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'Blind' Boone Home prepares for new audience

Friday, October 30, 2009 | 7:09 a.m. CDT
The home of jazz musician John Williams "Blind" Boone sits on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently being renovated.

COLUMBIA — Like a music box longing to reveal its melody, the house waits for the day its guests can treasure the sounds of its own American legend.

Beyond the freshly painted purple front door and bright red exterior, the inside of the J.W. "Blind" Boone Home on Fourth Street rests in despair. There are gashes in the stained ceilings, piles of boarding lay motionless on the floor and a thick film of fallen plaster covers every surface. The accomplished pianist's home awaits its anticipated interior renovation.

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Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the restoration project aims to turn the home into a museum honoring Boone’s accomplishments as an African-American musician in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“He wasn’t just an iconic figure for Columbia,” Steiner said. “The funeral notices for his death were in papers all over the world — even in places where he never played. It’s really important that we honor him and preserve his memory.”

Although today the wood lath walls are splintered and covered with the remains of fallen plaster, the interior once danced to the sounds of the music spilling from Boone's piano. 

Through the interior design, Steiner and Alisha Cole of Principal Arcadia Consulting hope to immerse visitors in the experiences of Boone’s life.

“So much of what happens in here will be through people who tell the story,” Steiner said.

The vision for the museum includes plans to have guides act as important figures in Boone's life. Steiner said that it’s possible the guests will be able to interact people portraying Boone’s wife, his driver and others.

“The idea is, when you walk into that house, you’re going to experience life as he experienced it,” Cole said.

The building has a small footprint, and the board plans to make the most of the space while maintaining the building’s homelike characteristics.

“We’re trying not to clutter the house with a lot of stuff, like a lot of furniture and panels and display cases,” Cole said. “Because all of that would have to be moved if you’re going to do much of anything in the house.”

The museum plans to rely on images and storytellers relating to Boone’s life and surrounding historical events.

“This is not going to be a museum like a children’s hands-on museum,” Steiner said. “It’s not going to be something where people come in and do a series of activities.”

Both women were reluctant to reveal the full floor plan until it's finalized in November; they hope to create a unique experience each time visitors come.

“One of the challenges that any museum or culture institution has is that people have this response of 'been there, done that, bought the T-shirt no need to go back,'” Cole said. She said she hopes to crush this mind-set and leave visitors with a profound connection to the Boones' story.

“It’s like going and reading a book for a second time or seeing a movie for the second or third time,” Cole said. “You always go and experience something different.”

The museum will honor the various aspects of Boone's accomplishments. Cole said there has been discussion of turning the backyard into an outdoor amphitheater for hosting small concerts and lectures. 

“You’re not going to get 1,000 people in this backyard,” she said. “It’s not that kind of space. The idea is to utilize as much of the space as possible.”

The front of the house might become home to a tribute garden. Here the museum would recognize others who have beat the odds in their own their lives.

The back room could be used to hold leadership programs for at-risk children to encourage them to overcome their personal difficulties.

Because the upper level of the home is not wheelchair accessible, it cannot be used for exhibits and displays. Steiner said the consensus at Blind Boone Heritage Foundation is that adding an elevator to accommodate ADA regulations would distract from authentic feel of the home.

“It’s certainly not original to the house, and it’s a very expensive proposition to do that,” Steiner said.

Instead, the staircase’s splintering banister could lead to the residence of a future graduate student. There has been discussion of forming a competitive program to provide housing for a student in exchange for tasks such as securing the home and booking museum tours.

“It’s important that they’ll have somebody here on a fairly frequent basis in order to make sure the home is secure," Steiner said.

It is uncertain when the museum will be opened to the public. The Missouri Humanities Council has funded the designing and planning portion of the restoration project, but Steiner estimates the Blind Boone Heritage Foundation needs to raise about a million dollars to cover the exhibits, the interior renovation and an endowment for the operation of the museum.

“We’d like to kick off that campaign in Black History Week, which is in February of 2010,” Steiner said. “That to me is even a little ambitious, but that’s our hope.”

Steiner said the goal is to raise 50 percent of the total cost through fundraising and then pay for the remainder of the project using grant money.


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