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Thomas Hart Benton home and studio open to public

By
PAULA MAYNARD

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Two-dimensional teenagers dance the twist on a dining room wall and a fully stocked liquor table still stands ready for drinking companions who once called at the home of Missouri's most famous muralist.

For the first time since their deaths in 1975, the stately 2 -story stone house which Thomas Hart and Rita Benton purchased for $6,000 in 1939 resounds to footsteps and voices.

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The home turned museum, full of the Bentons' belongings and graced by many of the painter's famous works, opened its doors to the public April 16. Those who knew Benton from his art and his writings find much to recognize there.

'The house my wife Rita managed, with its dinners, musicales, discussion, and drinks, was an entertaining place,' Benton wrote in his autobiography, 'An Artist in America.'

Benton, a native of Neosho, wrote that the comforts of the Victorian-style home at 3616 Belleview was one of the reasons he stayed in Kansas City after he was fired from the Kansas City Art Institute job that had lured him from the New York art scene in 1935.

'I had just bought a Kansas City residence, a comfortable old stone house with trees and a garden and a big stable behind it, which I had turned into a studio, and I was attatched to all this. I had good neighbors and many friends,' he said.

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Benton was fired from his job as head of the painting department for his alleged bad influence on youth and for telling reporters he would rather see his paintings in saloons and bordellos than in 'graveyard' museums.

It was in that stable-studio that Benton died in 1975, having just completed his final mural 'The Sources of Country Music.'

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources administers the home acquired for $77,000 from the Benton estate in 1977. More than $200,000 was spent on its restoration.

Onsite Administrator Dudley McGovern and his wife have lived alongside the air conditioning equipment on the building's third floor for five years. McGovern catalogued everything in the home to establish it as a biographical history museum.

'We didn't have everything Tom and his family owned but it looks like it,' he said.

Benton was proud of the house stocked with oriental rugs and slipcovered furniture. In the early 1940's Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed a house built next to the Bentons', stopped by for a visit. He called the house -- built in 1903 -- a 'rat trap' and told Benton he ought to let him design a proper home and studio.

Creekmore Fath, Austin attorney and compiler of a book of Benton lithographs said Benton, who knew there was trouble at his neighbors' flat-roofed house, had a ready answer.

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'I told him, no sir, under no circumstances do I want to live in a Wright-designed house. I can't take the chance of having my roof leak all over my work,' Benton told Fath.

The work of other members of the Benton family is displayed in the museum. In the living room hangs 'South Beach' by Rita Benton, an unfinished tapestry with a needle still attatched.

The beveled glass windows in the main entrance and one of the windows in the master bedroom are painted with daughter Jessie's childhood rendition of stained-glass saints.

Displayed alongside several still life studies are the bowls and vases that appear in them.

Even the ice bucket sitting with Benton's liquor in the dining room pops up in a painting hanging just a few feet away. The 1964 work, called 'Dancers' or 'The Twist' is a riot of color and contorting young bodies. Jessie is painted in a far corner, getting ready to change the record.

Opening into the dining room is Rita Benton's up-to-date kitchen, including a Waring blender on the counter and a shopping list dangling from a magnet on the refrigerator.

Upstairs with the bedrooms is Benton's library and its stacks of Readers Digest and National Geographics. On the wall hangs a photo of Benton posing with Harry S. Truman at the mural he created for the presidential library in Independence.

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The musty carriage house studio -- stocked with paints, frames and brushes -- completes the tour with a display not only of how Benton painted, but also of what he ate. If it came in a can or a jar, the container made its way to the studio.

On a worktable lies Benton's harmonica and stacked in a corner is a pile of scores for it, a reminder of the family penchant for music that led to the recording of an album -- 'Saturday Night at the Bentons.'

Benton died Jan. 19, 1975. Rita died less than three months later, on April 9.

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