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Welte Orchestrions
Welte Orchestrions at Atlantic Garden
courtesy Tim Trager
text from 990828 MMD

atlgardenOld.jpg (54 kb)Recently I found a fantastic postcard at my local postcard show which shows a front view of the two beautiful mammoth Welte Orchestrions which were once located in the Atlantic Garden, 50-54 Bowery, New York City.  The Bowery location is quite ironic, as will be discussed later.

These were probably the largest Welte orchestrions imported to America.  Before the Style 10 was acquired in 1909, the Atlantic Garden purchased in 1865 a huge cylinder operated Welte.  The instrument easily stood 18 feet tall and was about 14 feet wide!  Note that it played from two pinned cylinders.

The deluxe Style 10 roll operated orchestrion was built for the Chicago World's Fair of 1892.  This orchestrion took the grand prize at the Fair.  What a showpiece!  After the Fair it was sold to the Atlantic Garden where it was billed as the largest orchestrion ever built!  The orchestrion played the 120-note concert orchestrion roll; in addition to the usual melody brass trumpets, this orchestrion also had countermelody brass trumpets on each side which are shorter than the huge brass trombones.  These countermelody trumpets made the sound of this instrument most special, and the full sound from this instrument must have been incredible!

Take time to study the postcard view of this instrument.  The sculpted cabinetry on this orchestrion is spectacular.  It is easily Welte's most beautiful orchestrion!  Just look at the towering elegant top gallery!  Note the elaborate stenciled windows -- such stenciling is usually in gold.  The instrument measured approximately 20 feet high by 18 feet wide!  Over the years I have been involved with many large orchestrions, from Hupfelds to Webers to Weltes.  The one thing that most impresses me about this instrument is the fact that you had to walk up a staircase built into the instrument's cabinet in order to change the roll!

atlgardenNew.jpg (80 kb)The Atlantic Garden was owned by sons of William Kramer and was established in 1858.  It was a hotel and large restaurant/music hall.  In the late 17th century, the Bowery area was a farming area located north of the main city.  The area derived its name from "boweryij", the Dutch word for farm.  By the 1860's the Bowery area had become known for its cheap bawdy entertainment.

By the time the World's Fair Welte arrived, the area had become New York's center for gambling, beer halls, flophouses, and houses of negotiable affection.  Despite its advertised claims of being a "select family resort", in reality the Atlantic Garden was probably quite a rowdy drinking hall with rooms rented by the hour!

The Bowery area of the 1890's was so notorious that it was referred to as "the proverbial den of all vices, the capital of dissipation, the main street of the lower classes, the forum of the slums, and the last stop on the way down".  The area was definitely looked down upon by the cultured elite of New York City.  In fact, this sentiment was capture in a famous song written by Charles M. Hoyt in 1892 with the following lyrics:

   "The Bowery, the Bowery!
    They say such things and they do such things.
    On the Bowery, the Bowery!
    I'll ne'er go there anymore!"

welte1a.jpg (68 kb)The interesting fact is that most Welte Orchestrions were sold to the elite, rich, upper class, and royal personages of the gilded age.  For example, the Vanderbilts owned three Weltes, including one on their yacht.  The King of Romania and the Sultan of Turkey each owned one.  The prominent Pittsburgh steel families owned them; in fact, a Style 5 is still located in the Frick mansion in Pittsburgh.  If you look hard, Welte orchestrions can still be found in wealthy homes from England to South America and India.  All you have to do is talk your way past the gates!

The irony is that the two most spectacular Welte orchestrions sold to America were not sold to the elite for their mansions, but were sold to the infamous decadent depraved low class Bowery!  The elite of the day would never be caught there unless they secretly went there in disguise!  It must have been a quite difficult for the Welte Company to use the Bowery location with their most spectacular prize winning orchestrion as a reference!  How would the Welte sales consultant explain the raunchy Bowery location to Mrs. Vanderbilt!

On the other hand many spectacular orchestrions -- including a surviving Hupfeld Super Pan, a surviving Wurlitzer Concert PianOrchestra, a surviving large Welte Briscovia, as well as many other spectacular instruments -- were originally used in bawdy houses and notorious saloons, from Amsterdam's red light district to mining towns in Colorado to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco!  Today such history only enhances colorful resumes of these fabulous instruments and makes them more interesting!

The Welte in the color photo is a Style 2 Welte Cottage Orchestrion, originally located in France and now in a collection elsewhere in Europe.  My best guess is that it dates from around 1895.  It is quite unusual in that it plays a special roll which is smaller than the usual 75-note Welte orchestrion roll.  It is weight operated -- note the ornate governor mechanism to the right of the roll frame.

Back to the Atlantic Garden.  Sadly the place burned in 1907 and the grand Welte orchestrions passed into history.

I encourage MMD'ers to try to talk themselves past the gates of large old estates, manor houses, etc. because unknown Welte orchestrions are still out there.  I have also included a picture of a typical Welte recently found in France.  Start digging!  If you are successful, send me an e-mail and let me know!

Tim Trager
Trager@idt.net

Click here to view the original postcard (154 kb)


29 August 1999

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