Longtime N.J. state senator Emerson Richards gave us an organ for the ages.
ATLANTIC CITY — He had come from distinguished stock on both sides — his father’s family one of eastern Pennsylvania’s oldest, his mother’s great-grandfather a major in the Napoleonic Guard — and, somewhere along the way, Emerson Lewis Richards developed an abiding passion for the grand organ, as if the instrument’s majestic sound underscored his heritage.
The Quaker-bred, multitalented Richards eventually designed the jaw-dropping pipe organ in Boardwalk Hall — the world’s largest — but his day job was politics. With his neatly trimmed, prematurely white hair and direct gaze, he looked the part. In addition to holding other high-profile offices, he served as New Jersey state senator for all but three of the years from 1917 to 1935.
Long before Trenton’s clarion call and the organ’s sonic blast, Richards received his baptism in Atlantic City bathhouses. Born here in 1884, he was three years younger than his father’s thriving seashore business: Richards Baths. Jacob Richards, a Philadelphia contractor, had smelled profits in the salt air and, at South Carolina Avenue and the Boardwalk, built bathhouses for beachgoers to exchange wardrobes before and after frolicking on the sands and in the surf (the establishment also offered sunbathers a two-part, woolen swimsuit that covered most of the body). He installed his wife, Martina, at the site, first in a small-frame house and, soon enough, in an expansive second-floor residence above the beachfront business. Richards Pavilion, with its sloping rooflines and open-air Roman arches, provided shade and atmosphere directly across the Boardwalk.
Havana-born Martina, of French and German parentage, was both cosmopolitan (her father produced silk hats in Atlantic City via France) and business-savvy, and built Richards Baths into the island’s largest while her husband continued his construction work in Philadelphia. Later, she would help guide the fortunes of her son’s political career. Her strong hand remained on the tiller as she lived with him in the Boardwalk residence until she died in 1938. Five years later, Emerson Richards married.
By then he had fashioned an enviable career in public service and private practice. Armed with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he had joined the New Jersey bar and set up shop in Atlantic City. But his eye was on the statehouse more than the courtroom. In 1912, Richards began a three-year stint in the state Assembly, serving as House leader for two of those years. He climaxed his subsequent, long run in the state Senate by becoming president of that chamber in 1933, the same year in which he served as New Jersey’s acting governor for three months. His resume also included appointments as deputy state attorney general and counsel for a pair of interstate bridge commissions.
Now that’s a busy agenda.
Richards maintained offices at the stately Schwehm Building, an eight-story rectangular structure at New York and Atlantic avenues.
“The building had a cachet; it was an elite place,” says local historian Allen “Boo” Pergament, who often hunkers down at Richards’ commodious desk, which lives on at the Atlantic Heritage Center in Somers Point.
But if Richards’ eye was on governance, his ear was finely attuned to the sonorous strains of the organ. He studied the instrument’s technical aspects under world-renowned organ builders, and designed some 150 organs, including the granddaddy of them all in the original Convention Hall. At various times, seven pipe organs graced his residence.
“His family wealth meant that he could indulge his passion without limitation,” says Stephen D. Smith, president of the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society (ACCHOS). “Richards himself was never an organ builder, but he knew a fantastic amount about the subject. He used that knowledge, coupled with his legal background, to specify very particular details in the contracts for organs to be built under his direction.”
For Convention Hall’s main auditorium organ, director Richards deserved an Academy Award. The glorious instrument, which continues to undergo restoration, employs a staggering 33,000-plus pipes to create a gallery of sounds that fill the cavernous space. Richards also designed the Hall’s ballroom organ and one that resided at the original Atlantic City High School. Pergament recalls sitting in the auditorium balcony before school and listening to a talented fellow student let loose on the 8,000-pipe organ.
Emerson Richards died in the fall of 1963 at his Boardwalk residence, rebuilt at South Carolina Avenue following a 1958 fire. The summer after his death, the Democrats nominated Lyndon Johnson for president at Convention Hall.
The organ looked on.
Thanks to Allen “Boo” Pergament and Stephen D. Smith for information and insight.
The Historic Organ Restoration Committee (HORC) recently announced that The Phantom of the Opera — the classic 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney — will be brought to life on the big screen and serve as the HORC’s fall fundraiser. The film will air Friday, Oct. 25, at 8pm, at Boardwalk Hall.
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