A guide to the home and studio of Thomas Hart Benton, Kansas City's most prolific painter
A hidden gem of Kansas City's historic Roanoke neighborhood, the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio takes you back in time to the place Benton lived, worked and died.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
KCUR’s Creative Adventure email launched in May 2019. One of our earliest adventures was a visit to the Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historic Site, which was the home of the famous Missourian for over three decades.
In August 2022, KCUR asked readers to submit their favorite “hidden gems” around the Kansas City region. Benton’s home was one of the top reader recommendations, so we returned to the stately residence where Benton lived, worked and died.
The site, managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is tucked into a quiet nook of the historic Roanoke neighborhood. Steve Sitton has been the site administrator for over 20 years and talks about “our Tom” with the familiarity of an old friend. Here he is with a short anecdote about Benton and Walt Disney.
Tours of the site are offered multiple times a day, Thursday through Monday, and cost $5 per guest. The 45-minute tour of the house and studio starts promptly on the hour. You can reserve a spot online or at the site, and currently, tours are limited to 5 people due to space.
Who was Thomas Hart Benton?
Benton was one of the most famous painters to have made Kansas City home and his work was commissioned all over the country. Versatile and prolific, he considered the mural the highest form of art and was one of the most famous muralists in the county.
In 1939, shortly after finishing his murals for the Missouri State Capitol, Benton bought the Roanoke house and moved in with his wife, Rita Piacenza, and their son T.P. They were joined shortly thereafter by their daughter, Jessie, born the same year.
Tours begin back in the visitors' center, a portion of Benton’s garage converted to showcase memorabilia and various aspects of his work that don’t get as much attention, such as his book illustrations.
In the visitors' center, see a scaled down replica of his “Achelous and Hercules,” which first hung above the elevators at Harzfeld’s department store in downtown Kansas City and now is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Watch “The Making of a Mural” to see how it was done.
Benton was in his studio, a converted stable, all day every day, says Sitton. He died there in 1975, paint brush in hand, having just completed a mural for the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.
The studio has remained mostly how Benton left it, brushes in coffee cans and canvases stretched, ready for the next commission. Sitton describes the process Benton used when creating his huge pieces, making sketches (often using friends and neighbors as models) and clay forms, before scaling the image up.
President Harry Truman called him “the best damn painter in America.” Sitton describes how Benton’s work has a “sense of sound,” often depicting high energy subjects such as bulls, trains and musicians. Benton’s meticulous attention to detail and grand sweep of movement certainly captured a vivid image of everyday Americans.
The Benton home is a time capsule of life in the mid-1970s and Sitton treats the home as though the Bentons have just stepped out for a moment. Rita ruled the roost, managing the finances and the family.
The home was their haven, but also a place to entertain friends, students (Benton taught at the Kansas City Art Institute until 1941) and potential clients. The walls of the home were treated like a rotating gallery. Many of Benton’s works are still on display, both originals and reproductions.
Traces of the family still remain, including the window paintings young Jessie created and an extensive personal library. Pick up Rita’s recipe for spaghetti while you’re checking out the kitchen.
The Benton family loved music and hosting jam sessions. T.P. had a career as a professional flutist, Jessie played guitar growing up and Benton played harmonica. They even produced their own EP, “Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s.”
Benton had over 300 albums in his collection, a fan of all types of music from Johann Sebastian Bach to Hazel Scott. Sitton created a playlist from those albums, which pulls from its eclectic mix throughout the tour.
It was Rita’s wish that the house become a museum to honor Benton’s legacy. She died 11 weeks after Benton and their home became a historical site in 1977, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Where else to see Benton's work
Benton was productive, that’s for sure. Sitton says Benton’s work can be found in most major museums in the country, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The collection has a variety of Benton sketches and paintings. In 2015, KCUR's Laura Spencer mapped out locations across the country where Benton's work is on display.
You can also see examples of Benton’s work in the lobby of the historic Folly Theater. The Folly installed two reproduction panels reflecting city scenes from Benton’s 1929 “America Today.” The originals are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum also has a Benton mural: Independence and the Opening of the West. Of course, Truman was a big fan of his fellow Missourian and even helped out with the project (a little bit).
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