FITCHBURG — For nearly a half century, Eugene Roe has used his masterful hand to tune and restore thousands of pianos from across the country, and, over the past several years in Fitchburg, he has amassed a collection of more than 350 pianos.
Roe, 84, currently works out of the second floor of a former mill building at 15 Oak Hill Lane, where the treasure trove of instruments sits in disjointed rows at Piano Artisans.
Spare parts and rusty tools lean against brick walls with chipping paint, and long lines of pianos rest atop uneven floorboards and below a leaky roof.
As he shuffled around the dimly lit space, Roe pointed out pianos that he’s saved from fires and even a piano that was owned by a close friend of Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant.
While he counted off a number of important pianos on the floor, Roe acknowledged a major challenge he is currently facing.
In the next week or so, Roe will need to find a way to relocate his pianos to a new location after his landlord said he was looking to sell the building.
“I don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t pay for any movers,” he said. “We’re going to see what happens.”
With the business struggling, finding a new shop with enough space was difficult but Roe eventually found a place in Leominster. He thinks the new location will be good for business, but moving everything won’t be easy.
Despite his age and the challenge of the move ahead of him, Roe says he loves the work too much to ever stop.
“This is where pianos come to get resurrected,” said Roe, who calls himself a preservationist of the instrument.
Most pianos collect dust until it’s time for Roe to break out his toolkit and begin work on the wood, ivory keys, or aging strings.
The business has a small showroom where a dozen pianos are displayed for sale. Roe’s workshop, admittedly an organized mess, is where pianos are repaired, and another large section is a warehouse for upright, square, and grand pianos and a few organs awaiting the restorer’s touch.
Roe, who lives in Greenville, N.H., works with the goal of making each instrument look and sound just like it did when it was first built.
“It’s in my blood, it’s a passion,” said Roe. “I’m not going to let an instrument with all this beautiful handwork and ivory keys from endangered species get thrown away.”
Roe said his favorite piano to work on was a Chickering concert grand piano from 1886 that was found in a church in New Hampshire. “It’s really a substantial piano, it’s just gorgeous.”
The piano was sold to a recording engineer who works at the La Grua Center, a concert venue in Stoning, Conn. Roe gets to hear high-quality recordings of concerts played on that piano.
He started playing the piano when he was just six-years-old.
Roe taught himself to tune pianos when he was 18 and in college. Through the years, he tuned pianos for friends and family members.
Later, when he lost his job as an electronics engineer, piano tuning and restoration became his full-time job in 1970.
“I found people who let me tune their pianos and I never looked back,” said Roe. In 1978, he passed the Piano Technicians Guild exam and became a registered piano technician.
For a time, Roe worked out of a back room at New England Piano Exchange on Main Street until it closed.
In 2000, Roe moved into the space on Oak Hill Lane.
Roe says business has been dwindling every year. People don’t use pianos anymore and they usually abandon them at his shop, he said.
That fact, coupled with his policy of accepting any piano someone is willing to bring to him, has allowed his collection to grow to where it is now.
“I have a soft spot for them,” he said. “If these big upright pianos disappear, they’ll never been seen again.”
Since news broke that Roe would be moving, he says there have been several piano sales. The money from the sales will go toward paying for the move.
The landlord, said Roe, also said the pianos were a liability concern and fire hazard, a statement which the Fitchburg Fire Department agrees with.
Roe hopes to take as many of the pianos with him as he can, but he knows it will be a difficult task.
“We’re going to find a place for everything if we can,” he said. “They’re not going to move themselves, so we’ll see if have room for all of it.”