Luxury, Litigation, and a Second Builder: The Tortured History of the New York Jockey Club Orchestrion

Article excerpt


IT HAS AT LAST BEEN DETERMINED that the monstrous contraption under consideration resided in the ballroom of the organization's main club house in Westchester, north of the city, which at the time included all of what is now the Bronx. An 1893 article in The Illustrated American describes the scope of the grounds: "The New York Jockey Club, by official figures, has spent more than $1,700,000 upon its grounds and buildings at Westchester. No other racing association in this country has invested nearly so much in real estate and in buildings ... in reality owned entirely by John A. Morris, the founder of the club. It is well known that Mr. Morris made the bulk of his vast fortune in the Louisiana Lottery."1 This disdainful reference to "new money" was anything but veiled.

Because of the loosely able titles of Turf and Field Club and Jockey Club, the detective work took a circuitous route until OHS member James Lewis steered this author to archival photographs that revealed that the orchestrion served a far grander space than suggested by the photograph previously published in this nal.2 Under magnification, one can see enormously wide-scaled flue pipes Roman mouths and harmonic bridges, and trumpet resonators of spun brass, some of them hooded. When compared to the frames of the glazed case doors, one is immediately struck by the conflict of verticals of what appears to be notably sloppy pipe racking, with flue pipes leaning in all directions.

Yet the most revealing aspect of the 1896 photograph is the inscription in the central impost cartouche. It reads, in part, "Rebuilt Weite & [Söhne?], New York," with additional lettering below, which is not sufficiently focused to read. Weite was the orchestrion builder to the elite, and Michael Weite had his son Emil open a showroom in New York in 1865. Weite's New York business was wildly successful and would have seemed the logical choice to build the instrument in the first place. Imhof & Mukle's price and delivery time must have been irresistibly competitive.

The instrument was commissioned on April 25, 1890, through intermediary dealer John Fuchs, for the princely sum of $I4,3OO,3 to be paid in four equal installments. The orchestrion was installed in April and May 1891, and made its debut on May 25, 1891. Within weeks, its cylinders and other parts began to crack, check, and warp despite the contract's five-year guarantee. …


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