Courtesy of Missouri Natural Resources: Ed Berlin Collection
A Life at the Margins
I work for the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, which recently acquired a masterful terra cotta statue by African-American artist Beulah Ecton Woodard. The piece, entitled Maudelle, depicts a renowned African-American dancer who was featured in original works by choreographer Martha Graham. The sculpture now occupies a prominent place in the contemporary gallery of the museum, flanked by some Missouri history paintings and ceramics by Pablo Picasso himself. Its location leaves no doubt that this is a serious work by a serious artist, worthy of its place in the art world.
Maudelle has made me very aware that having a place in the main stream of things, rather than set off to the margins, tells us a great deal about the meaning of our special places. That insight particularly applies to the Scott Joplin House, located at 2658A Delmar Boulevard on the northern edge of downtown St. Louis. The historic house and its famous namesake illustrate the challenges of living life at the margins of the main currents of society.
The main architectural significance of this ordinary duplex apartment, built right after the Civil War and remarkably similar to my grandparents’ old place a mile or so away on Benton Street in north St. Louis, is that it actually survived to tell its tale while nearly all its neighbors succumbed to urban blight. The Scott Joplin House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places during the 1976 Bicentennial year. The State of Missouri acquired the property in 1984, and the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site opened to the public in 1991. It is the only surviving structure associated with Scott Joplin himself, as well as the only Missouri State Historic Site dedicated to African-American history. It is a lonely but eloquent sentinel to Scott Joplin and St. Louis’s ragtime era, reflecting the limited locations available to African Americans for much of the city’s history.
Because few authentic Joplin artifacts remain, the second floor flat where Scott Joplin and his first wife, Belle, lived for about two years at the turn of the twentieth century is decorated with simple period furnishings and lit only by the characteristic gaslights of that time period. A visitors’ center and museum on the first floor of the building focus on Joplin’s life as well as turn-of-the-century St. Louis; a playable parlor player piano presents popular piano rolls from that period, including some cut by Scott Joplin himself.
The Scott Joplin House holds a special place in my personal gallery of special places. I worked on this project back in the late ’70s while employed as a St. Louis city planner and even successfully applied for a National Trust technical assistance grant to aid in its restoration and surrounding neighborhood revitalization. However, a political controversy erupted regarding the appropriateness of an apartment he rented for only a couple of years as a memorial to Scott Joplin, so that it took well over a decade for the project to be realized. In many ways, that delay and questions about the site’s appropriateness symbolize the life of Scott Joplin himself. Although Joplin and his compositions have gradually received increased attention, the man and his house still operate on the margins of the mainstream.
Scott Joplin was born in eastern Texas circa 1867 and raised in the frontier town of Texarkana, which later became the setting for his ragtime opera Treemonisha. His mother, Florence, cleaned houses to buy the young prodigy a piano and music lessons from a local piano teacher, a German immigrant named Julius Weiss. From Weiss, young Joplin received a solid foundation in classical musical forms that fueled his deep ambition. Joplin wanted to combine the forms of classical music with those of African-American music (i.e., spirituals and minstrel songs) to create an original American art form. While Joplin didn’t create ragtime music by himself, by the turn of the twentieth century, he became its best-selling and most well-known composer.