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Museum Archives on the trail of The Holden Gallery
By Leslie Cade
Archivist and Records Manager Ingalls Library
The planning and construction of Cleveland’s temple of the arts in the early years of the 1900s was a major undertaking involving strong personalities, politics and money. One of the major players in this endeavor was Liberty Holden, owner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Yankee who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Utah. This success enabled Mr. Holden to purchase a portion of a collection of Italian old master paintings. Mr. Holden was chairman of the art museum building committee until ill health forced his resignation in 1910.
Although Mr. Holden passed away in 1913, his wife and children remained friends of the museum. The widow Holden retained the collection of Italian paintings which the museum was anxious to have donated. Prior to World War One it was generally felt that old master paintings were firmly ensconced in European museums and private collections, well beyond the reach of American museums. The Holden collection represented something of a coup if the Cleveland museum could get its hands on it. Competition for the collection came from the Metropolitan Museum. Mrs. Holden had a close relationship with Henry Kent, the Metropolitan’s assistant secretary, who flattered her unashamedly. He was also working as an advisor to Cleveland’s building committee. Fortunately he realized that the Holden collection was better served in Cleveland and made no all out assault on Mrs. Holden on behalf of the Met.
Frederick Whiting, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, was advised on how to approach Mrs. Holden by her daughter, Roberta Bole. She suggested the best way to get the collection was by not mentioning it at all. In spite of having no guarantee that the Holden Collection would be donated to the museum, the building committee hired New York architect Arthur Harmon to design an opulent period room in which to house the collection. As Mrs. Holden had yet to donate the collection, the architect and construction companies were admonished to refer to the room as “gallery number six” so that the tender negotiations would not be revealed and possibly thwarted.
The $15,000 cost to design and build the room was staggering for the time. Portions of the room’s architectural detailing were cast directly from the Borgia apartments at the Vatican. The floor was designed and installed by the Pewabic Pottery Company of Michigan, a leading provider of art tiles which were popularized by the Arts and Crafts movement. Harmon’s design called for brown velvet to be hung on the walls. During installation a conflict erupted between Frederick Whiting and Harmon over the consistency of the color of the velvet panels. Whiting insisted they didn’t match. Harmon postulated that the installers may have hung some of the panels upside down.
Contentious letters were exchanged until carefully dyed panels were hung to Whiting’s satisfaction. However, as time passed the period room concept of museum installation faded. In 1956 the ceiling of the Holden Gallery was removed to accommodate fire exit stairwells in the floor above. The brown velvet that stirred so much debate was long since gone. The only thing remaining of the once grand room was the decorative floor. When plans for the current renovation called for the removal of the floor, archives intervened.
We now not only have photographic documentation and architectural drawings of the Holden Gallery but select decorative pieces of the Pewabic tile floor safely and lovingly stored away in the museum’s archives as evidence of the museum’s early commitment to the careful exhibition of a valued collection.