Not far from downtown St. Louis stands a non-descript walk-up with red bricks on the fašade and four-paned windows with trim painted in white. In any other cities, this would be just another urban building. But near the intersection of Delmar Blvd. and Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., this is the Scott Joplin house, where the father of a uniquely American style of music once called home.
Born in Texas, Scott Joplin quickly established himself as a child prodigy, mastering several instruments and learning composition in several styles, from classical to traditional songs of black southerners – all by his teens.
The young Joplin’s skill transformed into an innovative blend of styles that he brought with him when his family moved to central Missouri prior to the turn of the century. It was during this time that his Maple Leaf Rag became an unusual national sensation in the form of printed sheet music. Joplin’s easy composition style, perfect for sitting room listening music, was given the nickname of “ragtime.”
Following his time in Sedalia, Mo., Joplin relocated to St. Louis in 1900 with his wife Belle. It was there that Joplin developed his musical career, starting an opera company and writing his first opera, “A Guest of Honor.”
The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s and the by 1980s, the home was donated to the Missouri State Parks system. Since then, the home preserves the cultural contributions of Missouri’s African-American population.
The site is a replica of how the home might have looked at the turn of the 20th century, when it was originally lit by gaslight. Period-specific instruments are found in the home, with programs that present ragtime music and interpretation. Piano players aren’t the only one who can play the piano. A foot-powered player piano churns out memorable ragtime tunes – just a pick a “roll” to play and you can play as well as a ragtime great.
Also on site is the New Rosebud Café, a replica turn of the century bar imitating the actual Rosebud Café on Market St. in St. Louis that was run by Tom Turpin, believed by many to be the first person who published a ragtime work.
The highlight of a visit to the Scott Joplin State Historic Site is the guided tour, which includes a look at the actual flat Scott Joplin and Belle called home. As he was just finding success from the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag, the apartment would have maintained an air of modesty. The historic site maintains this sensibility.
Joplin, by 1907, had left St. Louis to pursue greater success in New York City, publishing his opera Treemonisha to financial failure. The success of his work in Missouri provided most of his income throughout his life, until his death in 1917.
While his music remains a timeless reminder of Joplin’s talent, his home here in Missouri stands as a testament to the humble beginnings of even the most inspired minds.