Cleveland, OH: The Western Reserve Historical Society

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So it’s come to this.  I wanted to visit all sorts of places I haven’t been yet in Ohio when I was back home this holiday season, particularly the Dittrick Medical Museum, but with decorating, and shopping, and making pierogi and cookies, and other Christmas related activities, I just ran out of time, and only managed two museum/historic home visits.  One of these was the Western Reserve Historical Society.  I have talked quite a lot of crap on the old WRHS in this blog, mainly because of the really really terrible internship I did at Hale Farm, and yet here I am visiting their “history center.”  Surprisingly, I have mostly nice things to say about the revamped museum.  So let’s get stuck in, shall we?

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Residents of Northeast Ohio will know that the “Western Reserve” part of the name refers to some of the land that would become Ohio; just after the American Revolution, before it became a state, it was officially part of the western lands reserved for Connecticut because they were upset at having to cede part of their original territory to Pennsylvania.  Well, obviously that didn’t quite pan out – Ohio became its own entity, but there were a lot of settlers from Connecticut there initially, and the term Western Reserve is mainly used nowadays for historical institutions or to give some of the hoity toitier suburbs around these parts, like Hudson, a sense of history and that New England connection.  But I digress…the museum building doesn’t only house the Society’s historical collections; it also features the Crawford Automobile Collection, which is nationally renowned for the range and quality of its cars.  This is the main reason why I came here quite often with my family when I was younger; clinging stubbornly to gender stereotypes, my grandpa, father, and brother would go look at the cars whilst we ladies admired the dresses in the Chisholm-Halle costume wing (though I was quite tomboyish in many ways as a child, cars didn’t interest me in the least).

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The WRHS is located in Cleveland’s University Circle, which is sort of the museum district, as it’s also home to the Natural History Museum, the Art Museum, the Botanical Gardens, and Case-Western Reserve University.  Admission is currently $10, and includes two rides on the carousel (of which more later) and the option to take a free tour of the Hay-McKinney Mansion.  The entrance hall of the museum is essentially unchanged from how I remember it, and includes a giant glowing Chief Wahoo (the undeniably racist mascot of the Cleveland Indians.  There is a sign next to him that mentions how controversial he is, and like it or not, he is admittedly a pretty big part of Cleveland history, so I get why he’s there) and a large horse-based mural that covers one of the walls in its entirety.  Because I visited just before Christmas, they also had a couple displays from the old department stores downtown, wherein some of the creepiest elves I’ve ever seen moved their heads around and made toys (to be fair, Higbee’s was still around when I was very young, and I do remember going shopping downtown with my grandma and peering excitedly in their windows, exactly like Ralphie does in A Christmas Story (which was filmed in Higbee’s), so they can’t have been all that traumatising).

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The museum also had a temporary exhibit up about the LGBT community in Cleveland, which included a lovely dress by a transgender designer, and some disturbing articles about hate crimes against LGBT individuals back in the ’80s (I mean, the fact that the articles were there wasn’t disturbing, but the crimes described in them sure were).  Moving on from there, I headed into the old section of the museum (I believe that entire section of the building was once part of the Hay-McKinney mansion, but most of it now serves as galleries, which means they have a lovely Gilded Age atmosphere, abounding with huge vases and interesting portraits) to check out the good old Chisholm-Halle costume wing.  They had an exhibition on called “In Grand Style: Fashions from the 1870s-1930s,” which I guess is meant to showcase Cleveland’s golden age, before all the industrialists packed up and left town.  To that effect, it had dresses relating to two of Ohio’s presidents – the blue one, above, belonged to Lucretia Garfield, wife of the ill-fated James, and the tan/peachy one was worn by a guest to the equally ill-fated McKinley’s inaugural ball.

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As always, the Edwardian fashions were probably my favourite since I like the more tailored, menswear inspired look that was popular at the time, but there was also a dress I liked (shown right, above) produced by a fashion society of which Eleanor Roosevelt (surprisingly) was a founding member, I guess because their primary goal was to make attractive fashion available and affordable to people of all classes.

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The room next to it was full of random bits and bobs, including magazine advertisements for various local clothing companies, a promotional spinning top from the Taft presidential campaign, and bizarrely, one of those basins that they use to wash people’s hair in hospitals, but I was most drawn to the sketches of the old industrial side of Cleveland.  I love pictures that relate to Cleveland’s past, especially if they include the Terminal Tower, which remains my favourite skyscraper ever.  There was also more Garfield memorabilia in the form of a safe that once held papers relating to farm business at Lawnfield (which sounds like a must-see object, doesn’t it?).

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I inwardly groaned when I saw that the next room was all about the 1964 Browns, because I couldn’t care less about sports, and particularly about football.  I guess maybe it was commemorating the only season in which the Browns may have actually performed semi-decently, but I didn’t really look at enough of the stuff in here to find out.

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It didn’t much matter in the end, because the next display was all about Cleveland design, like the groovy retro dishes seen above (I swear one of the sets was called the Brookpark or something equally Clevelandy, but I forgot to grab a picture of that one so I can’t remember exactly what it was), and was thus more to my liking.  I found out that the Tow Motor company, where my grandpa used to work, was founded in the year he was born, 1915, which was kind of neat.

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There was also a display relating to the Taylor Chair company, which used to be based in Bedford, apparently by this railroad trestle that I used to hide out under and drink with my friends as a teenager, which was not something I was aware of on those occasions when I was chugging down Woodchuck (and subsequently puking in the bushes, because Woodchuck is way too damn sweet).  I made sure to relay to anyone who would listen (meaning my mother, basically), that people who make chair legs are called bodgers, which I learned a long time ago courtesy of the Wycombe Museum.

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I kind of feel like at this point I’m just naming individual objects in there (which is what I normally do anyway though), which might make it sound like they have more stuff in the museum than they actually do.  But yeah, there’s a room with miniature trains in it, and a pretty baller portrait of Lincoln, as you can see.  And an equally impressive statue of the excellently named Oliver Hazard Perry, who was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 (shown at start of post).

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I’m rambling on so much that it’s probably for the best that I didn’t have time to visit the Hay-McKinney House, but I’ve been in there plenty of times before, so I can tell you that it’s a fairly standard Edwardian home tour, wherein they whip out old-timey cooking and cleaning devices so you can marvel at how huge and inefficient they were.  Fine, but nothing special, although I believe they do make some effort to decorate for the holidays and such.  They also have a new children’s area in the rooms next to the mansion with lots of interactive crap, which again, I didn’t bother with.  However, I will take the trouble to tell you about the picture on the right, which is the earliest known painting of Public Square, dating to 1837, when everything was all green and looked like a quaint village (shame they couldn’t have preserved any of the buildings from that time, though as I’ve said before, I am very partial to the Terminal Tower and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that surround the modern Public Square).

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Alright, finally on to the Crawford Auto/Aviation section.  As much as I dislike long flights, I think antique planes are kind of cool, and Cleveland has a pretty illustrious history in that field, as the National Air Races were held here throughout the 30s and 40s, so they had a couple of the old racing planes, as well as lots of cool banners and other promotional materials from the Air Races.

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I’ve never learned how to drive, despite living in a very non-public transport friendly area until I was 23, so as I’ve said before, cars hold no particular interest for me.  However, although I couldn’t tell you what kind they are, I do like the ones from the 1910s and 20s that were big enough to be homes away from home (none of which are pictured here because my phone is crap and I couldn’t zoom out enough to get a whole car in frame, that’s how big they are (but I got a new phone for Christmas, so I might be able to produce slightly better pics in the future!)); some of them even had full-size lanterns stuck on the outside and those nice plush leather interiors (note to self: if I ever get married, I totally want to cruise up to my wedding in one of those).

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For those who may be interested in that sort of thing, they have some stainless steel cars, including the DeLorean shown above.  What they do not have, at least at the moment, is the Street of Yesteryear, which used to be the only way I could survive the car section without dying of boredom.  As Streets of Yesteryear go, it was a fairly modest affair, but I still loved it, especially as most of the other people in there were solely concerned with the cars, and I had free run of those cobblestone streets.  I could still see it just sitting there, all alone and unloved, for all they tried to hide it behind posters, but a sign claimed that they will restore and re-open it, so I just have to hope that happens sooner rather than later, and that they don’t destroy too much of its charm.

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Last, but certainly not least, is that carousel (or carrousel, as they curiously spell it) that I mentioned at the start.  Euclid Beach was a famous Cleveland amusement park of yore, and the WRHS has gotten their hands on the 1910 carousel, which they’ve beautifully restored.  As I said, you get two free rides with admission, but I unfortunately didn’t use either of them because I am very prone to motion sickness, and I was feeling rather poorly that day anyway, having been up all night with stomach issues, so I didn’t want to risk it, especially as I was going out to lunch right after.  It looked like a blast though, so I’d like to revisit on a day when I’m feeling normalish and just hope I don’t hurl.

Overall, I think I have to say I was impressed with the most part with the renovation of this museum.  Though they still have too many posters, which made some of the displays kind of confusing, at least they have some actual artefacts in there now, instead of just all posters in some of the galleries, as it was in the recent past.  None of the exhibits were up to the calibre of the ones I saw there in their heyday (Eliot Ness and the Torso Murders, for example), but they weren’t terrible either, especially if you don’t hate football as much as I do. And the Chisholm-Halle wing is always very nicely laid out, so I can’t complain at all about that.  3.5/5, which I’m willing to bump up half a point when they bring back the Street of Yesteryear, definitely not anywhere near as bad as I was expecting!  Maybe this is the beginning of a new and improved relationship between me and the WRHS?  (I stand strong in my distaste for Hale Farm though!)

 

 

 

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4 comments

  1. I enjoyed vicariously visiting the Western Reserve Historical Society through this post. I’ve often driven by Cleveland on the interstate, but never really visited it. I’m now thinking that maybe I should be taking a little time to explore it.

    1. Hi Sheryl, thanks for commenting! Cleveland really does have some nice places to visit (more than they used to, as some hip little areas have sprung up in the past few years), and I think it’s definitely worth a stop if you’ve never been! I’d avoid the super touristy stuff like the Rock Hall and the Great Lakes Science Center, which are overpriced and not that great, but the Cleveland Museum of Art is excellent, nearby Lake View Cemetery is absolutely gorgeous (James Garfield, John D Rockefeller, and Eliot Ness are buried there), and the West Side Market is one of my favourite food markets in the world, just avoid visiting midday on a Saturday as it gets very crowded!

      1. This is good to know. The suggested places sound interesting: and like you, I don’t like super touristy stuff.

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