(by Susan Colson) Percy’s wheelbarrow is in the basement. Percy fashioned it himself to carry his music and instrument-laden trunks back and forth to the White Plains Trains Station. His concerts kept him coming and going at such odd hours that the White Plains station master eventually streamlined service by delivering a key to his very own storage closet where the wheelbarrow could stay until pressed back into service. Ray, whose family has owned the local Scarlet Deli for decades, remembers Percy running down the street with the wheelbarrow, which Ray termed a “rickshaw.” “Wiry little guy, polite, odd voice,” Ray, now well in his 70’s, remembers Percy, his customer and neighborhood eccentric.
Although frequent, not all of Percy’s trips were pleasant. On the train returning to White Plains from Los Angles in the days after his mother’s death, Percy wrote a shaky, stream-of-consciousness letter to Balfour Gardiner, his friend and fellow student from the Hoch Conservatory. His wandering May 3, 1922 communique lists 33 items to be done “in case of a breakdown of my forces en route.” The letter instructs Gardiner to publish the “manuscripts, music, etc.” to be found “strewn around in the music room on pianos, in drawers and in the loft (attic) at White Plains.” The letter further notes “Could plot of ground (owned by me) next to White Plains home be used for building small fireproof Grainger Museum?”
During the next decade, Percy would build such a museum in Melbourne, Australia. It would house the items Percy deemed important enough to classify, note, and send off to his homeland. Seven Cromwell Place would hold the things of his daily life, the things he describes as “strewn around.” It still does.
Luckily, for those of us who provide tours, most visitors arrive with the idea of “a residence” well understood, they are not expecting Musée du Louvre. Although Percy has been gone nearly sixty years (and his wife, Ella, nearly forty) it is not a great stretch for visitors to imagine his life within these walls. Many who come, indeed most, are musicians. Take the case of pianist and recent visitor Jacob Rhodebeck, of Hastings-on-Hudson, who arrived together with his wife, mezzo-soprano Christine Free Rhodebeck and their little daughter, Vivienne, in tow.
“Of course, I know Percy Grainger’s music, especially Gum Sucker’s March and Spoon River from my college days” noted Jacob, “it’s just that, until I saw the house on Trip Advisor, I had no idea he ever lived in White Plains.” Jacob reported that he was fascinated by Percy’s quirky homestead, with its three pianos filling the music room. The music room also holds a random boomerang beside a cherished 1906 postcard from Edvard Grieg. Both of these items sit directly under a lamp with the type of silk shade favored by his mother, Rose. Percy’s chin up bar is tied irreverently to the formal colonnade’s marking the entrance to the living room. The Rhodebeck family was impressed, it was clear that Percy lived, worked, and slept, here.
During their visit, Jacob spent a few moments playing the Steinway (serial number 88,422 places its manufacture circa 1897) while Vivienne danced. This piano, which Percy was reputed to cherish for its “singing quality” Is always a point of fascination. Another recent visitor, Duncan Applby found playing the piano a highlight, as noted in his google review.
So, here we are in White Plains, replicating Percy’s life and environs as authentically as possible, hoping to help visitors experience his home in a way that taps their senses and emotions. We grapple with how to make this more meaningful, more purposeful, visit by visit, visitor by visitor.