We were given a look inside Cleveland’s historic House of Wills, an elaborately designed building that once served the city as a social hub, a hospital, a speakeasy, and a funeral home. The building sits mostly empty today, recently acquired by a new owner with plans for renovation.
The building began as the Gesangverein Hall (Gesangverein appears to refer to a Cleveland German chorus), designed by notable Cleveland architect Frederick W. Striebinger. Our guide reported that it also served as a hospital for Hungarian and German immigrants and a prohibition-era speakeasy.
During the 1900’s, it was transformed into the second location for the House of Wills, one of the most successful black businesses in Cleveland of the 20th century. Catering to life as well as death, the House of Wills also served as an unusually welcoming community center/social hall for its time, when it was almost impossible for African Americans to rent a gathering place. [x]
The oval-shaped Grecian Chapel, “breathing of peace and beauty” in the historic brochure photograph above, sustained a considerable amount of damage during the summer of 2015 due to arson, scrapping, and vandalism (“I wish you could’ve seen it six months ago,” our guide often repeated, in response to our reactions to the numerous ornate rooms). Casualties of the House of Wills fire included a set of large wooden sculptures, charred but still standing on the stage.
Although time has taken its toll on the building, it’s been home to a number of recent music videos and other creative projects. Restoration work is planned throughout 2016.
The “Cloud Room” is a long, windowless stretch of hallway that features an elaborate, vaulted, carved ceiling. The space once served as a casket showroom for the funeral home. Today, the showroom is enveloped in darkness, with yellowing peels of paint struggling to cling to the swirling, sculptural surface of the clouds.
One wing featured a prominent Egyptian theme.
The kitchen of the social hall served as the embalming room for the funeral home. Left behind were several embalming chemicals and a biohazardous sharps collector.
The Art Deco lofted ballroom featured stairs to a stage for live bands, as well as a tucked away Asian-themed bar. According to our guide, a squared-off space adjacent to the stairs, currently occupied by a vertically situated 50’s hi-fi cabinet, once served as a transparent tomb for the funeral home director’s first wife. Her corporeal remains had been so well prepared for perpetual display in a glass case that many mistook her for a mannequin or doll. After her husband died, they were both laid to rest in a cemetery.
The House of Wills closed as a funeral home due to declining business and rumors of foul play. Former owner Patricia Wills stripped many of the more portable fixtures from the mansion in the midst of scandal, later confessing to insurance fraud, grand theft, and forgery. Here in the ballroom, we found one that managed to survive the light fixture purge.
The architecture gets a little more modern on the higher floors.
The kind of terrible photo above is the workshop where the caskets were built (and it was snowing into the room.)
We look forward to seeing their progress throughout this year in our next visit.
Historic images found on Pyathia’s Flickr. Her album also shows what it looked like in 2010, before the fires and scrapping. Do not enter without the owner’s permission.