign climate had assisted in preserving all of the rest.) A citizens’ group called The Committee of 100 stepped forward with the intention of preserving this heritage, and one of their first projects was the refurbishment of the Organ Pavilion, including the replacement of the existing organ console which, while not quite “at death’s door,” was nonetheless showing its age. The Austin firm was commissioned to build this replacement, which then served us ably until 2010. After much lively discussion, Lyle Blackinton and I seized the opportunity to make preparations on the 1980 console for some judicious tonal additions—not to alter the original grand sound of the instrument, but to enhance its tonal palette. These additions were eventually realized through the efforts of the Spreckels Organ Society, a grass-roots enthusiast group chartered in 1987 to support the original vision of the Spreckels brothers in ways unable to be accomplished by the City of San Diego.

So what is it like to play the Spreckels Organ? Playing a vast variety of organ literature while directly enjoying San Diego’s renowned year-round climate is fantastic. And the occasional frustration of presenting music with no traditional supporting acoustic is more than balanced by the daily opportunity to bring new listeners to the pipe organ. (Balboa Park is a vast public space in the center of a great metropolitan area; every time you fire up the organ, even in the wee hours of the morning, a hundred listeners will materialize out of the trees to cheer you on!) The core instrument from 1915 retains its original visceral thrill, with the oh-so-carefully-chosen later additions lending extra purr and growl, whimsy and fireworks as desired. After 99-plus years, the unique and historic Spreckels Outdoor Organ continues to be a favorite venue for all who encounter it.

Jared Jacobsen

Fifth Official Civic Organist (1978–84)


The formation of the Spreckels Organ Society

I began my relationship with the Spreckels organ in June 1984 when Civic Organist Jared Jacobsen resigned to take a church music position in the San Francisco Bay area. As an east coast classical organist, I admit to being not much interested in a 1915 outdoor orchestral organ designed to entertain Sunday audiences in a city park. But I reluctantly agreed to fill in as interim while the city sought a successor.

The civic organist was an independent contractor with a purchase order from the city for 52 Sunday concerts. I had barely begun when curator Lyle Blackinton mentioned that there was a tradition of not having Sunday concerts in February and using those on four Monday evenings in August. My second full month in the job found me playing eight totally different programs on four Sunday afternoons and four Monday evenings. The difference between Sunday afternoon and Monday evening was huge: Monday evening audiences were much more intentional; a greater dynamic range of the organ could be used in the cooler evening air, inviting more serious repertoire.

Jared Jacobsen had built a loyal following of organ fans who began asking why we couldn’t do “more.” The City of San Diego offers a special use permit to organizations to develop programming for the benefit of the public, using the city facilities without charge. It was obvious that such an organization was needed to expand the use of the Spreckels Organ. I phoned the people who expressed an interest in the organ and invited long-time friend Vivian Evenson to chair the effort. We met in February 1988, adopting the name Spreckels Organ Society, naming Vivian Evenson Founding President and the others Founding Trustees. We immediately wrote our bylaws and established ourselves as a non-profit charity with the IRS and the State of California. We were an official arm of the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. 

Our initial projects were to expand the number of summer Monday evening concerts, restore the February Sunday afternoon concerts, design publicity cards to be distributed in hotel tourist racks, work with the San Diego public schools to present a 45-minute concert every Friday to fifth-graders participating in a week-long Balboa Park program, establish a membership base, and actively recruit financial support. We defined our mission: “to preserve, program and promote the Spreckels Organ as a world-treasure for all people.”

In the beginning we barely paid more than the city’s budgeted $100 per concert. As support grew we were gradually able to pay better fees and enhance the position of Civic Organist/Artistic Director. Within a few years our International Summer Organ Festival became a major part of San Diego’s cultural life, attracting audiences of 2,000 or more each week. Performers and repertoire were chosen to represent the widest possible cultural diversity. We commissioned new music and collaborated with other performing arts groups. I am honored to have had a small part in fulfilling the vision of the donor John D. Spreckels, who gave this organ “for the free use and enjoyment…of the people of all the world.” I thank all who have worked to expand this vision.

Robert Plimpton

Sixth Official Civic Organist (1984–2000) 


From the Curator

The Spreckels Organ has played an important part in my life, as it was this instrument that captured my interest in the “King of Instruments” when I first heard it as an eleven-year-old in 1948. I began working as an apprentice to the previous curator Leonard Dowling in 1954 and took over the position in 1974. 

During these past sixty years I have had the privilege to hear all of the civic organists, except for the first, Humphrey Stuart. Each of these artists played an important part in the organ reaching its centennial year.

The City of San Diego also must be commended for its one hundred years of support for the position of Civic Organist and for the on-going maintenance of the organ and pavilion. Many municipalities have let famous instruments slip into disrepair and have ultimately been abandoned. 

The organ has also benefited from the generosity of local support groups such as The Committee of 100 and the Spreckels Organ Society who have partnered with the City to preserve and program this great instrument.

During my tenure as curator, it has been my goal to preserve the historic integrity of the original symphonic organ and also ensure that the subsequent additions made be done in a seamless manner that enhances this grand instrument. As the Spreckels Organ celebrates its centennial anniversary, it seems appropriate that after forty years as the curator of the organ that it is now time pass the position to my long-time associate, Dale Sorenson, who also shares a great passion for the instrument.

Lyle Blackinton

Curator, Spreckels Organ, 1974–2014


The Spreckels Organ Society comes of age in time for the Centennial Celebration.

The great Spreckels Organ and Pavilion have been at the heart of Balboa Park and San Diego, California, ever since brothers John D. and Adolph Spreckels gave the “citizens of San Diego and the world” this wonderful gift on December 31, 1914. The organ has been in almost continuous use since that time. Its programming and maintenance were entirely the responsibility of the City of San Diego until 1988, when the civic organist, Robert Plimpton, and a small group of enthusiastic supporters of the organ organized the Spreckels Organ Society (SOS), “to preserve, program and promote the Spreckels Organ.”

SOS started with a small, dedicated Board of Trustees, some basic bylaws, and a big vision. We wanted more and more people to hear the organ, appreciate its vast capacity to produce a broad range of sonic experiences, and educate our children on the joys of music in general and the sounds achievable through the unamplified workings of this fabulous instrument. Our first summer, in addition to the regular Sunday afternoon free concerts, we programmed four Monday evening free concerts—showcasing artists from outside San Diego, with national and international reputations.

Through the years since 1988, SOS has grown steadily, in membership, budget, and in outreach. The International Summer Organ Festival features at least ten separate concerts, and the very best organists from around the world take the stage under the warm skies of Balboa Park every summer and thrill our ever growing audiences. The Spreckels Organ itself has grown with the addition of new ranks and new percussion. Our beloved civic organist, Dr. Carol Williams, performs, composes, and supervises the programming. The Centennial Celebration Concert was a once-in-a-lifetime event recalling our rich history and celebrating a revitalized, expanded organ, soon to be the World’s Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ once again.

As the Spreckels Organ turns 100, the Spreckels Organ Society reaches a new level of maturity. Through steady support of our trustees, our patrons, our volunteers, and our generous audience members, SOS is able to hire a full-time Executive Director, who has the happy task, with an enthusiastic Board of Trustees, of guiding SOS into the second 100 years. As we like to say, “Together we made it happen.”

George Hardy 

President, Spreckels Organ Society


Cover photo: Representing the Spreckels Organ Society is George Hardy, president of the Spreckels Organ Society, and representing the City of San Diego is San Diego Civic Organist Carol Williams (photo credit: Robert E. Lang, Spreckels Organ Society).

Article arranged and compiled by Kerry Bell.

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