COLUMBIA-Around the corner from Second Baptist Church stands an unimpressive two-story frame house that most Columbians might simply call a dump.
From the street it looks abandoned, its peeling paint neglected for years under aluminum siding. Inside, plaster and plywood litter the floor, along with the occasional fast-food cup — a sign of unwanted guests perhaps ignorant of the house’s extraordinary story.
It’s that extraordinary story that sets this house apart from other homes in disrepair on other blocks. A story that, despite the plywood sign out front that names this the house of John William “Blind” Boone, most passers-by don’t know.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for the “Blind” Boone home, however. The city of Columbia purchased the house in November 2000 for $165,705 with Community Development Block Grant funding. Another $260,000 from block grant money, the Convention and Visitors Bureau Tourism Development Fund, state of Missouri historic preservation grants and the Boone County Community Trust temporarily stabilized the house.
Now that stabilization is complete, it is the goal of the John William “Blind” Boone Heritage Foundation and its members to restore the house to its former glory and make it a cultural center that will explore the largely unknown history of African-Americans in Columbia. However, like any struggling foundation, its problem isn’t passion; the problem is money.
Boone, a world-renowned ragtime pianist, and his wife moved into the house on Fourth Street after they were married in 1889. Boone was 25 at the time. It was the only property he owned, according to the National Register of Historic Places, despite having an income of about $17,000 a year. That would be about $360,000 in today’s money, according to the inflation calculator on the Web site of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After Boone’s death in 1927, his wife continued to live there until she moved in 1929.
The house was sold to Stuart Parker, who used the home as a mortuary, Parker Funeral Home. When Parker died, Harold Warren took charge of the funeral home. When Parker’s wife died, Warren took possession and changed the name to Warren Funeral Home.
When Warren was looking to sell the house, some Columbians were concerned that this piece of history would be lost forever if the house got into the wrong hands.
“We got wind that they were trying to sell the building so they could build a new facility, and we became concerned about what was going to happen to the building,” said Bill Thompson, a member of the Boone Heritage Foundation. “Because there are very few historic African-American sites in the community, and this is one of the more unique.”
Stabilization included rebuilding some of the original architecture, foundation repair, electrical work, and restoring the porch and the windows. At the time of purchase, the house had extensive termite damage and a leaky roof.
According to a 2006 grant application submitted by the Boone Heritage Foundation to Save America’s Treasures, the house is in desperate need of permanent stabilization. The foundation is crumbling, the beams have deteriorated, the floor is rotting, and the staircase is unstable. The house also needs water-damage prevention fixes, including siding and window frame refurbishment.
The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 for its local significance. In 2003, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service changed the house’s designation to that of national significance.
The house will stay in its current condition until money can be raised for permanent stabilization and restoration. That is where the Boone Heritage Foundation comes in.
The city of Columbia has agreed to stabilize the house, but it is up to the Boone Heritage Foundation, formed around the purchase of the home, to find the money for complete restoration. In an early visioning process, the members decided their goal was to have a museum or a cultural center attached to or in the house.
“The building would become a historic site where we could do tours and allow people to see what it was like living during the period that ‘Blind’ Boone was alive,” Thompson said. “And the additional facility that we hope to try and create later down the road would be a place where we could have touring and visiting and things like that, more or less a cultural center.”
In 2006, the board put together a grant application for $225,000 to Save America’s Treasures. The application wasn’t approved, but the foundation remains undaunted. It is now developing a capital campaign and planning on reapplying with a more competitive application for a Save America’s Treasures grant.
The ultimate fundraising goal for permanent stabilization and historic restoration is $450,000.
“There has been more awareness about it, and that’s really what it takes,” said Lucille Salerno, a local ragtime connoisseur and member of the Boone Heritage Foundation. “It’s not so terribly dramatic; it’s something you work at over a period of time.”
Many members are passionate about the project.
“Once I became a member of the board, then I became really fascinated with the history of African-Americans in Columbia, which is, I believe, an untold story that many people who are residents in the community know, but it has not been presented in a cohesive way to the community,” said the Rev. Clyde Ruffin, president of the foundation. “And the restoration of the house is a step in that direction to be able to tell the story that is very rich in its history and its shaping of the culture of Columbia.”
Foundation members are hopeful the restoration of the “Blind” Boone house would remind people of that forgotten history.
“I think it can be a new celebration, a rediscovery. Sometimes we do forget about pieces of history that are important to our community,” said Paula Hertwig Hopkins, assistant city manager and foundation member. “We get so caught up in the future that sometimes we forget our rich history and what that includes.”
According to the National Register of Historical Places, John William “Blind” Boone was born in 1864 to an escaped slave owned by a descendant of Daniel Boone. By age 1, Boone was totally blind as a result of a surgery to cure “brain fever.”
He spent much of his childhood in Warrensburg, where early on he showed signs of musical giftedness. Boone’s mother recognized his talent and sent him to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. The school gave little room for the development of Boone’s musical abilities: While there, he was assigned to learn to make brooms.
Soon, Boone began sneaking out to partake in the ragtime revolution happening in St. Louis’ nightclubs. Ragtime combined the African tradition of multiple rhythms and European music that was popular at the time, and became the first truly American music genre. Thus, Boone became a part of the genesis of ragtime music, an early ancestor of jazz.
“Boone, having been on the scene as ragtime was created, created his music in much the same way as he heard it in St. Louis,” Salerno said.
Eventually, Boone was expelled from school for truancy. He found his way back home to Warrensburg to live with his mother again.
In 1879, Boone was invited to play piano at a festival at the Second Baptist Church in Columbia. His performance was an immediate success, and a few months later he got invited back for another concert. It was at these concerts that Boone met prominent local businessman John Lange Jr., who became his longtime manager and close friend.
By 1885, Boone and Lange were traveling across the country and overseas, offering performances. Between 1880 and 1915, Lange and Boone traveled nine to 10 months out of each year, giving performances six days a week.
In 1889 Boone married Eugenia Lange, John Lange Jr.’s youngest sister, and moved into the home on Fourth Street. John Lange Jr. died in 1916.
Boone was known as a generous man. He gave money to black schools and churches. Because he was blind, he was unable to walk without a guide, so he was often seen with a child on his shoulders acting as his guide. He died in 1927, five months after his last concert.
“‘Blind’ Boone’s story,” Salerno said, “is the story of the evolution of American music. Boone’s compositions gave us the genesis of the ragtime we have today.”