For The Man Who Lives In Thomas Hart Benton's Kansas City Home, The Famous Artist Is Just 'Tom'

Jun 9, 2017

The painter Thomas Hart Benton spent some of his most productive years working in his Kansas City studio, just behind the large stone house in Midtown's Roanoke neighborhood.

The imposing limestone house was built in 1903. The Bentons bought it in 1939 and lived there for 36 years. The property is now Missouri's smallest state park (it's just one-third of an acre) and has been a museum since 1977.

These days, Steve Sitton knows the house almost as well as the famous painter who lived there.

As the historic site administrator, it's Sitton's job to greet thousands of visitors every year (6,000 people  came through last year) and lead daily tours.

 

In Benton's studio, a small rural scene sits on a wooden stand.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

“Are you guys familiar with his artwork?" Sitton asks a group at the beginning of a recent tour. "Sometimes people coming in are not real sure," he explains. "They know he was a painter and that’s about it. And then they start seeing the artwork and it’s kind of, ‘Oh, that guy.”

Sitton says he likes to give his tours as if the Bentons have just stepped out for the day. It’s not hard to do. The home has been preserved nearly unchanged, with clothes hanging in the closet, books filling the shelves, paint brushes peeking from coffee cans in the studio.

“I often refer to the Bentons in the present tense,” Sitton says. “'Tom says this, Tom thinks that.' Well he’s been dead since 1975, but having all the things around really kind of brings him back to life.”

After giving tours for sixteen years, Sitton knows every inch of the home. In fact, he lives right upstairs. It’s part of his job.
 

Tours at the Benton home are often intimate. Sitton says he likes to personalize each tour based on the interests of the visitors.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

“My apartment is up on the third floor," he says. "So I get to live in this wonderful Roanoke neighborhood. I get to walk to work.  Go home for lunch, which is all wonderful.”

He learned early on, however, that living where you work is sometimes too convenient.

“One thing I have to do is keep it very separate: This is my work life, that is my personal life," Sitton says. "And so in the evening, I’m not down here in the office or in the home itself. It’s not my stuff. That is the museum.”

But it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

“My mother brings people here quite a bit, or friends will come for a tour,” he says, “and that’s a hard tour to do because they do notice that I speak a little differently. I project a little more. I become a little more the talking-head sort of thing. They’re like, ‘That’s not the Steve I know.'”

He also knows he slips into that voice when he talks about Benton in his off-duty hours.

"I just do,” he says with a laugh.

Sarah Younger (left) and her mother Helen Phillips walk through the Benton's bedroom. A photograph of Benton and his wife Rita hangs over the bed.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Benton painted right up until the end. He died in his studio at the age of 85, just before signing his final piece – a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Because Benton died on the property, Sitton does get questions about ghosts. A fourth grader working on a school project once had a theory.

“She said she had read on the internet that sometimes people see the face of Tom Benton looking out of one of the third-floor windows and was that true?” says Sitton. “Was that his ghost? And I had to tell her no, that was probably just me looking out the window sometimes. And it kind of crushed her a little bit. I think that was going to be the climax of her paper.”

In the gift shop, Helen Phillips and her husband Darold hear more about how Benton designed his murals.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

At 4 p.m., the final tour group is gone and it’s time for Sitton to close up.

“We just, at the end of the day, just turn off all the lights, close the shades,” he says. “I just kind of have a regular routine. A path I take.”

It takes him past the grand piano in the living room, through the 1950s kitchen and rooms where thousands of visitors have worn a path in the carpet before heading to his apartment upstairs. For a few hours, Thomas Hart Benton's old house will be all Steve Sitton’s.    

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.