Cleveland Heights’ Alcazar exudes exotic style and grace in any age ELEGANT CLEVELAND 10/12/2008

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By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 
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on October 12, 2008

Autumn in the Alcazar courtyard — this is the view from one of four suites with a balcony. Like the building itself, the courtyard is an irregular pentagon.

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The Alcazar through the years

ELEGANT CLEVELAND This ongoing series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

It has stories, maybe a few ghosts, and a whole lot of old-fashioned refinement. Cole Porter and George Gershwin visited. So did Mary Martin, Bob Hope and Jack Benny. One story has Porter writing “Night and Day” here — though a book on the composer’s lyrics says he got the idea in Morocco.

Moroccan or Moorish? Moorish, as in the Alcazar Hotel, Cleveland Heights’ bit of old Palm Beach, Fla., or silent-era Hollywood, both of which reveled in the romance of Spain.

When the Alcazar opened in 1923, a story in Cleveland Town Topics, the high-society newsletter, announced: “Picture yourself living in a castle of sun-blessed Spain . . . dreams of architectural perfection have come true; the tiles used in the floors and walls imported directly from Spain. The beautiful fireplace and the wonderful stairs are exact duplicates of those in the famous Casa del Greco in Old Spain.”

This bastion, built in the shape of an irregular pentagon, opened 85 years ago this month. It stood out — and still does.

While the boulevards of Cleveland Heights show a prevalence of architecture in the Tudor and Georgian vein, the point where Surrey and Derbyshire roads join offers a knockout building that bespeaks a flashier style.

Prohibition was stumbling through its third year, yet 1923 saw a number of fine hotels opening in Cleveland — the Wade Park Manor, the Park Lane Villa, the Commodore and the Fenwick among them. The city was riding high in what would turn out to be its wealthiest decade, even as cocktails, that staple of the high life, were served only in secret.

The 175-room Alcazar, though, was singular among the hotels, not only because it was in a suburb, but because of its flamboyant, Hollywood flair.

It still is.

For creating such a visually noteworthy building, architect Harry T. Jeffery gets a surprising lack of attention in local history books and documents. A check of Northeast Ohio historical societies and libraries shows him mentioned only for his work on the Alcazar and for being the architect of the famous Van Sweringen brothers’ home on South Park Boulevard in Shaker Heights, a stately Tudor.

In contrast, his Alcazar has the exoticism of an old Florida hotel, complete with a tiled fish pond in the hexagon-shaped lobby. Its design was based on the Hotel Ponce De Leon in St. Augustine, Fla., built for magnate Henry Flagler in the 1880s. Both hotels, it turns out, rose with Cleveland money, since Flagler made his first fortune as a partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Co.

Some of the elements they share include the pitch of the red-tile roofs, the cloister arcade on the patio and the long windows with balcony on the fourth floor.

Cleveland architectural historian Eric Johannessen wrote of the inspiration behind the Alcazar, “the general vogue for Spanish architecture in the 1920s is related to the Florida boom of those years, especially around Palm Beach and Miami.”

Ted Sande of the Cleveland Restoration Society says the Alcazar’s style reflected a time when people were fascinated by Latin culture, as depicted in silent movies with such stars as Rudolph Valentino and Theda Bara. In Hollywood, too, a plethora of such Spanish/Moorish-style homes and hotels were built that same decade, most famously the Garden of Allah, where Valentino, Pola Negri and their friends stayed in decadent social splendor.

The Alcazar was Cleveland Heights’ version of the Garden of Allah — although the Alcazar’s courtyard had a fountain instead of a California swimming pool.

“There was, at the time, this interest in romantic Mission architecture, with a Spanish revival, and the Alcazar represented that,” Sande says. “And, of course, after it was built, a number of the stars of the day stayed there.”

The grand hotel of its day

The Alcazar drew all kinds of notables, local as well as those from out of town.

The apartment-hotel was a popular type of residence in the 1920s. Rooms and suites could be rented by the day or month, and it became a home (with built-in housekeeping) for many residents.

Cleveland’s social register, known as the Blue Book, and Cleveland Town Topics offered advertisements for it.

“Blue Chip Hotels for Your Extra Guests, Permanent Living or Salesmen,” read one oddly worded advertisement promoting the Alcazar and Commodore hotels.

The 1929 Blue Book listed 20 “social register” residents who lived at the Alcazar: Mrs. Clyde Case, the Hon. John C. Hutchins and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Carl Robbins, among others.

Single rooms with a bath were $75 a month (only $3 a night); furnished suites with hotel service were $150 a month and up. Since liquor was verboten, the hotel had to advertise its availability for “weddings, receptions, afternoon teas, cards and dancing.”

Then and now, these ornately painted doors lead to the music room off the Alcazar Hotel’s lobby. Note the arched windows. Inside, there’s a piano and organ for guests to play or practice on; the room is also the site of lectures on art, history, literature and culture.

Town Topics also reported on musicales held in the Alcazar’s fifth-floor ballroom, and dancing-school recitals. (Mrs. Ford’s and later Mrs. Batzer’s dancing schools were famous in society circles.)

In spring, summer and fall, residents and guests could take in the sun while conversing in the lush garden courtyard. At its center was the fountain with a palm finial, surrounded by water-spouting frogs and turtles. The fountain, a copy of one in St. Augustine, was created by the Cleveland firm of Fischer and Jirouch, known for its sculptural work since 1902.

The Alcazar was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The application describes its interior, including the “colorful glazed tiles copied from those in the Alcazar in Seville, and other Spanish sources.” A wall, it notes, “carries a Medieval fireplace with a cartouche flanked by lion-headed dragons, a motif found in some of the Seville Spanish tiles.”

Also mentioned: the delightful shallow pool, studded with Spanish tile, that’s still in the center of the flagstone-floor lobby. Manager Sandra Martin has placed two fish in it: one is a goldfish, the other is a black Moor.

“I never even thought of the Moorish connection to the hotel,” she says.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the Depression was under way. But those who could afford it could be well-entertained in the Alcazar’s restaurant, at one point named the Patio Dining Room, or the cocktail lounge, once called the Intimate Bar. It was private and swank enough to attract the mobsters who called Cleveland home, as well as their out-of-town visitors.

A different crowd was drawn to the rose-filled courtyard. Wedding ceremonies were held on many summer afternoons, with receptions in the ballroom. Even today, the apricot-painted room with ivory trim features the original set-in band-shell stage.

An interesting mix of residents, visitors

These days, the Alcazar is mostly an apartment building. Many residents are older, and some gave up grand homes to move in. But there are also nurses from the Philippines who live here and work at the Cleveland Clinic. When visitors from abroad stay here, they often are invited to give lectures to the other residents in the music room off the lobby.

Nancy Underhill, 75, is a visual artist who has her apartment/studio here. She first visited an artist friend who lived at the Alcazar and then decided she wanted to live in such an aesthetically interesting building as well.

“The walls are thick, so you have lots of privacy, and the ceilings are higher, and they’ve got the molding — it’s all very gracious,” she says.

This was the convivial scene in the early 1950s in the Alcazar’s elaborately decorated Colonnade Room, complete with a lovely, corsaged lady at the piano.

She likes the closets with their old built-in vanities; you can even see what used to be hinges from a Murphy bed on hers. The suites have little shelves with doors that also open to the hallway; once, they allowed for deliveries from delicatessens and pharmacies.

Each suite still has its original double doors, too; the door closest to the hall is louvered, so opening the interior door allows breezes from the courtyard to waft through.

“These are quirky things, which I don’t mind at all,” Underhill says. “Then there’s the garden, which is like a cloister garden. So many things in this building are redolent of the times in which it was built.”

Though Ohio law dictates the Alcazar now can house only five temporary residents as a bed-and-breakfast (because it is also an apartment building), the restoration society’s Sande likes to have visitors from overseas stay here.

“They love its eccentricity,” he says.

Alcazar manager Martin loves that, too.

“You’re always surprised at the stories you hear,” she says.

Her favorite? The one about the time swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller stayed here with his sweetheart, actress Lupe Velez, when he was performing in the 1936 Aquacade. He and Velez liked to eat chicken; she’d prepare it in their kitchenette.

“Lupe went to the market that is now Russo’s across the street and bought two chickens,” Martin says. “The bellman — and I heard this story from his wife — was so shocked when he opened the door. Lupe had this excitable personality anyway, and then he saw these chickens running around.

“I guess Johnny liked his chicken fresh.”

And the Alcazar got itself, if not ghosts, one more piece of its legend.

The Alcazar through the years

1922-23: Plans are completed and construction begins for a distinctive five-story apartment hotel to be called the Alcazar, a Spanish word for fortress. It was built for George W. Hale, Edna Florence Steffens, Harry E. Steffens and Kent Hale Smith, who, according to a society newsletter, “personally planned and executed this Spanish castle of their dreams.” Smith’s widow, Thelma, lived at the Alcazar toward the end of her life. (She died in 2007.)

Oct. 1, 1923: The Alcazar Hotel opens to guests and tenants. It is the only hotel in Cleveland Heights.

Dec. 5, 1933: Prohibition ends after 13 years; the Alcazar, like other establishments, can now serve liquor in its restaurant and bar.

1936: The Great Lakes Exposition and Billy Rose’s Aquacade draw entertainers and visitors to the Alcazar.

1940s and 1950s: The Alcazar continues to be a favorite site for dancing, dining and listening to entertainers in the lounge and restaurant.

1963: The hotel gets a new owner, Western Reserve Residences Inc., a nonprofit organization with Christian Science roots. In line with that group’s beliefs, alcohol is no longer served or permitted in public areas.

1979: The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

March 2003: The Alcazar celebrates its 80th birthday with a Big Band and dancing.

Jan. 1, 2004: The Alcazar officially ceases being a hotel. It had to give up its hotel license because of a little-known state law that prohibits combining a hotel and apartment complex. Only five guests are permitted per night, since it is now an apartment building and a bed-and-breakfast, though longer-term corporate suites are available, too.

Oct. 1, 2008: The Alcazar turns 85.

The Hangar in Beachwood: A rare look inside Cleveland’s secret Art Deco gem ELEGANT CLEVELAND 11/16/2012

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.

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The Hangar, beauty behind closed doorsPlain Dealer photographer Chuck Crow and reporter Evelyn Theiss visit the beautiful and exclusive club called the Hangar. Get a look behind closed doors.

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.”

Cleveland reporter and bon vivant Winsor French brought readers the world in mid-20th century ELEGANT CLEVELAND 10/9/2011

original link is here
By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 
on October 09, 2011
winsor1.JPGWinsor French was a handsome fellow, as this 1939 portrait shows, and he knew how to make an entrance, too — his burnished baritone would boom, “You won’t believe it . . . ,” and he’d launch into a story that had his listeners rapt. 

He was a New England blueblood turned Cleveland columnist who traveled with Cole Porter and his friends in cafe society.

Winsor French was famous, too, for arriving at his newspaper job at the Cleveland Press in his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. But he made a point of sitting next to his driver, Sam Hill, not behind him.

French was the very definition of a bon vivant. His great friends included such celebrities as Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead, as well as the writers Somerset Maugham, John O’Hara and John Steinbeck.

Yet he also was the first writer for a mainstream Cleveland paper who went to black nightclubs in the 1930s and raved to readers about the jazz scene he found there. He wrote about his friends in Cleveland’s Jewish society, though his WASP acquaintances chastised him (to no avail).

And while his close friends knew, and devoted readers might have discerned, that French was gay, he had also been married to a New York heiress whose mother was Antoinette Perry, for whom Broadway’s Tony Awards are named.

In short, French was an anomaly in many aspects of his life — and one of the most vivid characters in 20th-century Cleveland.

Telling the story of a great storyteller

French, you could say, wrote the book on Cleveland night life and culture from the early 1930s, when Prohibition was on its last legs, to the mid-1960s.

Except he never did write a book, so now James M. Wood has done it for him. The Shaker Heights author — best known for his history of Halle’s department store — captures a magical era in the city’s culture in “Out and About With Winsor French” (Kent State University Press, $29).

It took Wood 15 years of research and writing, and he got to know French well through letters he wrote that his sisters — three are still alive — had saved. Wood also read the massive archive on microfilm of French columns, first at the Cleveland News, then for several decades at the Press.

Wood, a former Cleveland magazine writer, found some surprises along the way — such as that, for a time, French wrote under the nom de plume Noel Francis.

Also, Wood says, French was open about his sexuality but not obvious: “Reading his columns, though, I could see how he was writing between the lines for a gay audience.”

This, of course, was at a time of rampant homophobia, when newsrooms were no bastion of tolerance. Yet French was liked and respected.

“He earned his credentials with his newspaper colleagues by being able to drink them under the table,” says Wood. “He was a tremendous drinker and smoker and storyteller — and everyone couldn’t help but want to hear the end of his stories.” Which, Wood writes, he delivered in a “burnished baritone.”

For much of his life, French tended to live beyond his considerable means, especially through his worldwide travels. But then his good friend Leonard Hanna left him a gift of “a big wad of IBM stock,” as Wood says. “And he became a very generous host.”

Winsor French was born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., descended from a distinguished military family from Massachusetts. His father, also named Winsor, died in 1908, when his son was 5. His mother, Edith Ide French, then married Joseph O. Eaton, founder of Cleveland’s Eaton Corp.

French did not thrive at any of the private boarding schools he was sent to and spent only a few months at Kenyon College. This was no impediment to being hired at a newspaper, though, and in 1933, he joined the Cleveland News.

That same year, he married Margaret Frueauff, who lived on the swankiest part of Park Avenue in New York City and whose Broadway stage name was Margaret Perry. Within months, she inherited $675,000 from her utility-magnate father, so her husband’s salary hardly mattered.

Interestingly, for their wedding at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, French had 14 male ushers, at least four of whom were openly homosexual, according to Wood’s book. They included Leonard Hanna (scion of Cleveland’s Hanna family), Roger Stearns (who would later become French’s longtime companion), Jerome Zerbe (who is said to have invented the profession of celebrity/society photographer) and actor Roger Davis.

The French marriage barely lasted a year, but Margaret and Winsor remained on friendly terms. Her next husband was the actor Burgess Meredith.

winsor2.JPGThis photo was taken on the 1940 South Seas cruise that Winsor French took with Cole and Linda Porter and other friends; from left, in the front: Cole Porter, Linda Porter, Roger Stearns and French. At far right is Leonard Hanna. 

French invited into celebrity world

On Jan. 2, 1933, French, who had once belonged to an acting troupe himself, was at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre for an important event — the world premiere of a new play by Noel Coward. French was one of a dozen newspaper writers, as well as reporters from The Associated Press and United Press International, on hand.

That Cleveland would be the site of the play’s debut — to columnist Walter Winchell’s dismay in New York — might be explained by the subject matter of “Design for Living,” which starred the famed Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne: a menage a trois, involving two men and a woman.

Under his Noel Francis moniker, French had leaked just enough about it in advance to ensure a frenzy of coverage. In his column, he called the play “very, very daring.” After all, he was acquainted with the playwright, so he got the scoop.

Later, French would write, “People will tell you, by the way, that ‘Design for Living’ is Coward’s own life story.”

No other critic in Cleveland would have known, or could have written, that.

In the next few years, navigating celebrity would be an integral part of French’s personal life and profession.

Cole and Linda Porter invited French to Hollywood in 1936 to stay with them at their leased estate. Cleveland Press editor Louis B. Seltzer agreed that readers would be interested, so French stayed — for six weeks. He wrote about the clubs and parties he attended, and the stars he saw. At a party hosted in Santa Monica by Carole Lombard, he befriended Marlene Dietrich.

French had met the Porters through Leonard Hanna. They visited Cleveland in the 1930s and ’40s, and usually stayed at Hanna’s Hilo estate in Mentor.


One of Porter’s friends and favorite pianists was Roger Stearns, with whom French had shared the Porters’ guesthouse in Hollywood. For most of French’s adult life, until Stearns’ death, the couple lived together in apartments in Lakewood and Shaker Heights.

Early in his career, though, French was living in a down-market area overlooking the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, in a neighborhood called Lakeside Flats. He preferred to call it an “artists colony.”

In 1936, that neighborhood overlooked the Billy Rose Aquacade. French belittled the show almost daily in his column. The reasons were simple: French was a dear friend of Fanny Brice, Billy Rose’s wife, and she had conveyed to him that her husband was philandering with Eleanor Holm, a star of the Aquacade. Rose’s homophobic rants about his wife’s male friends didn’t endear him to French, either.

That same year, Cleveland was also on the map as host city of the Republican National Convention. Thanks to his friendship with the Republican Hanna, French became a tour guide for party honchos to the places they wanted to go: the restaurants and nightclubs of Cleveland’s black entertainment district, where they heard performers such as pianist Art Tatum.

While few knew Cleveland the way French did, over the years he became just as well-known as a “first-class” travel writer. He would file columns from London, Paris and Venice, Italy, that were filled with the goings-on of famous composers, novelists, actors and actresses — something that surprisingly was embraced by the working-class-oriented Press and its editor, Seltzer.

On a South Seas cruise with the Porters, French was on hand as Cole wrote the lyrics for his show “Panama Hattie.”

In the 1940s, French was a member of Cleveland’s mostly Jewish “Jolly Set,” which partied at such venues as Gruber’s Restaurant in Shaker Heights and Kornman’s Back Room on the street dubbed “Short Vincent.” His friendship with Indians owner Bill Veeck gave him access to cover the Indians’ private post-game World Series celebrations in 1948.

Among French’s good friends in Cleveland were members of the Halle family.

When he traveled to Washington, D.C., he stayed with Kay Halle, who was famous as the beautiful hostess who turned her Georgetown home, known as the “Hotel Halle,” into a salon that drew famous power brokers.

Naturally, she knew John F. Kennedy long before he was president. In the early 1960s, when Jackie Kennedy was redecorating the White House and turning it into the museum it is today, French paid Halle a visit.

He brought along a landscape painting by Alexander Wyant that had long been in his family. He and his siblings decided to offer it, as they had learned the White House arts committee was interested in 18th- and 19th-century landscapes.

Not long after his visit, he got a handwritten note from the first lady, who thanked French for the “charming landscape” and for his “spontaneous generosity.” The painting is believed to still be in the White House collection.

‘He was never a hypocrite’

One of French’s sisters, Martha Hickox, still lives in Cleveland, in a retirement home.

She recalls that when she lived with her husband and children in Pepper Pike, “Winsor used to come out to our house every Sunday for lunch — it was a ritual,” she says. “He could be very, very funny. And even later, when he had his physical handicaps, he did not let it daunt him.” (When his legs began giving out on him after he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease, he got the Rolls-Royce and driver.)

Martha’s son, Fayette, lives in Weston, Conn., and remembers those lunches fondly. He went on to become a writer himself, working for George Plimpton at the Paris Review and for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He says he was undoubtedly inspired by his uncle, “who always dressed for lunch in a blazer, gray flannel slacks and an ascot.

“My Uncle Winsor never let socially restrictive norms get in the way,” whether in his personal or professional life, says Fayette Hickox. “And he was never a hypocrite.”

To wit: French drank during Prohibition, and he not only let readers know it, he all but gave them addresses to the speakeasies in his column.

Hickox has some mementos from his uncle: a photo inscribed to French by actress Gertrude Lawrence, and an ashtray on which Cole Porter etched an ode to French’s partner. It reads, “To the lovely loins of Roger Stoins.”

winsor3.JPGWinsor and heiress-actress Margaret Perry, just after their wedding in 1933. Shortly after posing for this photo in Niagara Falls, N.Y., they left for the World’s Fair in Chicago.

It’s the kind of naughtiness French would have loved.

French died at the age of 68, in 1973, from a neurological disease he had suffered from for years. At first, he got around with a walker, then a wheelchair. In addition to his about-town writings, his legacy includes having campaigned for accessibility for people with disabilities.

At the end of his life, French expressed regret for never having written a novel or sold a screenplay. Yet his body of work provides a profound cultural view of Cleveland at midcentury, as Wood’s book well conveys.

As Fayette Hickox says of French: “He always had a kind of underground, countercultural sensibility, wrapped in a suave urbane package.

“I think he opened a window on the great world for us, just as he did for his readers.”

Louis Rorimer’s elegant, original designs defined public and private places: Elegant Cleveland 1/10/2010

the original link is here

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 
on January 10, 2010

ELEGANT CLEVELAND / This series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in its people, architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

rorimer.jpgAn Art Deco living room set by Louis Rorimer, from 1929.

The gleaming Art Deco splendor of Higbee’s Silver Grille in Cleveland and the patrician Colonial-revival tradition of the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia both conveyed the height of elegance, circa 1931.

So did the antique chest featured in November’s Martha Stewart Living magazine, a piece of furniture that once belonged to Cleveland native-turned-Washington socialite Kay Halle and is now prominently placed in the New York apartment of media executive Susan Lyne.

All these disparate looks had the artistry of one man behind them — Louis Rorimer, the dean of high style in Cleveland in the first third of the 20th century through his Rorimer-Brooks design studio downtown.

James Irving is the interior designer who, some decades ago, assisted Halle with the decor for her Georgetown home. He spotted what he recalls as a Rorimer-Brooks piece in the recent photo of Lyne’s apartment.

Irving has been a decorator for 50 years and has encountered his share of Rorimer-Brooks pieces in the homes of friends and clients, as well as in the lobby of Moreland Courts in Cleveland, where he lives and which Rorimer decorated when the complex was built.

“I consider Louis Rorimer to be the Louis Comfort Tiffany of furniture,” says Irving.

Certainly people with an eye for good design appreciated Rorimer quite early on. Attorney Homer Johnson was a client and friend for whom Rorimer designed most of his furniture between 1903 and 1930 — so Johnson’s son, Philip, who would go on to become a famous architect, had a childhood bedroom filled with Rorimer’s furniture. Inspired by the Far East, it was made in 1913 of cinnabar and black chinoiserie.

That was unusual, says author and historian Leslie Pina, who lives in Beachwood. “It presaged the craze for Chinese-style lacquer in the 1920s.”

But then, Louis Rorimer was always just a little ahead of the times.

Drawn to art

at a young age Rorimer’s parents, Jacob and Minnie Rohrheimer, arrived in Cleveland from Bavaria in 1849, and Jacob established a tobacco business that supported his family for 40 years.

Louis was the youngest of seven children, and by age 14, his talent led him to the Cleveland School of Art. Four years later, he traveled to Munich, Germany, to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule, considered one of Europe’s finest arts and crafts schools.

Pina, author of the book “Louis Rorimer: A Man of Style,” says that Cleveland’s art scene in the late-19th century was dominated by Germans and the sons of German immigrants, many of whom studied in Munich, Paris and London. After Rorimer left Munich, he went to the L’Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

“The 1890s were one of the most thrilling times to be an artist in Europe,” says Pina. It was the era of the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, the British Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, as well as Art Nouveau.

louis-rorimer.jpgLouis Rorimer was an artist and visionary

Rorimer made it his mission to improve public taste by elevating the design of all objects, particularly those used in the home. He and one of his European acquaintances, Oscar Wilde, shared the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.”

Rorimer not only had an eye for artistic innovation but the means and will to travel frequently to Europe — fairly unusual and a more arduous trek then — as well as to Morocco, Egypt and South America. He introduced the work of several contemporary European designers to America: He brought the first Bugatti bronzes here and introduced Lalique glass to this country in 1904.

Making his mark

in design Rorimer opened his design firm in 1893 in Cleveland’s Arcade, though eventually it would take up much of the block at East 22nd Street and the south side of Euclid Avenue.

The firm was then known as Rohrheimer, the original spelling of his family name. Later, conscious of anti-German and anti-Jewish sentiments, he anglicized his, and the company’s, name by legally changing it to Rorimer in 1917. With the purchase of the Brooks Household Arts Co. that same year, Rorimer-Brooks was born, though mainly in title since Brooks had retired.

From the start, the Rorimer firm cultivated a clientele of wealthy Cleveland residents and found a profitable commercial market as well.

Rorimer heartily disliked the cluttered, ornate Victorian look then in vogue and embraced the simpler, more practical lines of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was inspired by such English decorative artists as William Morris.

But Rorimer was a businessman, too, says Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society, so his craftsmen often found themselves creating reproductions. If one of Rorimer’s wealthy clients had an 18th-century Chippendale set that was short one chair, Rorimer’s workmen could create an impeccable fill-in.

For many clients, though, Rorimer would create new designs — such as the Arts and Crafts bed and vanity dresser he made for Virginia Hubbell, complete with family crest, which the historical society displays. Or the complete interior he built in the 1920s for the Shaker Heights home of George G.G. Peckham.

“Louis Rorimer excelled as a businessman, artist and educator — at all of those,” says Zimmerman. Among Rorimer’s students were famed modernist Norman Bel Geddes and designer Viktor Schreckengost.

Rorimer was a designer not just of individual pieces, but, like Frank Lloyd Wright, could create the bigger picture as well.

In 1912, Rorimer was tapped by Ellsworth Statler to create the interior decor for his new luxury Hotel Statler, at Euclid Avenue and East 12th Street. Rorimer’s design for the Pompeiian Restaurant, with its neoclassical columns and geometric symmetry, down to the Greek key motif on the carpet, was just one of the showstoppers.

Soon his firm was doing the decor for the Statler hotels in Detroit, St. Louis, Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., and then for the company’s Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan. Rorimer did not only the public rooms, but all the guest suites as well.

If it had stopped there, with Rorimer and his studio’s creations of furniture, decorative objects, rugs, drapes, plaster work, leather work and upholstery — for residences and hotels — that would have been more than enough for him to leave a potent legacy in Cleveland.

“But he was also a man who always looked to the future,” as Zimmerman says.

Blazing trails

with new look Rorimer’s 1925 visit as a U.S. delegate to the Paris Exposition — which would debut the look that would much later become known as Art Deco — would profoundly change him and his design aesthetic.

A display devoted to Rorimer at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood includes his badge from the expo, an invitation to a soiree thrown by the Baron and Baroness Henri de Rothschild while he was there, and a portion of the extensive notes he took that he would use in later lectures.

A portion of them acknowledged the difficulty “of reconciling all of our ideas and forms inherited from the past with the extreme modern view that all of this is out of step with modern living, and that the past must be scrapped.”

But Rorimer found that most of the old-moneyed Clevelanders who could afford to hire him were more apt to favor the tried, true and traditional in their decor. So while Rorimer was clearly enamored and excited by the best of the modern design he had seen, it would not be easy to incorporate into his work — at least, not in private residences.

There were a few exceptions, though. One was his friend Homer Johnson’s daughter, Jeanette Dempsey, and her husband, John, who were adventurous enough to have Rorimer decorate portions of their Bratenahl home in 1929 in what was called the “Art Moderne” style.

An armchair, a green lamp table and a “skyscraper” bookcase from a casual living-room set are on display at the Western Reserve Historical Society. They convey just how visually compelling and functional this new look was.

silver-grille.jpgThe 1931 creation of Higbee’s Silver Grille showed Louis Rorimer’s fascination with modern design.

It was in public spaces, though, that Rorimer could revel in the future form of decorative art. The Silver Grille restaurant he created for the Higbee’s downtown department store was as Art Deco as any movie set — which is where most people get their ideas of what the 1930s must have looked like, even if they really didn’t.

It’s a testament to Rorimer’s versatility that the same man who created this sleek setting — and whose firm created a suite in that prototypical Deco skyscraper, the Chrysler Building in New York — also was responsible for the utterly traditional interior decoration of the Van Sweringen brothers’ Daisy Hill estate.

Rorimer, who lived with his family for a time at the Wade Park Manor before building a summer home, Rorycrest, near Chagrin Falls, made a point of decorating the bedroom of him and his wife, Edith, in the Art Deco style.

The couple had two children — a daughter, Louise, who grew up to marry the violinist Samuel Dushkin, and a son, James, who would become nationally famous in his own right.

James Rorimer became the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; he was also well-known as the author of “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War,” about his days serving in World War II as one of the U.S. Army’s “Monuments Men” who recovered masterpieces looted by the Nazis.

Louis Rorimer died in 1939 at age 67 from complications of an illness that likely came from his lifelong pipe-smoking habit.

Today, his grandchildren live part of the year at Rorycrest and the adjacent Bigsbluff, the home he helped design for his brother, Maurice.

Rorimer’s presence

remains in Cleveland No doubt, Rorimer-Brooks pieces still abound in Cleveland. Most of them are unsigned, and unless a family knows the provenance of a piece, they might not identify it as such. The firm’s detailed and illustrated records were destroyed in 1957 by Irvin and Co., which bought Rorimer-Brooks.

Still, in homes, attics, auction houses and antique stores, Rorimer-Brooks pieces can be found. And they often aren’t prohibitive in price — Christie’s auction house sold a Rorimer-Brooks chinoiserie bedroom set in June for $1,750.

As interior designer Thomas Randleman explains, Rorimer lived and worked at a time when interior decorators, as they were known then, were almost as involved as architects in the creation of a home or building — as Rorimer had worked with Philip Small during the construction of Moreland Courts, for example.

“You’re only as successful as your patronage,” says Randleman, and Rorimer was certainly that. “He was a man who could translate a kind of lifestyle for people.”

And if people weren’t ready for the way the future would look in their homes, he might help them achieve it with a few pieces of furniture or decorative elements.

To really dazzle them? Well, he’d settle for making his statement in a public space like the Silver Grille.

And lucky Clevelanders — even those who weren’t arts patrons — could appreciate that.

Rocky River’s Hotel Westlake a storied survivor: Elegant Cleveland Plain Dealer 4/26/2009

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 

on April 26, 2009

This ongoing series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

ROCKY RIVER — The living couldn’t get much easier in the 1920s than at Rocky River’s “Pink Palace,” which flashes into view just as you cross the bridge from Lakewood.

At the Hotel Westlake, maid service was taken care of, and you could send your clothing down to the valet to be laundered and pressed. Your car — a Peerless, perhaps? — would be washed in the adjacent garage. If you needed your hair cut or styled, you just went to the barber or beauty salon downstairs.

There was a playground in the back for your children, right by the tennis courts. Practically next door were the stables, and if you had a sailboat or “yacht,” you could dock it at the slips below.

On a slower day, you could just play on the miniature golf course, then have tea on the terrace overlooking the river. Men would enjoy their afternoon cigars with the newspaper, on the indoor mezzanine level.

Should any of your activities lead to the need for aspirin, the switchboard would connect you to Marshall’s Drugstore, a few steps across the street, though they’d certainly deliver.

And you never had to cook or do dishes. There was always a place to dine — the Marine Dining Room, the Lacquer Room, the Commodore Lounge — for elegant or simple meals.

The ballroom — people still remember its grand staircase — was the scene of many weddings and cotillions; the smaller party rooms and mezzanine were popular for card-playing, a favorite entertainment then.

Guests, said management in a newsletter of the time, “need merely occupy their quarters at the hotel, and have their days to devote entirely to their own personal affairs and to the business and pleasure of living. … Today the modern hotel is the ideal home.”

Better even. There was no need for servants that “Mother” had to supervise: “For, after all, the servant problem is almost as much of a nuisance as doing the work herself.”

In this era, when Rocky River was still so countrified that it was referred to as Cleveland’s “vegetable garden,” the Hotel Westlake represented the ultimate in swanky sophistication, even though it happened to be on the West Side.

A glamorous stopover

The location, on a bluff overlooking the Rocky River, not far south of its mouth, had always been a place for hospitality. In 1816, Wright’s Tavern stood here — and a few decades later, it was replaced by the rambling Silverthorne Inn and Tavern. Its owner, Jacob Silverthorn, was known as a “congenial tavernkeeper.”

But when the Miramar Apartments Co. decided to build the Hotel Westlake in 1923, this was a whole new level of luxury. It was part of a flurry of buildings that were known as residential hotels in Cleveland. The 1920s brought such places as the Alcazar and the Wade Park Manor, among nearly a dozen others, most radiating from the University Circle area.

The western location, along with its Mediterranean brick-and-stucco architecture (a combination of Old Florida and Deco-era Hollywood), made it an immediate landmark. Then, too, there was its pink hue, referred to by some as a shade of “strawberries and cream,” and the striking lake and river views it provided.

There was so much activity that the 400-room residential hotel even had its own weekly glossy magazine, 10 or 12 pages an issue, called From the Windows of Westlake.

Besides articles of interest to guests and residents, it printed area train, bus, boat and plane schedules (to such cities as Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago), as well as the showtimes for movies and theatrical productions in downtown Cleveland.

And of course, it divulged the goings-on of guests and residents: In October 1929, “Col. R.O. Davies has returned from New York City and is spending the fall months with us. ‘Fit as a fiddle,’ says he.” And: “Mr. D.K. White announces the opening of his evening classes in golf instruction.”

By then, it was clear that the Westlake had become a convenient favorite for people connected to the new aviation industry. The hotel became a must stop for aviators, as well as others involved in the airline business; it also served as headquarters for the leading women’s flying clubs, including the Ninety-Nines and the Betsy Ross Aviators.

Amelia Earhart, a frequent guest, was interviewed at the hotel in 1935. She commented on a lucky charm given her for an upcoming long flight: “I think a good mechanic is much better than a lucky charm.”

Other aviators who visited included James H. Doolittle Jr., Wiley Post and Charles Lindbergh, though whether Lindbergh stayed overnight is uncertain.

But in the days before night flying, the Westlake was the place for pilots to sleep over — it was the closest hotel to Cleveland Municipal Airport (not yet named Hopkins). Many of them recognized the building from their planes, since the 20-foot-high sign on the Westlake’s roof created a marker visible at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

Adding to the glamour quotient, a number of stewardesses (as they were then known) lived here, and some airlines also kept suites for employee layovers.

Tom Barrett, a longtime Rocky River resident and member of the historical society, says his aunt, Jeanette Curtis, lived at the Hotel Westlake with two stewardess roommates in the ’40s.

“It was a safe place, convenient to the airport, and there really weren’t other reputable hotels on the West Side at the time,” he says.

In October 1929, for instance, the Westlake’s newsletter reported that “Skyways Inc. has two of its most able men living in one of the bachelor apartments,” and further that a Mr. H.L. Kindred, operations manager and vice president of Continental Airlines, and his family “were making the Westlake their Cleveland home.”

High society meets Depression

Plenty of families made the Westlake their home, too. Old photos in the Rocky River Historical Society archives show children playing on the swings in the back and sledding down the hill behind the building, a few feet from the river.

The ’20s had brought with them a new trend: Those who did not want the complications of owning a home — perhaps they wintered elsewhere, for example — would find the new concept of residential hotels a friendly one.

Of course, this was the time of Prohibition. It’s hard to imagine that the Westlake’s proximity to the river and lake wouldn’t have helped some cunning bootlegger supply hotel residents with hootch.

In 1931, the Cleveland News did report the arrest of a “society bootlegger” who had responded to a call for the delivery of six pints of whiskey from a federal undercover agent staying at the hotel.

While residents enjoying the hotel-residence lifestyle might not have noticed, the Great Depression had its effect on tourism. The hotel owners defaulted and operated the place under receivership until it was sold to a committee of bondholders in 1935.

Ruth Regula, who has lived in Rocky River her whole life, still remembers her mom taking her to the Candyland ice cream parlor across from the Westlake in the early ’40s.

“Rocky River was a rural community then, mostly known for its greenhouses, so it was a special treat seeing all the well-dressed people going in and out of the hotel,” she recalls.

“I remember the weddings and dances there, and going down the wonderful staircase.”

For those who could afford it, dances, parties and other celebrations drew people to the Westlake, through the Depression, World War II and beyond. Tom Barrett’s parents got married in the ballroom in 1949. He also recalls the colorful story he heard about a windowless room on the lower level of the river side of the building, where — one of his uncles told him — stag films were shown.

By 1953, more and more guests were arriving in cars than on the trains, so a double-deck parking garage was added.

Nine years later, a spectacular blaze hit the building. An alarm went off at 6 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1962, for a kitchen grease fire, and at 7:30 a.m., another alarm sounded on the roof.

The hotel had long been deemed fireproof, and that may have been what limited the fire damage to the roof, which was destroyed. Water damage occurred throughout the building, though, and 175 residents — 160 of them permanent — were evacuated for many weeks.

The extremely popular Silverthorne Bar, though, reopened the next day.

Run-down palace is rehabilitated

During the next two decades, the hotel slipped into seediness; even the exterior was a dingy pale gray. As Barrett recalls, “It essentially became a big rooming house, and it got kind of rough.”

Architect Andrejs Smiltars, who worked on the rehabilitation in the ’80s, agreed.

“It had once been the place to go for parties, just very elegant, but it had become rundown,” he says. “It had been a landmark, though, and there were no problems with the structure.

“We didn’t have to do a lot of work to bring it back to habitable shape, just a lot of cosmetic work and changing out the plumbing and electrical and mechanical systems.”

Developer Scott Maurer was behind the project. Besides reconfiguring the interior — making fewer but larger units and adding units at the penthouse level — the exterior was restored to its original coral color.

By the ’80s, condominiums were clearly a more profitable venture than hotel rooms in Rocky River. The condo units, which varied in size and went up to three bedrooms, ranged in price at that time from $77,000 to $244,000.

The luxurious service and wide-ranging leisure amenities of the ’20s and ’30s are only a dreamy memory, though there was a burst of VIP vibrancy as a number of sports figures moved in in the ’80s. The Silverthorne is now an empty party room; residents are more likely to go to Salmon Dave’s across the street for libations.

But in Rocky River and from the western side of Lakewood, the presence of the big pink “hotel” — once a drawing card for movie stars, aviators and local glitterati — still makes a head-turning statement.

It’s an edifice that continues to fire the imagination — and inspires a longing for a simpler yet somehow more sophisticated time.

Moreland Courts’ posh living spaces are timeless ELEGANT CLEVELAND Plain Dealer 8/10/2008

on August 10, 2008

This is the Gothic entrance to the West Tower at Moreland Courts off Shaker Square in Cleveland.More:

ELEGANT CLEVELAND / This ongoing series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.

If you lived at Moreland Courts in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s, you didn’t have to mix it up with the hoi polloi at a gas station: A valet would fill your tank from the Sohio pump in the basement garage. You’d never run into your live-in servants on the passenger elevators, because they’d take the service elevators. You wouldn’t even have to go outdoors to dine at the Shaker Tavern at the Square — a long hallway and a special key would get you in.

That’s the signature experience Moreland Courts, which arose in the late 1920s, offered. By design, the luxurious apartment complex emanated a mystique. If you were welcome to live at Moreland Courts in the 1930s, you’d know about it. Otherwise, there wasn’t so much as an exterior sign naming the edifice you were gazing upon.

The block-size complex at Shaker Boulevard and Coventry Road evokes big-city living at its finest, as you would experience on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was — and continues to be — home to people with the means to afford enormous houses but who instead choose to live in a spacious abode that is part of a community of 15 buildings.

The very creation of Moreland Courts, at the edge of Shaker Heights, occurred because that city’s exclusive zoning code did not allow for apartments at the time. So, the complex was built just over the border in Cleveland, as an integral part of the development of Shaker Square’s retail complex.

All the individual units here were at least 1,500 square feet and ranged up to 4,000. Most were single-story, but there were two-story apartments with leaded-glass windows to match. One thing you wouldn’t find back then: a small studio or one-bedroom apartment, because when the complex was constructed, it was feared smaller units would draw bachelors, wayward husbands or, heaven forbid, their mistresses.

Privacy reigned. Inside most buildings, there weren’t common gathering areas; even the elevators were shared by only two or four units on a floor. You’d be more likely to see your neighbors at the private clubs to which you belonged or in Palm Beach, Fla., in the winter.

Moreland Courts’ unofficial slogan in the days when Cleveland bustled as America’s fifth-largest city was “Where the wealth of the world resides.”

For many families, though, this architectural wonder has meant the warmth of home for many decades. William Bruner, for example, is the third generation of his family to live here. His father, Clark, and mother, Polly, moved in in 1937; his grandfather lived with the family until his death at 94.

When Bruner was a teen, his friends loved to visit his family’s apartment before they all headed to Shaker Square to Marshall’s Drug Store for a malt or John Wade’s record shop to listen to 45s.

John Greene, then president of Ohio Bell, lived just below the Bruners, and Polly Bruner liked to warn her son that if he and his friends were too noisy, “Mr. Greene will have our phones disconnected.”

Still elegant but not exclusive

Then and now, Moreland Courts is an anomaly in Northeast Ohio. The level of urban elegance it offers is said to be unparalleled between New York and Chicago — both when the complex opened and today.

In Northeast Ohio, where people live in apartments and condos on their way to buying a house, the Courts always have been anachronistic: People aspire to them, and when they get in, they tend to stay. On many occasions, residents’ children have taken the space upon their parents’ deaths.

In recent years, Moreland Courts has become a far more diverse and democratic place. Where once it housed only captains of industry and families found in the social register, it now attracts people with the finest cultural pedigrees as well: Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland director Jill Snyder, former Western Reserve Historical Society director Ted Sande.

But also making their homes at Moreland Courts are Cleveland’s building and housing director, Ed Rybka; Cleveland State University urban-policy professor Norm Krumholz; and environmental activist David Beach.

Where once there was homogeneity, there is ethnic, racial and religious diversity — adding a draw is the fact that the complex is in Cleveland, making it attractive to people who must live in the city for professional reasons, but it’s part of the Shaker Heights school district.

And, in a nice bit of circularity in these environmentally minded times, Moreland Courts residents like to talk about how they can be without a car for days or weeks at a time. Besides the restaurants and shops at Shaker Square and in the nearby Larchmere District, residents easily can take the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s rapid downtown, to University Circle and even the airport.

How a classic takes shape

This one-time bastion of bluebloods got its financial footing from Josiah Kirby, a colorful fellow who was flagrantly successful at making money, at least for a time.

At the start of the 1920s, Kirby had the $30 million that was the estimated cost for what was to be a massive project of apartments and retail in and around Shaker Square, then referred to as Moreland Circle.

And then his money was gone, and he went to prison for mail fraud and jury fixing. As Sande puts it, “He was a shady character who hired a brilliant architect.”

This foyer in the Point Building looks almost exactly as it did when it was built in the 1920s. The light fixture is original.
See more: Photo gallery

The architect was Alfred W. Harris, and he had conceived of a complex that would in effect be a narrative of English architecture. Harris had served as an aviator during World War I and found himself enchanted by the medieval towns he saw in England. It shaped his architectural creations when he returned home.

He designed several houses in Shaker Heights, a community with street names that paid tribute to English life, and Moreland Courts was to be a masterwork that would reflect all the best elements of distinct eras of English architecture: Elizabethan, neo-Gothic, Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian.

But then Kirby’s empire collapsed, and the Van Sweringen brothers picked up the project. Soon they had their own architecture firm: Small and Rowley, which designed the Van Sweringens’ Daisy Hill estate in Hunting Valley.

The visionary Van Sweringens were business-minded. Beauty was well and good, but only to a point. So their architects adopted a more streamlined approach to Moreland Courts.

Exterior embellishments were kept to a minimum. So were those inside. The walls were still several feet thick, to be sure, but the suites did not have the millwork or plasterwork detailing seen in the Harris-designed suites at the Point Building, the first and still most lavishly appointed portion of the Courts.

Filling the apartments was not a problem, not even during the Depression or World War II.

Back then, most of the residents still had live-in servants, who had their bedrooms on the far side of the kitchen. Each apartment had two phones: one for the family, one for the servants.

In the 1940s, there were uniformed doormen and a 24-hour switchboard. A number of fine shops lined the long hallways known as the Gallery — a women’s boutique, a men’s shop, a tobacco shop and the linen shop called Isabel Barry’s.

These were days of extreme privilege and wealth. One woman who lived at Moreland Courts in the ’40s, Katherine Holden-Thayer (the Holden family owned The Plain Dealer), had six cars at the Courts and seven more at her estate in Gates Mills. In an interview conducted for the Cleveland Restoration Society in 2007, Lou Hubach, who worked as doorman and switchboard operator in the 1940s, said with a chuckle, “She liked cars.”

Then there was Mildred, a switchboard operator who, as everyone who remembers her agrees, couldn’t help but listen and learn secrets.

Graham Grund, a well-known arts patron, lived in Moreland Courts as a young woman in the 1940s. Like many families of the time, her parents also had a home in the “country,” in Gates Mills, where they spent the summer.

She moved back to the Courts seven years ago after the death of her husband, having lived in Gates Mills for many years.

“I don’t think there’s anyone alive here but me who would remember the shops we had here,” she says. “I wasn’t old enough to buy the things they offered, but Mother did.”

Her parents moved into Moreland Courts in 1940 or 1941, she says. “Life was lovely. It was home. But everything changes — and everything really changed after the Korean War.”

Except, she allows, “this is still one of the most beautiful sets of buildings anywhere. Nothing has ever matched it.”

Residents old and new soak up the atmosphere

James Irving, an interior designer who has lived in the Courts since the late 1960s, couldn’t agree more. He lives in the Point Building, though he didn’t always. He moved from one of the Tudor buildings after several years when one of the sought-after suites opened up.

His suite combines his professional artistry, personal taste and the best of Moreland Courts’ interior construction — so much so that it became a must-see for actresses and writers who came to the Shaker Square Bookshop.

Joan Fontaine stopped by when she was in town to talk about her autobiography, “No Bed of Roses.” So did the fashion writer Eugenia Sheppard and Stephen Birmingham, author of an acclaimed book on Manhattan’s Dakota Building.

Moreland Courts today

Price of suites: In the past two years, the price range has been from $30,000 to $550,000, depending on size and building.

Monthly fees: $1,100 to $3,300. These pay for both the high level of service provided by the building and the recent $15 million in massive restoration and renovations to the historic structure.

Services provided: 24-hour valet, security and switchboard; pick-up and delivery of packages and dry cleaning, etc.

Moreland Courts, Birmingham told Irving, compared most favorably to that storied building.

Rayleen Nanni is one of Moreland Courts’ newest residents. She owns the Metropolitan Galleries at Shaker Square, a furniture and art gallery. She lived in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood for 15 years before moving to Northeast Ohio several years ago.

She lived for a time in Ohio City. “But I always dreamed of coming to the square and living here,” she says.

It has the urban feel of Manhattan to her, if on a smaller scale. On Sundays, she and her husband buy the paper, walk to Shaker Square for coffee, perhaps have brunch at one of the restaurants.

“You can walk, and you see people,” she says. “I like looking outside my apartment and seeing the rapid trains. It’s just a very urban feel.”

Irving, too, can’t imagine being at home anywhere else. Anyone who loves history and hearing people’s stories — especially the anecdotes of well-traveled residents — couldn’t live in a richer place, and Irving was a friend to many of the grande dames who lived at the Courts.

People remember their names: Mrs. Ziesing. Mrs. Eells. Oh yes, Mrs. Eells, whose luggage would be stacked shoulder-high at the entrance of the Point Building as her driver and car approached. Her staff would line up and stand at attention as she left the building to winter in Palm Beach.

That time — that extravagant lifestyle — largely has vanished, at Moreland Courts and elsewhere. As Irving points out, “Who can afford live-in help, even if you could find help that would be willing to live in?”

Life with servants has passed into history. But the stories of Moreland Courts? For now, there are still a few people who can tell them.

Or keep the secrets.

Shaker Heights designer blazed a trail with patterns, from plastic dinnerware to wallpaper and beyond: Elegant Cleveland 8/18/2012

original link here

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 

on August 18, 2012

The look of the future was invented in Cleveland in the 1950s.

Long before the film “The Graduate” would make it a buzzword, “plastics” was the medium in which Joan Luntz created. For five decades, the designs she oversaw from her studio of artists expanded into wallpaper and drapes, place mats and china, bed sheets and beach towels, scarves and ties.

“Designs by Joan Luntz Inc.” was a business that penetrated the American housewares and home-decor market yet began and remained in Shaker Heights.

Starting in the early 1950s, you could find Luntz, a rare career woman in that era, making monthly visits to Manhattan. She carried a zippered black canvas portfolio — it weighed about 20 pounds — of sample patterns under her arm as she called on art directors and executives at companies such as Wamsutta, Mikasa and JCPenney, in midtown.

“Back then, it was just me and Lois Wyse,” Luntz says, referring to the Cleveland advertising maven and, later, author. “We’d run into each other at parties, and we’d talk and talk, because we were the only two working women we knew. The other women just thought I had a hobby.”

Today, Luntz lives in Wade Park Manor, in an apartment overlooking the Cleveland Museum of Art’s lagoon. Three floors above her apartment, she has a smaller studio space that houses her archived samples.

Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society, has already visited her collection three times; Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative arts and design at the Cleveland museum, has also stopped by for a look. They know that, early in her career, Luntz’s line garnered her top design awards from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.

“She offers a window on art and design in Cleveland that I was completely unaware of,” says Zimmerman. “She competed very well with all the big design firms in New York and came up with fabulous designs, in the colors we now associate with each era.”

Most of us can take a look through our own cupboards, or at old snapshots of family suppers, or visit a neighbor’s house, and we probably will turn up at least one example of a pattern that was created courtesy of Joan Luntz.

Early talent in music

Luntz was raised in Canton before her family moved to the Cleveland area when she was a teen. She then became a student at Hathaway Brown in Shaker Heights.

As a young girl, her interest in art manifested in her masterful piano playing and singing. She was talented enough to be featured several times as a soloist at Hathaway Brown concerts, as noted in The Plain Dealer’s society pages. A photo published at the time conveys why the brunette beauty was selected to the May Queen’s court in 1940.

Luntz met her future husband, George Goulder, when he stopped by her family’s home in Shaker Heights, going door-to-door to raise money for a Jewish charity. He was eight years older than she, but he asked her out on a dinner date nonetheless.

Romance didn’t affect her plans for college, though. Like many well-brought-up young women, Luntz chose one of the Seven Sister schools. She picked Vassar College (seven years later, Jacqueline Bouvier would become a student there) because its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., campus was a train ride from Manhattan, where she hoped to take lessons from a renowned voice coach.

Luntz gave up on her dream of becoming a singer, however, and focused on her studies — she was a history major — and swam in the social whirl, attending dances with swains at Princeton University and other Ivy League schools. She stayed in touch with George Goulder, too.

“Things were different then,” she says. “You studied hard during the week, and on the weekends, you went to dances and parties.” Since Vassar enrolled only women, that often meant visiting other campuses for mixers.

Luntz graduated from Vassar in 1944 and, less than a year later, became a wartime bride. She and Goulder — a graduate of Harvard University and by then an Army lieutenant — were married in Cleveland on Feb. 10, 1945. They immediately moved to Dayton, where he was posted at Wright Field.

During the war, Goulder served in the Army Air Force as a meteorologist, but he had another responsibility as well: The manufacturing company his family owned had thrived throughout the war by making plastic helmet liners for the Army.

When the war ended, George and Joan started a family, which would eventually grow to a brood of six. The manufacturing company Goulder now owned — International Molded Plastics — shifted its production to making plastic cabinets for radios.

But Goulder had been approached by the American Cyanamid Co., which had come up with an extremely hard plastic known as melamine, to create some lines. Soon, his firm began manufacturing plastic tableware for restaurants, hotels and hospitals.

This new material, so pivotal to the second half of the 20th century, was readily moldable and resistant to chipping and breaking, with a life expectancy up to 20 times that of china.

Goulder thought there might also be a market for such durable plastic dinnerware for the home, and his wife agreed. “He wanted to have his own product line,” Luntz says. Goulder appreciated her aesthetic taste, and she began sketching some ideas.

Until that time, dishes and saucers were always round.

“I didn’t know any better, and I thought of a square design for the plates, eventually adding rounded corners,” Luntz recalls. Because her husband was colorblind, he asked Luntz also to select colors — and she knew exactly which hues were in style, thanks to her immersion in decorating the couple’s home.

She chose four for the dinnerware line they called Brookpark Arrowhead Ever Ware: chartreuse, burgundy, emerald and pearl gray.

Product line takes off

In 1950, the couple decided to debut their line at the annual china and glass show, which attracted buyers from all over the world. The trade show was in Pittsburgh that year, but there was a problem: The organizers said only dinnerware made of china and glass was permitted.

“So we rented rooms at the Hotel Pitt, which was adjacent to where the show was, and we placed a sign near the lobby,” Luntz says. “Word of mouth spread, and many of the buyers began coming in to see our line.”

They were drawn by the shapes of the cups and plates, so gracefully rounded in a modern style, with handles innovatively placed on the diagonal corners of serving dishes, and tab handles on cups.

Sales soon exploded, especially after advertisements hit magazines such as Life. “If dishes were wishes, she’d wish for Brookpark,” read the type alongside a smiling blonde.

And the dinnerware sets, displayed later that year at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, were selected for a design award by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Luntz was in heady company: A fellow design winner at that show was Eero Saarinen, for one of his famous side chairs.

But Luntz — already a mother of two — didn’t just rest on her laurels. Soon, she and Goulder were on to the next thing.

They had learned of a newly invented process from Europe that allowed a pattern to be impregnated onto the melamine dinnerware, and theirs became the first company to incorporate decoration in 1956. The design Luntz came up with was called Fantasy, and it featured stylized stalks of wheat combined with pastel discs. It was eventually sold at many chains, Sears and Kroger among them.

From today’s perspective, Fantasy is an iconic midcentury look.

By then, other manufacturers were making melamine dishes, also called Melmac. But Brookpark was a market leader. To show how durable the dishes were, a then-budding actress and future talk-show star named Virginia Graham hosted a 15-minute commercial in which she placed the dishes in a washing machine.

They emerged pristine and unchipped. Of course, as many families would learn, eventually they proved not to be entirely impermeable to knives and forks.

“We don’t discuss that,” says Luntz, with a firm smile.

But Luntz moved far beyond dinnerware (the production of which was expanded from Cleveland to factories in Mississippi and Puerto Rico). Her design patterns enhanced stationery, wallpaper, shower curtains and bedspreads, among other household accoutrements.

Examining the organized flat-file drawers in her studio-office is a trip through 20th-century decor, from pastoral farm scenes to paisleys and traditional prints that would have looked apt with Colonial-style furniture. There are graphic geometrics that capture the bold look of the 1970s, the Provencal country styles of the 1980s and delicate Asian motifs. Then, in the splashy style so typical of the early 1990s, came the explosion of bold calla lilies on black, pink or blue backgrounds.

Luntz became known in the trade press as “the Calla Lily Lady,” which she’s not completely thrilled about.

“I never specialized in any one look,” she said at the time. “There are too many different tastes to please, and I pride myself for having a wide range of looks.”

Approval power over flowers

Luntz always emphasizes that she herself was not an artist. She had 10 artists working for her at her Shaker Boulevard studio, a group she describes as incredibly diverse — mostly women, but some men, hailing from Russia, England and other parts of Europe.

“I had very talented people,” Luntz says.

Back in those pre-computer days, the artists painted all the patterns. A square sample of a wallpaper design with tiny flowers might feature 100 of them, meticulously repeated by hand.

Luntz was the art director, with ultimate approval over the designs, and she’d tweak them. “I might say, ‘Make this flower bigger, or move this flower over there,’ ” she says. “Or I’d say, ‘I’d like that pattern in purple and pink, not in blue and green.’ ”

Then she decided which designs to pitch to particular companies, and for what type of item.

Zimmerman notes that Luntz was also a pioneer at vertical integration: If someone favored the calla lily design, for example, they could buy it in wallpaper, in place mats, china or napkins.

But it wasn’t about repeating a pattern as much as coordinating, Luntz says. “Even when a pattern appears on a number of products, such as a soap dish, place mat or dinnerware, it’s scaled and executed in such a way as to ensure the design works for each of them,” she says.

Somehow, Luntz did all this while raising six children. She notes that she did have some household help. But, she says, the biggest reason life ran smoothly, if hectically, was having a husband who was proud and supportive of the creative work she did — and her decision to locate her studio near their Shaker Heights home.

“If one of the kids had a dentist appointment or a piano lesson, I could run home and take them,” she says. “But then, on a Sunday afternoon, you’d find me working for an hour or two on a design.”

Technically, Luntz has never closed her business but moved it to her space in Judson. She no longer employs a staff of artists but, she says, “If anyone is interested in buying patterns, they’ll have to buy the whole collection” — at the right price, of course.

But she left a legacy for her children — her creativity inspired them, and most of them work in creative fields; even her son who is a professor of economics at Stanford University is a talented pianist.

Luntz’s daughter Susanna Goulder used her artistry as a set decorator for movies and TV shows — most famously, for the debut season of “Sex and the City.” Now, she has moved back to Northeast Ohio and works in the ministerial field.

“I remember that in my classes in the Shaker schools, whenever they’d ask whose mom worked, only two kids besides me would raise their hands,” Goulder says. “But it was neat to have a mom who did what she did.

“I might be missing a pair of shorts, and I’d go to her studio and there’d they’d be, because they gave her an idea for a pattern. She got inspiration from everything.”

The designs created by Joan Luntz still resonate. In April, she received a letter from a woman named Meg, who has an online shop called The Retro Life on the craft site

“About five years ago, while looking through a huge old barn in Vermont, I found your Brookpark Modern design sugar bowl in chartreuse. I had never seen anything like it. Soon I was collecting Brookpark, and then I was collecting more great examples of midcentury design.

“In a couple of years, I had so much, I opened my Etsy shop, The Retro Life. Your designs are fresh and creative, even today. You have such a wondrous eye for shape and color.

“Thank you for all the wonderful designs you have given to the world.”

In the next few months, some portion of her archive probably will be housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Eventually, Clevelanders too will be able to see how Joan Luntz helped create the looks that said “home” in the second half of the 20th century.

Plain Dealer news researcher Joellen Corrigan contributed to this report.

Kokoon Arts Club symbolized era of revelry, artistic revolution ‘a splendid time’ in Cleveland: Elegant Cleveland 6/27/2009

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 

on June 27, 2009

This was artist Rolf Stoll’s poster for the 1929 Le Bal Dynamique, held at Cleveland’s Danceland Ballroom on Euclid Avenue.Kokoon Arts Club: Cleveland Revels

When: Through March 2010.

Where: Rockwell Hall at Main and South Lincoln streets, Kent State University Museum, Kent.

Admission: Free. Call 330-672-3450

A woman wearing only a hatbox suspended below her waist, a couple “clothed” in colorful body paint that faded as they swirled around a sultry room — such party costumes became the talk of the town.

Not in 1968, in Cleveland Heights’ free-wheeling Coventry neighborhood. No, this was 1913, at the infamous Bal Masque given each year by the Kokoon Arts Klub in Cleveland.

These soirees shimmered with sensuality in a time when women’s fashions were just beginning to expose the ankle. Salivating newspaper reporters — some of whom always managed to get invited — wrote vividly about these affairs.

Politicians, publicly at least, seemed nervous about these masked balls. Cleveland Mayor Frederick Kohler even canceled the 1923 party, fearing potential debauchery.

Yet the Bal Masques were only the public face of the Kokoon Arts Club (the K in Klub was often dropped for the more conventional spelling). Always held before Lent, usually at a hotel or dance club, these parties were one-night-a-year fund-raisers for a club with a serious mission — furthering the Modernist form of art not yet accepted by most Clevelanders.

The Kokoon Arts Club was part of a dynamic as old as time: the avant-garde opposing the old guard.

But when it comes to parties, bohemians do them better. And a new exhibit at the Kent State University museum shows the amount of elaborate thought and artistry that went into these parties — starting with a competition among Kokoon member-artists to create the posters and invitations for each year’s themed event.

Kokoon Arts Club: A timeline

1891: Western Reserve School of Design for Women renamed Cleveland School of Art.

1911: Kokoon Arts Klub (the K in Klub was often dropped for the more conventional spelling) founded by Carl Moellman and William Sommer. Thirteen charter members — 11 with German roots — begin meeting in a former tailor’s shop on East 36th Street, between Euclid and Cedar avenues.

1913: The first Kokoon Arts Club Bal Masque is held. Four men carry in a large cocoon, out of which steps a model in a butterfly costume.

1914: The club holds an exhibit of its artists’ work. The disparaging headline in the Cleveland Leader says, “Biggest Laugh in Town This Week Not in Theater, but in Art Gallery.”

1916: The Cleveland Museum of Art opens, and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performs at PlayhouseSquare, inspiring more avant-garde art locally.

1919: The May Show, a juried competition of locally created artwork, debuts at the art museum. For years, many Kokoon members sweep the awards. Member Joseph Jicha wins the Logan Medal at the Chicago Institute for Art for watercolor.

1921: The Kokoon Club moves to its new headquarters at 2121 East 21st St.

1922: Fifty policemen try to crash the annual party, attended by the mayor and City Council. The following year, the mayor denies a permit for the ball, which was then canceled. It returned in 1924.

Late 1920s/1930s:Club membership declines through the Great Depression.

1934: A Plain Dealer story on the party reports that several women at the Bal Masque wore cellophane costumes.

1946: The final Bal Masque is held.

1956: The Kokoon Arts Club folds.

— Evelyn Theiss

Talk about pressure. Even on the night of the ball, Kokooners manning the doors vetted invited guests. If their costumes weren’t in keeping with the theme, and if every detail wasn’t historically accurate, the guest was barred from entrance.

Rented costumes were forbidden, as were “dominoes, tramps and ordinary clown costumes and the like.”

Not that the Kokooners didn’t give guests an opportunity to get it right — each year, they’d show costume sketches for inspiration, offer lessons on how to create abstract costumes and set aside research materials at the Cleveland Public Library that Kokooners and guests were expected to delve into to prepare their outfits.

The themes varied. Among them were the dance, with blue-painted dancers performing the Congo Dance; another year, it was the moon and stars, followed by “King Midas’ golden touch.”

The Kent museum features several of the themed costumes — many of them worn by one-time Kokoon President Philip Kaplan and his wife, Esther Rose. Their daughter, Luba Paz, donated costumes that her father and mother wore to the balls, as well as some of the club’s famous posters and invitations, and photographs taken on those festive evenings.

But who were the members of the Kokoon Arts Club? A list that today comprises a “Who’s Who” of Cleveland artists, including Henry Keller, August Biehle, William Sommer and Paul Travis, and several other painters who were later collectively known as the Cleveland School.

As Kokoon member Richard Sedlon said then of the Cleveland School, “There was a sense of togetherness because they were all so talented. And there was a need for their art. It was a splendid time.”

Born from a hunger to create

When the Kokoon club formed, though, it wasn’t by “name” artists but rather by bored and frustrated lithographers, most of German descent.

Few people today know that at the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland was a capital of lithography, an industry whose craftsmen cranked out movie posters. Morgan Lithograph Co., formed in 1864, was one of the largest of these firms and the one where the soon-to-be-famous Sommer worked.

It was bad enough that lithography work was repetitive, but the men were also tired of designing posters for the blossoming movie industry that were utterly traditional in their depictions.

The abstract and bold art that people would come to associate with the looks of the late 1910s and ’20s was not yet in evidence here. Cleveland’s art world at that time was largely represented by a group called the Cleveland Society of Artists, a defender of art’s conservative tradition.

But in these years, when Cleveland was America’s fastest-growing city, there was naturally a bubbling up of other views, inspired by the Modernism that was sweeping Europe.

Many artists here had traveled to Europe for their studies, and they were inspired by the futuristic turn that art was taking, in painting in particular. In fact, the Kokoon club’s formation in 1911 preceded by two years New York’s famous Armory Show, often cited as the birth of Modernism in the United States.

The Kokoon Arts Club poetically explained the origin of its name: “As the lowly cocoon was the forerunner of the beautiful butterfly, so might they hope that from this small beginning something of beauty should develop and emerge.”

And that emergence was nurtured by the club, whose members pledged to explore “New Art.” That exploration included sketching excursions and lectures as well as visits to theatrical and musical productions.

Costumes for the Kokoon balls might have been risque, but they also had to be practical — guests were told to add pockets to their costumes to store their valuables. And where would pockets have been in the string bikini seen in this late 1920s photo?

Organizing against conformity

For their own exhibitions, the aesthetic standards were set very high, says Jean Druesedow, director of Kent’s museum.

Kaplan, a free-lance artist and designer, joined the club in 1925 and became president in 1932. He cultivated friendships with the art community, here and around the country; he also had the idea of starting the Parisian-like “Artist Curb Markets,” which became a way for Kokooners and other artists to sell their wares for income during the Depression.

At the first curb market in 1932, near Wade Lagoon, 12,000 people showed up to peruse and buy the arts and crafts.

As a 19-year-old bank guard, Kaplan had discovered Richard Laukhuff’s bookstore in the Taylor Arcade on Euclid Avenue during his lunch hour. There, he spied a collection of obscure, art-oriented magazines.

Kaplan was fascinated by their art, typography and illustration, and he began taking evening classes both at the Cleveland School of Art and at the Kokoon Arts Club. By 1925, he was collecting Modernist art and had joined the movement — and the Kokoon Club.

One of the club’s best-known artist members was Paul Travis. His daughter, Elizabeth Travis Dreyfuss, still has some memories of her parents dressing for one of the Bal Masques in Egyptian-style costumes, which they enjoyed because they’d already traveled to Egypt.

“Even though they were best-known for their parties, one of the most important things about the Kokoon club was that they represented the outsiders who organized against rigid conformity,” Dreyfuss says.

“As outsiders, they were supportive of each other, and they created a place to exhibit their work.”

The thing that not as many people recall, too, she says, is that the club members were very serious about their regular meetings, became adept at breaking down artistic barriers and had serious discussions and seminars on art-related topics — the use of color and light, “and all the things that were re-forming the artistic eye.”
Art and design as Cleveland hallmarks

Though Kaplan moved his family to New York when his daughter Luba was still young, she recalls that by her parents’ conversations, “It was clear that their true life had been in Cleveland.

“The subject came up constantly, and my father stayed friends with some of the members, and they’d get together and go over the old times and their hilarious stories.”

One of the more unusual costumes in the Kent exhibit was her mother’s. It was a dress decorated with rubber rats; when black lights were turned on at the 1938 ball, only the rats were seen.

More notably, though, Kaplan was the man who brought poet e.e. cummings to Cleveland, in the first-ever display of his paintings, at a Kokoon club exhibit in 1931.

As Dreyfuss puts it, “The Kokoon club helped make art and design become very important. So Cleveland became something other than just an industrial town.”

Shirley Teresa Wajda, the former Kent State history professor who curated the exhibit, said she took this away from all her research: “The history of art in Cleveland is always told in term of the elite. Here is an example of interested individuals from all walks of life — there was even a firefighter who was a member — who came together to explore their common interest in Modernism.

“And they changed art in Cleveland forever.”

Owners and staff of Bonfoey Gallery mastered the art of craftsmanship through 120 years: Elegant Cleveland 4/17/2014

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 

on April 17, 2014

ELEGANT CLEVELAND A look back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown by its people, architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones. CLICK HERE to read other entries.

It’s an archetypal story of how a “cottage” business evolved into something more – and in late 19th- and early 20th-century Cleveland, there were hundreds of such scenarios. But this is a story about one of the rare businesses that survived, and went on to reinvent itself.

In the Victorian era, creating silhouette portraits of a loved one was still in fashion, as it had been a century before.

So, in the late 1880s, the violinist Asher Bonfoey – who played in the Cleveland Philharmonic at the Euclid Avenue Opera House – gave his wife, Della, a silhouette of herself one Valentine’s Day. This might not have been the most imaginative gift, but as someone who appreciated fine craftsmanship as much as he did the musical arts, Bonfoey did better. He created an elegant wood frame in which to display her profile.

It wasn’t long before friends of Bonfoey’s asked him if he could create frames for their photographs and artwork – and could he perhaps also put some matting around them? Soon, the basement of the Bonfoey’s Cleveland home was given over to the task, and both Asher and Della were spending their spare hours on that work.

While Asher would build a frame and add artfully carved flourishes, Della had a gift for incorporating the matting that nicely set off photos and other images.

bonfoey1.jpegAsher and Della Bonfoey, founders of what is now the Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland, shown at a wedding in the 1920s.

By 1893, the musician with the unusual French surname had enough business that he was spending far more time making frames than he was on music. So he and Della officially opened a framing business in the Mayer-Marks building on the west side of Erie Street, the earlier name for East Ninth Street. Today, the business is on Euclid Avenue, but it is still known by the same name: Bonfoey.

Over the years, the company has done everything from lining coffins to restoring famous paintings, framing artwork for corporate barons and creating shadowboxes of artifacts that included bullet-torn flags and Gilded Age dance cards. And yes, since the 1970s, it also has become a gallery that exhibits some of the finest work by artists in the region.

Not that survival was ever a given – the business endured three fires and the Great Depression, an era that the current owner, Richard Moore, recalls his father telling him about. George Moore was Asher Bonfoey’s protege, and he bought the business in the dark days of the late 1930s, after having worked there for a decade.

“My father said you’d come in on a Friday, and everything was OK, and then on Monday, it was like the water faucet had been shut off,” says Richard Moore. “Nothing.

“My father had customers who sailed to Europe as millionaires and came back broke.”

In those dismal years, the business eventually laid off half its 32 full-time workers; today, it is going strong with 16 employees. And the craftsmen who work there use the same kinds of hand tools to perform the delicate restoration and carving work on frames they would have more than a century ago.

Already in Asher and Della’s day, the Bonfoey Co. attracted a sterling list of clients. Asher was in a bridge club that had John D. Rockefeller as one of its members. After Asher had done work for him, Rockefeller introduced the automaker Henry Ford to Bonfoey, and he too was pleased with the high quality of framing work that Bonfoey provided.

By 1912, the business was incorporated, with Asher its president, treasurer and general manager, and Della its vice president and assistant secretary.

And so the business grew, just as Cleveland’s wealth and population did. Men who lived in grand homes and worked in elegant offices had high expectations for the fine craftsmanship of frames that set off the art they displayed on the walls of both.

After a 1903 fire destroyed the Bonfoey Co.’s Erie Street location, the business moved to the fifth floor of the Buckeye Building on East Fourth Street, just a few steps from the Opera House where Bonfoey had played. This was the time, says Richard Moore, when the company diversified and became one of the largest purveyors of silk and velvet coffin liners in the Midwest.

bonfoey2.jpegGeorge and Winifred Moore at their wedding. George Moore bought the Bonfoey Co. from his boss, Asher Bonfoey. He is the father of present owner Richard Moore.

In 1928, Asher decided he needed a “numbers” man, so he hired George Moore, who was an accountant for Ohio Bell. Asher and Della had a daughter, Dorothy, but she had little interest in the framing business. In Moore, the Bonfoeys found someone they entrusted with their firm’s future.

Among its few artifacts, the firm still has a copy of a letter sent in 1936 by Cleveland’s director of public safety, Eliot Ness. Because of so-called “Blue Laws,” businesses were not allowed to operate on Sundays. Ness gave them special permission to work on Sunday, Sept. 27, of that year, in order to move some of the company’s wares to another location.

By 1938, the Depression had brought down the price of buying the business. But, as Richard Moore explains, his father still didn’t have the money he needed. Fortunately, he had a brother-in-law of means, who was willing to lend him the cash necessary for the deal.

In those years, the firm’s clientele changed, too – no longer could the business rely only on wealthy individual patrons. Many large corporations in the city, though, were still thriving – including Warner & Swasey, Oglebay Norton, Firestone Tire and Hanna Mining, among others. All of them put in large orders for frames for their offices.

When Richard Moore was 16, he started working in the business part time during the summers and on weekends, especially during the Christmas season. He’d answer the phone and wrap the often-oversized packages.

While Richard went to college and even law school for a time – and spent a season as a pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team – he says he felt called back to the family business. And by 1955, two years after Asher Bonfoey’s death, he worked there full time.

The firm’s client list from over the years was long and stellar: Industrialist John L. Severance, eventual U.S. Rep. Frances P. Bolton and William M. Milliken, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, were among the noteworthy names on it. And the company was framing an average of 25,000 paintings a year.

There were some unusual requests as well, Richard Moore recalls, from lesser-known customers. One client arrived with a photograph of what was to be his own coffin – along with what seemed to be all his life’s belongings, including clothing, jewelry and letters.

The man detested his family, and perhaps considering himself a latter-day King Tut, commissioned an identical crypt to the one that would hold his body – one made just for his personal items – so he could keep them near even in death, and away from his family.

Another client requested that the Bonfoey firm make display cases for his Civil War memorabilia. This man was such an ardent collector that he decided he also wanted to own a Civil War cannon placed on Public Square, near the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He got himself a truck and some helpers, and had them load up the cannon, amidst the hubbub of people heading to lunch.

While police eventually recovered the cannon, Moore says the client never came back to Bonfoey – though his other Civil War treasures remained there.

Not every story is dramatic; some are quietly poignant. As Bonfoey’s general manager and longtime employee Olga Merela pages through a photographic archive, she shows an image of a framed glass case that holds a lady’s dance cards. These were collected in an era of grand balls, when a gentleman had to request a dance. Among the cards in this collection were the ones in which the client’s great-great-grandmother first danced with the man who would become her husband.

Other framed cases were designed to hold more unusual items: a flag, with tears from bullets, that hung outside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq, for example, that a soldier brought home; an Indian headdress; and a case that contained circular straw shoes that were worn by a witch doctor in Africa.

As Merela, who has become an expert on history, learned, the shoes were circular so that curious people in the village couldn’t tell by footprints if the witch doctor – usually called when someone was dying – was coming or going, so the family could retain privacy for a time.

Other framed objects the company handled included an Eskimo totem pole, first editions of books by Mark Twain and Robert Frost, a wedding gown and veil, and an obi sash from an ancient kimono.

bonfoey3.jpegBonfoey Co. owner George Moore, right, working with a company craftsman, most likely in the 1960s.

But over the years, it was the craftsmanship of its workers that continued to draw the highest regard. Besides offering hand-carved frames, the company carried more than 1,500 patterns of molding.

Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society, says its museum has a Federal-style “looking glass,” from about 1780, with reverse-painted panels. It was brought to Cleveland in the early 19th century, and Zimmerman often uses it in lectures he gives on the history of fine furniture.

Many decades ago, it was Bonfoey’s craftsmen who replaced the delicate glass and re-gilded the frame – as a vintage Bonfoey label on the back indicates.

Besides its fine framing work, the company also expanded into restoration, and the repair of paintings and textiles. In the mid-1980s, for example, the city of Cleveland hired Bonfoey to clean and restore one of the famous Archibald Willard “Spirit of ’76” paintings displayed at City Hall.

The company also restored the frame of the 1872 Winslow Homer painting “Snap the Whip” for the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.

Another devastating fire in 1961 forced the Bonfoey Co. to move again. The fire, which was started by machinery at a neighboring jewelry business, destroyed what were the Bonfoey archives, such as receipts from Rockefeller and Ford. It also destroyed valuable pieces belonging to clients. Only four items survived, which the company still has today – a safe, a cash register, a letter opener from the 1890s and a stool.

So the company moved again, to its present location at 1710 Euclid Ave. Long ago, that had been the address for the Copacabana Night Club, but by the time Bonfoey moved in, it was replacing the New China Cafe on Playhouse Square.

After settling in, Richard Moore began thinking that the firm should expand in a different way. Its new location offered 14,000 square feet – and Moore decided it should serve as an art gallery, too.

He invited a premier watercolorist of the day, Richard Treaster, to exhibit his work. So Bonfoey, Moore says, became the first commercial gallery to “present and promote Cleveland artists.” Over the years, these artists have included such well-known names as Linda Butler, Christopher Pekoc, Joseph O’Sickey and Phyllis Seltzer.

In the late 1970s, the company acquired the Strongs Art Gallery on East Ninth Street, creating a “Bonfoey on the Square.” In 1983, the firm consolidated both locations into the gallery at Playhouse Square.

There, Richard Moore recalls meeting celebrities performing at the theaters, such as Red Skelton and Ella Fitzgerald, and befriending neighbors, including the storied Herman Pirchner, proprietor of the longtime supper club, the Alpine Village.

Now the company is in its 120th year, a notable member of Cleveland’s “100 Year Club” of businesses.

What makes Bonfoey stand out, says CWRU history professor John Grabowski, is that the business has had only three owners in its long history, with Richard Moore taking over for his father at his death in 1993. (George Moore never retired.) In addition, more than half of its employees have been with the company for between 20 and 40 years – showing not only loyalty but strong commitment.

Grabowski, a founding editor of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, has studied Cleveland businesses that have achieved such longevity, a list of more than 200 that includes such firms as Sherwin-Williams and the Ohio Desk Co.

“One of the major hallmarks of such businesses is adaptability, which Bonfoey certainly shows,” Grabowski says. “The other thing such businesses have is commitment, which you often find in a family business – something becomes ingrained, and if it is, a business can last several generations. When times are tough, that commitment is an important factor.”

And, of course, there is the element of good luck – such as the fact that George Moore was able to borrow money from a brother-in-law who was flush, to buy the business in 1938.

There was bad luck, too – such as the day Richard Moore was watching Big Chuck and Hoolihan, who were reporting “live” from a fire – and yes, it was at Bonfoey.

The firm recovered yet again. Richard, 79, is still there, and his daughter, Kate Zimmerer, works there as well – and will provide continuity.

The gallery and frame shop has become, and remains, a quintessential piece of Cleveland history, a testament to how gumption and craft can sometimes mean the survival of the fittest.

Theiss is a freelance writer in Westlake.

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