Thomas Hart Benton lived in this two-and-a-half story home from 1939 until his death in 1975. The house, constructed with native, quarried limestone, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cross the threshold into Benton’s life and art.

This story originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Missouri Life magazine.

I could see why this old Kansas City neighborhood would inspire an artist. I admired the beauty of the homes and well-kept lawns as I headed toward 3616 Belleview Avenue, the site of the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources acquired this site in 1977, two years after the death of the Neosho-born artist.

The Benton house is situated in the midst of late Victorian mansions and one-story, early-modern homes in Kansas City’s Roanoke neighborhood. Benton’s two-and-a-half-story house dates to 1903 and is built from locally quarried Missouri limestone. It stands near the Sondern-Adler home, a 1939 Frank Lloyd Wright domicile built in the “Usonian” style.

Wright invented this term to describe peculiarly American homes that he built for upper middle-class patrons. Several of the windows in the Benton house look directly out onto this elegant, horizontally aligned residence that Wright called a “little gem.”

The right place.

A life-size metal stand-up of Thomas Hart Benton is positioned in front of his house, assuring me that I am in the right place. I am greeted by the historic site’s administrator, Steve Sitton, who has lived and worked at the property for decades. Steve has devoted much of his life to studying Benton and understanding the artist as a painter, family man, and human being. He has offered to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the house and studio.

Thomas Hart Benton bought his Belleview Avenue home in 1939, after he became disillusioned with the New York art scene and moved to Kansas City. He converted the property’s old carriage house into a studio, where he had ample space for his often exceptionally large compositions.

Steve will take me through the studio at the end of the tour, but we begin in Benton’s living room, where the family spent much of its leisure time. Tom lived with the love of his life, Rita Piacenza Benton, an Italian immigrant whom the artist met in New York when she took art classes from him. The couple married in 1922, and went on to have two children, Thomas Piacenza Benton (1926- 2010), known as T. P., and Jessie Benton, a daughter born in 1939, the year the Bentons acquired their Kansas City house. The front door opens onto the light-filled living room, decorated with comfy mid-century furniture.

One almost expects Benton to come walking down the stairs, pipe in hand, or Rita to pop her head out from around the corner leading to the dining room. A baby grand piano dominates one corner of the room, and Steve reminds me that this was where the Bentons often entertained. Benton was friends with a who’s who of twentieth century musicians, from Burl Ives and Pete Seeger to the modernist composer Carl Ruggles.

The family was musical. Rita and Jessie played guitar, T. P. played the flute, and Tom was a skilled harmonica player, even developing his own notation system. Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s, a record released by Decca in 1942, features Tom and T. P. playing music with their friends.

A copy is displayed on the piano, and Benton’s illustration for the album cover depicts musicians crowded into the family’s living room as a dog, a cat, and baby Jessie observe the festivities. Steve recently digitized the family’s collection of records so that visitors hear a soundtrack of the music (primarily classical) the Bentons enjoyed listening to in the home.

Original art on the walls

Tom’s artworks decorate the walls throughout the house, many on loan from the Thomas and Rita Benton Testimonial Trust. While some visitors may associate the home’s furnishings with that seen in the homes of elderly aunts or grandparents, the pictures remind us that this is the residence of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.

We step into the kitchen where Rita, a renowned cook, spent much of her time. I am five-seven, and I feel like a giant in this room. It is small by today’s standards, and the counter height is designed for shorter cooks. Rita was five foot, four inches tall, and Tom measured just under five-three. The family’s dishes, kitchen tools, cookbooks, and silverware are still in place, and visitors have a chance to recreate a dish once served in the Benton home. Copies of Rita Benton’s spaghetti recipe are available on request. Next, we head upstairs to the bedrooms.

Thomas Hart Benton bought his Belleview Avenue home in 1939, after he became disillusioned with the New York art scene and moved to Kansas City.

Rita occupied the spacious master bedroom and a touching double-profile photograph of Tom and Rita hangs over the bed. Her purse is on a chair nearby, and we are reminded that she was Tom’s business partner. Rita often negotiated directly with buyers interested in purchasing Tom’s artworks, and she was a charismatic, savvy, and powerful personality. Across the hall is Tom’s much smaller bedroom, which also houses the artist’s personal library.

Steve allows me to look closely at the bookshelf, which includes volumes in French and Italian. (Tom lived for a time in Paris, and he read and spoke French fluently). Numerous books on literature and history line the shelves, together with books on art, from museum catalogues to theoretical texts.

Benton’s dramatic murals, like this one at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, contributed to his fame. Photo—Missouri State Parks

Friends in musical places

I notice a monograph on Jackson Pollock, Benton’s former student and close friend. Benton and Pollock had differing views on modernism, but Tom always remained interested in his former student’s work. Steve also shows me a 1936 inscribed and signed copy of Negro Art Past and Present by Harlem Renaissance luminary Alain Locke. Tom’s clothes still hang in his closet and his pipe and reading glasses sit on his windowsill next to an open book.

I feel as though the artist has just stepped out for a few minutes and will soon return. Steve tells me that the majority of the family’s personal possessions remain in the home, including the magazines, personal letters, phone books, and everyday ephemera present when Rita died 11 weeks after her 85-year-old husband passed away on January 19, 1975.

Tom died in his studio after putting the final touches on his last mural, The Sources of Country Music, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Steve and I head downstairs and out the back door to visit this studio where Benton created many of his most celebrated paintings.

The stone carriage house was ideally positioned in relation to the Benton residence to give the artist privacy to work and easy access to the home where he ate, slept, and spent time with his family. Half of the building was converted into a large open room where a portion of one wall was replaced by windows. An old-fashioned heating stove occupies another wall, and the walls are covered with white-washed fiberboard panels that allowed the artist to hang large canvases.

The studio is in a state of controlled disorder, just as Benton left it, with empty frames leaning against the walls and mailing labels and a deck of cards littering surfaces. I step over to the central easel, which holds a blank panel draped with a cloth. An easy chair is positioned nearby, as well as several worktables covered with art supplies. Tempera tubes of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and cadmium red lie on Tom’s palette, which is covered in hardened dabs of paint. Nearby a rag sits beside a magnifying glass, while a recycled cardboard box holds pencils, a litho crayon, and an artist’s eraser.

Taking it all in

Tom’s finished and unfinished paintings, sculptures, and lithographs are everywhere, and miscellaneous engravings and photographs by other artists are pinned to the walls. Two of Tom’s harmonicas sit on a table, and a shelf of vinyl records reminds us that music played a role in the artist’s creative process.

I pause for a moment to take it all in. I have visited the studios of many living artists and always gain new understanding into how these creative people integrate the practical aspects of producing art with the tangible and intangible elements that inspire their intellects and imaginations. It is rare, however, to have the opportunity to gain such intimate insights into the creative life of an artist who died almost 50 years ago.

I feel grateful to all those who have contributed to the preservation of this place: the Benton family, the State of Missouri, Steve Sitton, and all the people, past and present, who have worked at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site. This is truly one of our state’s great cultural treasures. 

Explore the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site web page at for details about tours, programs, and hours of operation.