CLEVELAND, Ohio — In Cleveland, you may have encountered Art Deco while sitting in Severance Hall, looking at the pylons as you cross the Lorain-Carnegie (Hope Memorial) Bridge, or perusing the “Muse With Violin” screen at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
But you almost certainly have not seen it distilled the way it is at a private recreation center known as the Hangar.
The Hangar was built in 1930 as part of the Dudley S. Blossom estate, in what was then Lyndhurst but is now Beachwood. Many estates and country houses of that era incorporated a private sports facility, as a place where children, their friends — and adults — could swim and play tennis indoors.
One stellar example is at Astor Court, the Vincent Astor estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Another is on the Long Island estate at which “Sabrina,” with Audrey Hepburn, was filmed. Only about two dozen such centers remain in the United States today.
From the outside, this Cleveland version of a private recreation center does partly resemble an airplane hangar — because of the two glass-pitched roofs, one each over the tennis court and swimming pool.
The plain stucco exterior evokes Art Moderne. But as you approach the edifice from a private gravel road, you see something a little surprising: a stripe of blue, green, black, white and tan tiles in a chevron design, which encircle the building just above eye level. Then, at the main entrance on the side, a symmetrical set of stairways and railings zigzag to the door. Halfway up, there’s a spherical sculpture of a fish.
All are only hints of the visual splendor inside.
“The Hangar is a gem,” says architect Paul Westlake. “It tells a unique story of the sophistication and wealth that Clevelanders had.”
But not many people know the story, because the Hangar is not open to the public. Today, it is owned by Charles Bolton, whose great-aunt was Blossom’s wife, Elizabeth.
It is Bolton who oversaw its restoration in the mid-1980s, which was around the same time that the Hangar was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its architect was the highly regarded Abram Garfield, whose father, James A. Garfield, served briefly as the 20th president of the United States before dying in 1881 of wounds from an assassin’s bullet.
“The Hangar shows the fluency that Abram Garfield had,” says Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society. “He’d worked in Colonial revival, in Beaux-Arts — yet this was cutting-edge.”
It was the only Art Deco building Garfield would ever create.
A functional center with Art Deco style
Dudley Blossom was a successful Cleveland businessman, but he and his wife are more widely known for their philanthropy, in particular their support of the musical arts.
Elizabeth Blossom — nee Bingham — was the sister of Frances Payne Bolton, who was married to Chester Bolton, a congressman whose seat Frances would fill upon his death. The Bolton and Blossom estates took up hundreds of acres of the land adjacent to what is now Cedar and Richmond roads.
The Blossoms, best known today for the amphitheater named for them in Cuyahoga Falls, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, had a longtime friendship and professional relationship with Abram Garfield.
Garfield, who would found the school of architecture that would be enfolded into Case Western Reserve University, had designed many other homes, including the Mather House at CWRU and the Hay-McKinney Mansion of the Western Reserve Historical Society. He had also designed the Blossoms’ Tudor Revival home in Lyndhurst, which was built about a decade before the Hangar was added.
The Hangar was his first foray into the design style that had swept the world since the 1925 exhibition in Paris of “arts decoratifs.” That exposition debuted a modern style characterized by a streamlined classicism, and geometric and symmetrical compositions. Its prominent motifs often included stylized animals and Aztec or Egyptian references (the latter inspired by the mania surrounding the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb).
But the Hangar had to be functional first, and the description in the application for the National Register of Historic Places — which also refers to it as a “gymkhana” — explains how it was designed and built to fulfill its purpose: “to make vigorous summer sports accessible and practicable year round.”
The T-shaped building’s clay tennis court and swimming pool were glass-roofed “to admit the sun, and to heat against winter’s chill.” Monel metal, a nonrusting alloy used in aircraft in the 1930s, was employed in the stair rails throughout the interior and exterior. Black brick framed the slate roof, and the building’s steel sash windows had wood sills, except in the pool and tennis areas, where steel framing held the skylight panels.
Crank-operated casement windows permitted natural ventilation in the pool area. The exterior entrance featured double flights of “scissor stairs” that led to the Art Deco-styled doorway. A flat portico was edged by alternating black and white tiles, and a metal grille panel added visual interest at the landing.
Garfield’s daily diary entries from the summer of 1930 show frequent mentions of the Blossom project, though he referred to it mostly as the Blossom tennis court. “Stopped at Blossom tennis court, coming along very well,” for example, and “almost completed, and I believe, a meaningful piece of work. Mural work very interesting, and I believe the building is a success.”
The mystery of the muralist
The Hangar’s glory, though, resides in its interior.
Guests who arrive in the main lounge are immediately surrounded by a vivid, sea-themed wall mural that leads upward to a sapphire-glass tray ceiling, from which hangs a sleek, silvery chandelier. The mural is signed “June Platt, 1930.”
Who was June Platt? That was what art historian Mark Bassett wanted to know. He was among a handful of art and history mavens who attended a rare tour of the Hangar in September, sponsored by the 20th Century Society.
The tour’s theme centered on the creations of Cleveland’s Rose Iron Works, and the Hangar was the star, because of the Paul Feher/Martin Rose fish-and-seahorse railing that adorns the south side of the pool.
Bassett has written the definitive book on Cowan pottery, which was made in the early 20th century at the firm’s studio in Rocky River. The Hangar, in fact, features the famed Cowan “Alice in Wonderland” doorknobs inside. (Elizabeth Blossom was known to favor Cowan pottery; she had bought several pieces at the art museum’s May Shows when they were exhibited.)
Bassett is also an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and through some digging, he learned that Platt and her husband, Joseph, were a pair of powerful tastemakers in the 1930s, ’40s and beyond. Joseph Platt decorated sets for Hollywood films, including “Gone With the Wind” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”
“You’d expect something like this in Jay Gatsby’s backyard.” Florist and designer Charles Phillips
June Platt, daughter of a well-known sculptor named Rudulf Evans, went on to become a nationally famous author of cookbooks and guides to entertaining, as well as a wallpaper designer.
The Platts lived mainly in New York, and later Paris. But at some point, they must have been in Cleveland. Perhaps June Platt went to art school here, says Bassett, though he hasn’t found her on the art institute’s alumni list. The only other known mural attributed to the Platts is at the Country Club of Detroit.
Platt’s mural at the Hangar shows a mastery of detail and imagination. Sea anemones, guppies, zebra fish and other samples of fantastical marine life swirl in pinks, mint greens and soothing blues, in forms both bold and delicate.
Bolton says the mural has remained in excellent shape — only a few touch-ups here and there were needed during the restoration. It shimmers as it must have in 1930. Platt’s circular painting of sea fauna, which connects to the mural, creates a focal point over the fireplace.
The artisans and the architect
Barbara Rose, granddaughter of Rose Iron Works founder Martin Rose, was on the September tour as well, to tell of Paul Feher and Martin Rose’s design work on the sea-themed railing that embraces the pool — a pure form of artistic fancy that was designed to be viewed from both sides.
“That is not often true with decorative pieces,” she says, “so it was not only designed with whimsy and imagination, but impeccably executed.”
Bob Rose, Barbara’s brother and president of the still-thriving firm, notes how Feher artfully used negative space: “The waves are open. He does use some ornamentation, with silver inserts at the cusp of the waves.”
He adds, “This is a work of graceful fun, more fanciful than was typical of Paul Feher, even though he himself was said to be a bubbly kind of guy.”
The Rose firm still has its original work orders for the railings, windows and ceiling supports of the Hangar. They indicate that Rose worked directly for Garfield, meaning the architect was closely involved with the details of the interior design.
Over the years, Garfield’s architecture firm evolved into the firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky, at whose offices the bulk of the archives from the Hangar project is housed. The Hangar is a point of pride in the firm’s history; it is the one building of Garfield’s that is highlighted on the legacy portion of the firm’s website.
“The era when this was built was a time of artistic collaboration, when architects collaborated with artists and artisans like Rose,” says Paul Westlake. “But we also had brilliant women working at the studio then, and when I see the interior of the Hangar, I can’t help but believe at least one of them was contributing to that, because it reflects such heart, such soul.”
For example, the original sketches of little colorful fish tiles that are placed around the pool area have a playful charm to them.
The ladies’ changing room at the Hangar is breathtaking: A silver vanity table with Deco mirror and pink seashell wallpaper creates an ultrafeminine touch. The furniture selected for the main lounge was apt for the time — and Art Deco design retains its allure, as manifested in the white rounded leather club chairs and the large, chevron-sided planters. The wicker furniture on the gallery patio where tennis games are observed conveys a tropical flavor.
In the 1970s, the membership rolls of the private Hangar Recreation Association read like a who’s who of Cleveland’s East Side, including names such as Burton, Meacham and Dempsey. Even Sherman Lee, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, was an avid tennis-playing member.
Connie Searby of Pepper Pike was a child then and used to swim with friends from the Hathaway Brown School at the Hangar and attend children’s parties. She well remembers the building before Bolton restored it, when the wallpaper was covered by paint in a hue he calls “Army Sheraton green.”
“It was always a treat to come here and to be able to swim in the winter, and the style was sort of shabby chic,” she says. “There’d always be frozen pizza in the kitchen you could heat up. You paid for its with chits, on the honor system.
“Even then, though, I would think of what it must have been like to have been here in the 1930s.”
During the restoration, the Boltons (Charles’ wife, Julia, was also greatly involved) salvaged small pieces of wallpaper from protected areas and then had a specialty firm in Cincinnati re-create the original design, using a silk-screen process. The result: walls papered with vintage designs in saturated hues.
Today, Searby and her husband are members of the Hangar Recreation Association themselves and have four children who enjoy its amenities, including one daughter’s recent 11th birthday party.
Searby is entranced by the restoration work that Bolton has done, some of it in consultation with architect Peter van Dijk, and some with his cousin, the architect Kenyon Bolton of Cambridge, Mass. The general contractor for the project was Residence Artists of Chardon.
“When you take on a task like Charlie Bolton did, it’s daunting, because you are never going to please everyone, yet he somehow did,” Searby says. “All that was old and nostalgic and wonderful, he held to. What he could, he made new, and more fun.
“It was quite a feat — and so wonderful that we are preserving something like this.”
The centerpiece of a planned development
The community in which the Hangar is placed is of historical interest as well.
The Hangar was, and is, the centerpiece of a community designed by Elizabeth Blossom, which has also been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Considered to be perhaps the earliest planned unit development in Northeast Ohio, it includes 29 homes that surround a park, not far from the Hangar. Dr. Richard Distad, a onetime resident of what is now called Community Drive, did the legwork for the register nomination. Elizabeth first thought of the community when her daughter, Mary, called Molly, was getting married.
“Because Molly was a diabetic, they wanted her close by, so they had a house built for her, and then they had a house built for a doctor, too,” Distad says. “Then Mrs. Blossom decided she wanted to create an attractive and enduring community, one that would be attractive to friends with children.”
She was the benefactor with the concept, the means and the determination to create what is officially known as the Elizabeth B. Blossom Union Subdivision, which was dedicated in 1936. Her longtime friend Ethylwyn Harrison was the landscape architect with the vision and skill to plan and landscape the entire community, its woodlands and meadows, and its individual lots.
When the Distad family’s two sons were children, they’d swim and play tennis at the Hangar; in the winter, the Hangar’s longtime caretaker, Harold Lecy, would flood a nearby field to create a skating rink.
The area around the Hangar still retains its charm.
As for the Hangar itself, it is the occasional site of a wedding or a member’s private party. Charles Phillips, a florist and designer in Cleveland, has done a wedding there. Parquet flooring was placed on the tennis court, Chinese lanterns were lit, and the courtside gallery became the musicians’ stage.
“If you want to have a party that evokes Old Cleveland, this is the place,” he says. “You’d expect something like this in Jay Gatsby’s backyard.
“In the daytime, it’s bright and sunny, with light illuminating the mural. At night, it’s so evocative you expect to see ghosts from another time.
“When you step into the Hangar, you step into another world.”