Thomas Hart Benton is best known for the murals in our state capitol in Jefferson City. The home and studio that Benton and his wife Rita shared in Kansas City have been left perfectly preserved. The paints, furniture, sketches, and even his pipe sit right where he left them on the day he died.

Tom and Rita Benton’s two-and-a-half story, frame-and-stone house in Kansas City was comfortable and spacious. It sits amid towering trees and attractive shrubs and plants.
Photo by Ben Nickelson

IN THE DEEP WINTER OF 1936-37, the cold weather was heated by a controversy that played loudly across the pages of the nation’s newspapers. A war of words was waged over a painting, a mural in the House lounge of the state Capitol: “Whitewash the murals! They’re vulgar! Nothing but honky-tonk, hillbillies, and robbers. We’re more than a ’coon dog state!”

This mural, officially titled A Social History of the State of Missouri, was a spacious work in a distinguished place by a Missourian of eminent background. It was painted by Thomas Hart Benton, namesake great grandnephew of Missouri’s first US Senator.

By the mid-1930s, Tom Benton was no stranger to controversy, and he responded with vigor to his critics. He painted real folks along with some of the state’s most characteristic folk legends. He captured for all time much of the pungent flavor of the state’s history. Today, the Benton mural in the state Capitol is one of the most treasured artworks in the state; it inspires thousands of visitors every year. After seeing the mural, you will surely want to visit the home and studio of the artist who produced it and who came to be recognized as a preeminent representative of the Regionalist tradition in American art.

Moving to Kansas City was a sort of homecoming for Benton. Born in Neosho in 1889, Benton left home in his teens to pursue an art career; he lived for varying periods in Chicago, Paris, and New York. In the course of his travels, Benton became a recognized painter, though from almost the beginning a combative and controversial one. Benton gradually became disillusioned with much of the artistic establishment and East Coast life and came home to Missouri.

If Benton had produced no other work than the Capitol mural, he would still deserve a place in Missouri and American art history, but he produced thousands of illustrations, paintings, sketches, and other murals. Missourians love Benton best for his true rendering of working people and the land—he said he wanted to make “common art for the common man.”

Photo courtesy of Missouri State Parks

The home to which Tom and Rita Benton moved in 1939 and where they remained until their deaths in 1975 is located in midtown Kansas City. A portion of the carriage house was converted in the 1940s into Benton’s art studio. Here we find today a lingering presence of the artist. He was working the day he died, January 19, 1975, a heart attack having taken him as he was applying the finishing touches to another of his dynamic murals, The Sources of Country Music, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Partly through the care and generosity of Benton’s wife, who soon also passed away, and his friends, the artist’s studio and home are almost perfectly preserved. They were purchased by the state in 1977 and opened to the public on April 15, 1983, the anniversary of his birth. In the studio, the furniture, paints, sketches, brushes, and even spectacles and a pipe lie about in perfectly natural clutter the way he left them.

Photo courtesy of Missouri State Parks

In the home itself, almost all of the Bentons’ personal possessions are also left in place. The most com- mon and ordinary of family objects are as casually left as if Tom and Rita could walk in and offer us refreshment. In fact, entertaining friends from all over Missouri and well beyond was one of the great joys of household life for the Bentons. Their home had an atmosphere that encouraged visitors to return, and thanks to its preservation, it still does. 

In his capitol mural, Benton depicted a people and a state that he knew intimately and loved fiercely, but that he refused to idealize or romanticize.

1 acre
Jackson County
3616 Belleview Ave, Kansas City

To purchase the Missouri State Parks book, click here.

Read more about Thomas Hart Benton’s home here. 

Read more about his mural from our 1973 archive here.