Historic home in downtown Columbia provides community for artists

The Holy Road House Tours Union establishes its first artist boarding house
Friday, March 14, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Samuel Combs, the Holy Road Tours Union tour director, practices the piano in the music room at the Holy Road House. Combs is a singer-songwriter from Virginia who moved into the house to perfect his music.

Singer-songwriter Samuel Combs was traveling throughout New Zealand and working at various organic farms in September when he realized he wanted to devote more time to growing as an artist. Earlier in the year he had met Lizzie West, co-founder of Holy Road Tours Union, and learned about the Holy Road House in Columbia, that serves as a boarding house for developing artists who need space to further explore their craft. Wanting ample time to perfect his music, Combs moved to Columbia in January and later became the Holy Road Tours Union tour director.

“This house is so big, it encourages big ideas,” Combs said. “The space you’re in lets you develop your art. This space nourishes creativity.”

Session open to the public

Holy Road Tours Union “Expression sessions,” held at 7 p.m. Fridays at the Holy Road House, 214 St. Joseph St., are open to the public. A 6 p.m. potluck is also open. A cooperative urban sustainability series is held at 1 p.m. every other Saturday at the house. The next one is today.

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The Victorian-style house at 214 St. Joseph St. became a Boone County historic property in 2001 and earlier this year was named one of Columbia’s 10 Most Notable Properties. According to the Boone County Historical Society, it is believed that George Harrell constructed the house in 1869. West, who shortened her name from Westergaard, and her husband, Anthony Kieraldo, who goes by Baba Buffalo, created Holy Road Tours Union in 2006 and later that year purchased the St. Joseph Street home. The pair is currently on tour in California, though on Sunday they are scheduled to perform at Mid-Missouri Peaceworks’ 1,000 Strong for Peace rally.

The concept behind Holy Road Tours Union is that each year an artist will be selected to travel throughout the country while the other union members work to support and promote that artist. During this time, the other members will interact with the local community and work on their own art. At the end of the year, one of the developing artists can become the next artist to go on tour. During a tour, a Holy Road artist stays in each location for about a week.

“Throughout the week they would go out and talk to the community, holding workshops about Holy Road Tours Union and talking about creating peace within ourselves and the world,” said Michelle Grant, a Holy Road developing artist. “At the end of the week would be the performance.”

Ideally, the artist would stay in other Holy Road houses on their tour, though right now Columbia’s site is the only official home.

West and her husband developed the idea of Holy Road Tours Union after sensing there was a need for a “holistic alternative” in the music industry for artists interested in social activism and peace.

West first visited Columbia in 2003 when she was on tour with another record label. She said some of the reasons she and her husband chose Columbia were because they wanted to establish the model boarding house in a college town with a community radio station and a great music scene.

“We wanted it in the middle of the country since we are a touring organization, and it would allow artists to move around the country more easily,” West said.

West said that not only was the St. Joseph Street house affordable, it also met her ideal of the perfect artist boarding house. “It’s big enough, and it’s right down in the art district,” she said. “The area is beginning to really grow and develop.”

The Boone County Assessor’s Web site lists the house as being 2,567 square feet; it has a basement, main level, upper level and loft. The main level has pocket doors that slide into the wall, so four rooms can be transformed into one larger room. This makes it conducive for the open mic nights, known as “expression sessions,” that are held on Friday evenings. An expression session begins with a potluck dinner and is open to the public. About 14 acts are featured at each session.

“The acts are amazingly diverse,” Combs said. “Anything from folk music to hip-hop, slam poetry, monologues, origami folding, storytelling, anything you can think of.”

Feb. 16 marked the beginning of a cooperative urban sustainability series, which will be held every other Saturday. At the first installment, participants made their own journals using paper from the library and scrap clothing.

The series is organized by Combs, who currently lives in the home with Grant and her band mate Julian McFarland. The hope for the house is for three or four developing artists to live there and for extra room to be used by traveling artists passing through Columbia. Because the organization is new, many of the details are still being figured out.

Mike Robertson, a member of the Hilary Scott Band, recently moved out of the house after living there a year as the Holy Road Tours Union managing director.

“It’s a lovely ambient space,” Robertson, who lived in the loft, said. “It’s old, but the good kind of old. I loved the location, living close to downtown. There’s a great view; you can see the cathedral aspect of the university.”

Artists staying at the house do not pay for room and board but instead work in exchange for use of the Holy Road resources. This includes doing chores around the house, establishing relationships within the community and promoting the organization. People who don’t necessarily want to live in the house may also work for the group.

“It’s great because it’s teaching you everything you could ever want to know about how to promote yourself so that artists don’t have to rely on a record label,” McFarland said.

Grant and McFarland, also known as “The Forealsies,” are working on an album they hope to release later this spring. The two have been Holy Road developing artists since mid-February, and Grant said they are happy they were able to get involved with the union.

“When Sam told us about this organization and how it’s solely based on a holistic lifestyle and living in a peaceful way, it was a match made in heaven,” Grant said.

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