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The Walker's
Welte Philharmonic Organ

Preliminary historical research and contextualisation

The Return of the Organ

One of the finest mechanical musical instruments ever built has recently been brought back to Europe for restoration after a hundred year exile in America.
Created in the German Black Forest and shipped to a private buyer in America just before World War One broke out, a Welte Philharmonic Organ is currently sitting in pieces in our workshop in the Belgian Ardennes. It is one of the most magnificent examples of a mechanical musical instrument ever made.
We now looking for an investor to help bring this magnificent organ back to its former glory. Once restored, the wonderful sounds of the instrument will be heard again and the incredible story of the Welte’s creators will be appropriately honored. 


There are many people whose history and story has affected this particular Welte organ. The first is Michael Welte, (1807–1880), who founded the Welte company in the 1830s after having been apprenticed to a musical clock builder in the German Black Forest. Welte and his descendants would build instruments for the most discerning music enthusiasts across the world for the next hundred years.


One of these enthusiasts was Hiram Walker (1816 – 1899), a grocery clerk born on a farm in Massachusetts. Like Welte, Walker went on to create an empire from very humble beginnings. He made his millions with Walker’s alcohol distillery company. His son would later order a Welte Philharmonic Organ from the German company for the Walker family summerhouse in Boston. It is this organ that now sits in our workshop in the Belgian Ardennes.

Hiram Walker understood the potential of alcohol distilling after successfully selling his homemade vinegar in his own grocery shop. Walker was a very innovative businessman and he soon created his own small distillery, supplying other grocery stores with his vinegar and liquor and local mills with grains used in the distillery.

In the mid 19th century, to extend his grain business, Walker started to buy land on both sides of the Detroit River, which straddled the border of the US and Canada. His previous commercial success allowed him, in 1857, to build a larger whisky distillery. He built this on the Canadian side of the river. The land there was far cheaper and in this way he would avoid the prohibition law in the US, whose onset was in the air.
To support the distillery, Walker built roads, houses for the workers, a church and a school. And by 1890, the once empty Ontario landscape became known as the town of Walkerville. It had a population of 600, a fully operational distillery and small farms. The distillery became the biggest in Canada and the whisky was renamed Canadian Club. Walker went on to control the complete chain of production. He owned the fields, the distillery, the mills, the transportation of the grain to mills and the distribution of the final product.
The Walker family business was hugely profitable in the US and in Canada. The family lived between Detroit, Massachusetts and Walkerville. Hiram Walker died in Detroit in 1899 and left the successful business to his two daughters and five sons.
It was around the same time as Hiram Walker was building his empire in North America, that Michael Welte was creating a successful company in Germany. 

Michael Welte learned to craft by hand each element of a musical clock. At the age of 25, he started a business with his elder brother in his home village in Germany’s Black Forest. He very soon realized that customers were just as attracted to the look of the clocks and the sound they made as they were to the clock mechanisms. Welte was one of the first people to build much larger and ornamental cabinets that contained several ranks of pipes and even percussion instruments, all of which mechanically performed sophisticated music. By presenting his luxurious instruments at fairs and Royal palaces, Welte instruments soon became the first choice for the European aristocracy.
In 1865, Michael’s eldest son, Emil Welte (1841 -1923), went to New York to open an office and show room. With the success of this move, in 1872, the company moved its German operations to Freiburg, next to a large European railway hub to ensure easier worldwide exportation. Michael Welte died in 1880, when the company, which at this time was already being run by his son, was one of the most modern and profitable mechanical musical instrument companies in the world.


Five years later, one of Michael’s other sons, Berthold Welte (1843 -1918), revolutionized the Welte Company by replacing the heavy wooden cylinders, on which the musical content that the instruments performed was held, with perforated paper rolls. This meant there was no limit to the sophistication of the music that the instruments could play. Paper rolls were easier to produce, the duration of the performance time was extended and the number of pipes or accessories on the instruments could be increased and automatically controlled.
In 1905, Michael’s grandson Edwin Welte (1876-1958,) and his brother-in-law Karl Bockisch (1874-1952), started to adapt the paper roll system for pianos. And in 1910, the Welte Company became the first in the world to build mechanical pianos that reproduced the recorded performances of pianists with all the nuances that these included. The system was named the “Welte-Mignon.” It was a great success and the most famous pianists of the time were delighted to record for the Welte-Mignon system. It enabled them to be heard in the living rooms of music connoisseurs and leave a record of their own interpretations of music for future generations. 

In the 1911 International Exhibition at Turin, Italy, Edwin introduced the “Welte-Philharmonie-Orgel”. This was a Welte-Mignon mechanism adapted into a very large organ that could play philharmonic compositions inside private houses.
Meanwhile, in the US, James Harrington Walker and his brothers were carrying on the business of the Walkerville distillery. The family by now had a dominant position in US and Canadian society. James shared his time between Detroit and Walkerville. But the family had never forgotten their Massachusetts origins and in 1910, James bought a cottage ideally situated at Magnolia, a small village near Gloucester, 120 miles north of Boston. 

Magnolia was a resort with houses facing the ocean and good train connections. A fire destroyed the Walker cottage not long after James bought it, but he had it rebuilt with unusual materials for this time and for the area, including fireproof features.
Among the many modern features that Walker introduced into the new house was a Welte Philharmonic Organ, which was discretely situated in a special room beside the living room. In the 1910s, this was one of the most elegant and modern accessories a house could possibly contain. 

The Welte organ was built to enable its owners to listen to philharmonic music in their living rooms. At that time, the only other mechanism that could reproduce music was the phonograph. But the sound quality of the phonograph was very poor. 

There is no keyboard on this Welte organ, as it plays automatically. And its sober facade simply features the mechanism where the paper rolls are placed along with a few buttons. As well as the metal pipes, the instrument also has a very large drum that replicates timpani, a glockenspiel and tubular bells. The Walker family ordered several paper rolls of music with the Welte including extracts of a Massenet opera, a Handel concerto and an entire opera by Wagner. These have remained with the organ until this very day. 

In the 1910s, people from all around the world were ordering instruments from the Welte Company’s Freiburg factory. The Welte-Mignon piano system was placed in Steinway pianos and the greatest pianists of the time were queuing to record for the company. The Welte philharmonic instruments were bought for luxurious hotel lobbies and transatlantic cruise ships.
The organ ordered for the Britannic passenger liner, sister ship of the White Star Line Titanic, was however never actually placed in the ship. The vessel was launched just before the outbreak of World War One and was soon after requisitioned by the Royal Navy.
The Walker’s organ however was finished and shipped to the US just before the war started. It was one of the last Welte organs shipped to the US before all German interests were nationalized.
During the war, the Welte factory was damaged. The family rebuilt it and restarted the business when the war ended, but Europe had changed, and it was more difficult to export German products. The company stayed in business by producing church organs. But in the Second World War the factory was completely destroyed – its position near the Freiburg train station was a key target for allied bombers, and it was never rebuilt.  
The Welte factory in Freiburg around 1912 and after the Second World War

While the US branch of Welte kept building philharmonic organs, there was no comparison with the quality of the ones built in Germany. And although other companies in the US, like Aeolian, started to build philharmonic organs and even exported them to Europe, the Welte instruments were undeniably the most elegant ever built. Later instruments were built to be bigger, but Welte’s quest for musical perfection was not to be repeated.

Today, only a few philharmonic mechanical organs survive. The ones without keyboards are the most rare. The instruments were designed for specific rooms, so they often came without a case, making them vulnerable to damage. Many were destroyed after the advent of electric amplification a few decades after the mechanical organ’s heyday. And as the paper rolls containing the music disappeared, there was little point in restoring the damaged organs as there was no music for them to perform anyway. Their size also prevented most museums from being able to host them.
Most of the surviving instruments were saved because proper organ cases were built for them at the time of their removal from their original locations. The Welte organs that exist today include the one that was built for the Britannic passenger liner. It still works and performs for visitors to the Museum of Music Automatons in Seewen, Switzerland. Another one is still used in the Victorian Theatre at the Salomons Estate in Tunbridge Wells, England – although this one has a keyboard. Another survivor, against all odds, is the Walker organ.
James Harrington Walker died in 1919 after which the family’s Magnolia house changed ownership several times. As the instrument was located in its own special room, subsequent owners of the house did not move or try to fix the organ. It seems that the instrument did not work for very long after it was built and the lower part has suffered from flood damage.

Then in 1998, Mr Durward Center, a rare specialist and restorer of Welte organs from Baltimore, heard that the Walker instrument was to be removed and probably destroyed. Mr Center contacted the owner of the Magnolia house and agreed to come and dismantle the instrument. As it had never been touched, he found all the pipes and mechanisms to be in their original condition. Mr Center took several pictures as the organ was dismantled and he stored all the pieces carefully in Baltimore.

In 2015, our worshop entered the picture.
Through Mr Breitenmoser, a Swiss dealer, Mr Paulis became the new owner of this incredible instrument. We went to Baltimore and safely packed all the pieces of the organ and its paper rolls. We also got Mr Center’s detailed records of how the instrument was taken apart. The precious organ then made its way by truck and boat to the Belgian Ardennes where the instrument in now stored at our workshop.

But the future of this instrument is still uncertain. It is as close to its place of origin as it has ever been since it was shipped to the US some hundred years ago, but it remains silent. The restoration and maintenance of these types of instruments are very complex. It's also very difficult to convey just how wonderful these organs are. They were made for very wealthy people and designed to be hidden, so not many people ever heard about them. But these instruments represent the apogee of mechanical musical instrument techniques. A few years later, electric radio made them obsolete.
These instruments also serve to represent a certain state of mind of the wealthy that existed just before the cataclysm of the First World War. This saved instrument will probably need to wait again before to be heard once more. But one thing is for sure: we will try our best to make this rebirth possible, sooner or later.



La Collerie, 1
4970 Stavelot

Tél: +32 (0) 498 62 05 29

Manufacturing and restoration of mechanical musical instuments 

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