Thomas Hart Benton's Studio

From bees in the belfry to a museum-quality collection of antique furniture, a tour of any of Missouri’s three mansions reveals plenty of secrets about their long-gone owners.

The state historic sites in the Missouri parks system include battlefields, birth places, cemeteries, covered bridges, homesteads, grist mills and ancient Indian villages. The list also has three grand homes with much of their contents remaining as if the residents had stepped out for the day.

The Hunter-Dawson mansion, in New Madrid in southeast Missouri, is an architectural gem that exhibits the wealth of a Missouri family prior to the Civil War. Walk in the front door, and the splendor of their lifestyle is on display in the parlors, dining room and bedrooms.

“The furniture is in the rooms as it would have been in the 1860s,” said Michael Comer, natural resource manager of the Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site. “You name it, we have it — chairs, beds, sideboard, table, dressers. We have loaned pieces to museums for major exhibits throughout the country.”

Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site is perched like a stone castle on a bluff north of Sedalia just as it was when John Homer Bothwell, a lawyer, politician and nature lover, died in 1929 at age 80.

The Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in Kansas City contains the personal belongings of one of Missouri’s premier artists and his wife of 52 years, Rita Piacenza. Benton converted the rear carriage house into a studio and it displays the paints, brushes and a stretched canvas that were present when Benton died there in 1975.

All three are impressive in their own ways. An hour or two spent searching the nooks and crannies of the grand old homes gives a look into the life and times of the people who lived, and in some cases died, there.

A Window in Time

The Hunter-Dawson mansion, sitting regally in a grove of tall trees, reflects the culture of the thriving river port of New Madrid prior to the Civil War. The house has Georgian, Greek Revival and Italianate architectural elements that were popular in homes of the Old South. The 15-room house has seven bedrooms and nine fireplaces.

William Hunter, a successful dry goods dealer, had the house built between 1859 and 1860. The family owned some 36 slaves, who might have helped in the construction along with hired craftsmen. Hunter died of yellow fever just before the house was completed, and his wife, Amanda, and seven children moved in after his death.

Upon Amanda’s death in 1876, the house was left to her youngest daughter, Ella, who had married William Dawson, a Missouri and U.S. legislator. Descendants of the family lived in the house until 1958.

Amanda was fond of ornately carved furniture in the rococo revival style and assembled one of the largest collections from that period in purchases from the Cincinnati firm of Mitchell and Rammelsberg.

“We have the original bill of sale,” said Comer, the natural resource manager. “The center table in the formal parlor is a gorgeous piece of furniture art — the carving, the design, the finish.

“The beauty of the house is its completeness,” he said. “When you walk in, you get a feeling of how the family actually lived, instead of what our concept is. You hear that historic sites are kind of a window in time. This one really is.”

A Life Well Lived

John Homer Bothwell came to Sedalia as a young lawyer in 1871. He married Hattie Jaynes, the sister of his law partner, but misfortune struck two years later when she died after giving birth to a stillborn child.

Bothwell never remarried and never had another child. But his mansion on a hill tells the story of a life well lived.

Bothwell selected a bluff 120 feet above the surrounding countryside as the site for the weekend retreat that became his permanent home. Using native stone, he began construction of the house in 1897 and built it in four phases, the last completed in 1928.

Featuring a turret, the lodge is a well-known landmark that is visible from busy Interstate 65 below.

“Perched here on top of the bluffs, it tends to be a bit mysterious,” said Marissa Cowen, the natural resource manager. “It has a lot of the original furnishings, which gives it a character of its own. You tend to get a glimpse of someone else’s life, which is always interesting.”

Far from becoming a recluse after his early tragedy, Bothwell filled the home’s 10 guest bedrooms with friends and relatives on weekends. He was well traveled and well read; the dining room featured a mount of a sailfish he caught off the coast of Cuba, and his library contained more than 1,000 books.

Bothwell was also an innovator. The house had a top-of-the-line steam heating system with radiators. A generator and bank of batteries provided electricity. At a time when most Missourians still used outhouses, the house had 5 1/2 bathrooms, including one with a shower. He even tried to provide air conditioning by venting in cool air from a cave in the bluff.

And he also had bees, with hives concealed behind wall panels in a sunny room on an upper floor.

“We still have our bees,” Cowen said. “They still produce honey.”

“He led a fulfilling life,” she said of Bothwell. “He was able to do so many different things, and he was surrounded by the people he loved.”

Their Grandparents’ Home

After living in New York City for 22 years, Thomas Hart Benton made a triumphant return to his home state of Missouri in 1935 when he was commissioned to paint a gigantic mural at the state Capitol in Jefferson City.

He was paid $16,000 for the mural, which was more than the yearly salary of the governor, and wrote a $6,000 check for a four-bedroom limestone house in the well-to-do Westport area of Kansas City.

Benton worked every day in the studio; his wife, Rita, served as his business agent, sometimes selling paintings right out of the house. His body of work totaled some 1,000 full-size finished paintings and six sculptures. He also did 14 murals, most in public venues, produced 93 lithographs, wrote two books, illustrated 13 others and did a record album of his harmonica music.

Benton and his wife had an active social life, entertaining often in their large, comfortable home. Benton died at the age of 85 on Jan. 19, 1975, in his studio. Rita died 11 weeks later. They had a son and a daughter.

The home and studio have been preserved much as they were when the couple died. A corncob pipe and book of French poetry sit on a table in Tom’s bedroom, as if awaiting Benton’s return.

“People who visit get a sense of who Thomas Hart Benton was,” said Steve Sitton, administrator of the historic site. “They learn about his lifestyle, his work habits, his family and his personality.”

Except for the family’s furniture, dishes and clothes, the house also contains 13 original Benton paintings, lithographs and sculptures.

“People kind of enjoy that the house inside is not that fancy, it’s something they can relate to,” Sitton said. “They often say it reminds them of their parents’ or grandparents’ house.”

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