Why you should care
It’s the least you could do after this artist mummified himself.
There is nothing to do in Kansas, they say, the oft-repeated phrase bouncing through your head as the hours tick down with the odometer from east to west. But they have clearly never rolled into Lucas, a hidden town that calls itself the grassroots capital of this Great Plains state, or parked themselves in front of the Garden of Eden, an architectural and artistic oddity that has transcended time’s tack of irrelevance.
Every window and every door in this home turned museum built in the 1800s is a different size, reflecting the eccentric mind of S.P. Dinsmoor, a Civil War nurse and self-trained folk artist. Outside, there’s a menagerie of colored concrete sculptures — almost two dozen cement works, using 114 tons of limestone cement mined from nearby quarries — depicting biblical figures, curiously, next to populist statues decrying the greed of runaway capitalism. The museum is a surprising departure from the beaten path in a state that, while often criticized for its long, plain drives, boasts at least eight Wonders of Kansas Art, including this one.
A visit here is a fascinating look into the mind of a man who lived from 1843 to 1932 and built this home partly as a tourist attraction and partly as an outlet for expressing his uniquely artistic madness during his retirement. And, if you can stomach it, you can also get a glimpse of the artist, who had himself mummified for viewing purposes. “He was pretty ornery,” laughs Mary Ann Steinle, a descendant of Dinsmoor’s who gives tours ($7 for adults, $2 for children) of the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “He did not like being told what to do.”
Traversing its insides feels like a trip into a livable fun house mirror.
The home alone is worth the journey. Traversing its insides feels like a trip into a livable fun house mirror, with its linoleum floors marked by green and tan squares, petrified log stumps and slanted stairway guards. But then step out into the yard. There’s the tree of life, which stands tall with an angel guarding the apples “so we can’t live forever,” Dinsmoor wrote in his notes. In stone sculptures held up between wooden posts, he depicts Cain, who killed his brother, Abel — Dinsmoor got graphic here, with a slashing hoe mark across Abel’s face — out of jealousy: “I just imagine he got Abel out in the ’tater patch and brained him with his hoe,” Dinsmoor writes.
On the other side of the house, the scenes turn from biblical to historical. A soldier shoots his gun at an Indian, who shoots his arrow at the dog hunting the fox. It exemplifies, Steinle says, the “19th-century concept of Darwinism.” The artist was also rankled by unbridled capitalism, which he complains about in a piece called “Labor Crucified,” where a doctor, a lawyer, a banker and a preacher crucify the working man. For Dinsmoor, it seems the Garden of Eden, with its promises of perfection and its equal temptations, is the perfect analogy for an America that overpromised and underdelivered to the common man.
The centerpiece is the backyard mausoleum, with an angel hanging overhead and a jug of water inside — the former “to help him fly up to heaven if he was going there,” Steinle says, and the latter “in case he went the other way.” About 15 years ago, a crack in his glass case corrupted the air inside, leaving the diminutive suited man’s face covered in moss. But his features and, most vivid, his beard remain easily discernible. His eyes stare up as if looking at his creator. It’s a reminder that we all face our mortality — some of us more curiously than the rest.
Two Jim Crow-era schools in Kansas City were high achievers despite segregation.