Snooping around a grand old house can be a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, especially if the long-gone owners were interesting people, and all their stuff is still there.
I recently had the opportunity to investigate two such residences: the castle-like home of John Homer Bothwell, just north of Sedalia; and artist Thomas Hart Benton’s home in the Westport area of Kansas City. Both are now state historic sites and open to the public for tours.
You can’t miss Bothwell’s home; it’s perched on a bluff looking down on Route 65. Bothwell, a lawyer and businessman, built the home in four phases, using native limestone; the last segment completed in 1928.
Bothwell’s life had a tragic turn. He married his law partner’s sister, but she died two years later, after giving birth to a stillborn child. He never remarried, never had children. Instead of being consumed by grief, Bothwell opened his home to friends and relatives; the 10 guest bedrooms often were filled on weekends.
After his death at age 80, Bothwell left the estate to a group of 38 friends and relatives for the creation of Bothwell Lodge Club. When the original 38 fell to below five in number, the will stipulated the house and land go to the state for charitable and educational purposes. The house was opened to the public in 1991 as the Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site.
Visitors today find the home much as it was when Bothwell died. Without a woman’s touch, the interior looks like a gentleman’s hunting lodge. A trophy sailfish, brought home from a trip to Cuba, hangs in the dining room. The library includes some 1,000 books – Bothwell required his visitors to wash their hands before reading.
Bothwell loved innovation. The cellar has a bank of batteries and a generator for electricity. He tried to provide air conditioning by venting cool air into the house, from a cave in the bluff up a stairway. The music room includes a player piano and a top-of-the-line radio. A ladder leads from Bothwell’s private office to the roof of the castle’s turret, where he could enjoy a sweeping view of the countryside.
Personal items are scattered throughout the home. Bothwell’s straw hat rests on his battered suitcase, as if ready to go. Suspenders, a starched collar and shirt, a ring and a woman’s photo sit atop a bedroom chest. A pair of lady’s nylon stockings hangs to dry in the bathroom.
Peeking into someone’s life can be fascinating.
Thomas Hart Benton was Missouri’s premier 20th century artist. In 1934, he was on the cover of Time Magazine. After living for 22 years in New York City, he returned to his home state in triumph when he was commissioned to paint the monumental mural that still graces the House Lounge in the State Capitol, in Jefferson City. He was paid $16,000 for the work, which was more than the yearly salary of the governor.
Benton wrote a check for $6,000 for the comfortable home in Westport, where he lived with Rita, his wife of nearly 53 years. The couple had a son and a daughter.
While the home is warm and inviting, the marriage was sometimes chilly. Rita complained of her husband’s long absences on sketching trips, his vulgar language, his habit of spreading cigar ashes around the house. But she also said he was a genius.
Benton said his wife was hard to live with, but added: “Without her, I would have been a bum.”
Benton died in the studio on January 19, 1975, at age 85. Rita died 11 weeks later. Their residence remains just as it was, as the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site.
The home has 13 Benton original artworks, but, again, the fun is in the details.
Tom’s corncob pipe is on a nightstand, his glasses resting on an opened book. Rita’s clothes, some of them handmade, hang in the closet. A well-worn teddy bear is on the daughter’s bed. In the studio out back, brushes sit in coffee cans, baby food jars are caked with dried paint, a stretched canvas awaits the artist’s stroke.
Touring a grand old home – reliving the lives of the people who lived there – can be a rewarding way to spend a winter day.
For more information, visit MoStateParks.com.
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks