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A Long Story

Joplin House keeps alive the sound of an era

At the turn of the century, ragtime ruled. And the king lived in St. Louis.

It was a wild and bawdy time in the city. The big town on the river was booming, factories were churning and jobs were plentiful. Carrie Nation's hatchet hadn't quite carved out a spot for Prohibition so alcohol flowed freely and the good times rolled.

The city was literally jumping, with music pouring out of almost every saloon and brothel and theater. A talented musician could find plenty of work here. And the music of the day was that lively syncopated offbeat


Site administrator had introduction to ragtime in Carbondale.

Ragtime’s time was short and sweet.

rhythm we've come to call ragtime, a musical form that defined those times.

It was at the dawning of the Ragtime Era — 1895 to 1920 — that Scott Joplin moved from Sedalia, Mo., into the house on what is now Delmar Boulevard. It was here that he wrote “The Entertainer” and many of his more popular pieces. It is here that he lived when he finally hit the big time.

Today a museum and cultural center taking form in that house is trying to preserve the flavor of that era and the memory of the king of the ragtime composers. The Scott Joplin House, a Missouri Historic Site, has started to bring together not only the physical remnants of the Ragtime Era, but also its sounds and history.

A visitor can tour the building for a dollar and see photos and artifacts from that time, visit the rooms that Joplin occupied and listen to rags on the player piano or hear a live performance. The walking tour is full of information about the music and Joplin's life and times.

Joplin lived in the house for only a couple of years, but the building is the only surviving structure associated with him. His home in Sedalia and other homes in St. Louis no longer exist. And if it weren't for the efforts of historic preservationists this building, too, might not have survived.

It had fallen into disrepair over the decades. But it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated a state historic site under the auspices of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Division of State Parks in 1984. An effort was made at that time to salvage the structure and develop a Scott Joplin museum.

When Joplin moved into the house in 1901, he'd already gained a reputation through the music he'd composed in Sedalia, primarily the seminal “Maple Leaf Rag,” but he hadn't quite hit the big time.

“It is my suspicion that when he was living here, he was watching his ship come across the harbor, but it hadn't docked yet,” said Jan Douglas, the site's administrator and interpreter.

It is frustrating to historians and preservationists that so much of Joplin's history has been lost. Not only are the physical structures of his homes and haunts gone, but also missing are his personal effects as well.

“There aren't many things in the house that we know with certainty belonged to him,” Douglas said, ex-plaining that many of the antiques and furnishings are of the era, but not of the man. “What this house is designed to show is how a successful musician might have lived during that time.”

While Joplin lived on Delmar, Douglas said, he wasn't to that point. He and his wife probably lived in a two-room flat in the building, sharing the house with a number of other tenants.

The historic site, however, encompasses more than the house. It includes a building next door, which is now being refurbished, a row of buildings to the east and a block of buildings to the southwest, a vacant lot to the south and another across Delmar to the north.

Douglas pointed to each of the buildings from the back porch of the house and explained the plan. One building would be an archive, another a lodging for performing guests. Another would be a gallery.

The building next door will become, in part, the New Rosebud Cafe.

The original Rosebud Cafe, Douglas said, was located at the corner of 20th and Market, and it was the focal point of much of the ragtime scene during that era. Owned by Tom and Charlie Turpin, a couple of well-to-do black businessmen, it was the place to be if you were a musician in need of work. Tom Turpin, an accomplished musician and composer himself, had a finger on the pulse of the local scene. He knew where the gigs were in one of his joints or in someone else's.

“The Rosebud Cafe was the Mecca for ragtime musicians at that time,” Douglas said. “The New Rosebud Cafe will try to capture at least the ambiance of the original.”

The Scott Joplin House Historic Site is an evolving place. With renovations being completed and performances and projects in the works, the site is more than just an interesting little spot on the tourism map. There's a living thing inhabiting the structures here.

And there is an effort to breathe new life into an era when ragtime ruled, and when the king lived upstairs.


Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


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