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Cultural Visonary

THe museum's first director, Frederic Whiting, was instrumental in bringing to life the first cultural center in the history of city planning
July 27, 2016
Frederic Allen Whiting

Donald E. Simpson History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

Frederic Allen Whiting The museum’s first director had an ambitious, comprehensive vision for a cultural center built around his new museum.

At the turn of the last century, monumental groupings of public buildings were created in city after city in the United States, inspired by the legacy of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the planning of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1901. Over the next three decades, the concept of the civic center would bifurcate into two conceptually and geographically distinct types: the downtown civic center, composed of governmental and judicial buildings; and the suburban cultural center, locus of educational and cultural institutions including museums, libraries, parks, monuments, and schools, usually emerging several miles away from downtown near elite residential districts.

Cleveland, as it turns out, is perhaps the earliest and most paradigmatic example of the civic center–cultural center bifurcation. The Group Plan of 1903, devised by Daniel H. Burnham, John M. Carrère, and Arnold W. Brunner, created a formal mall or “Court of Honor” in the downtown core, around which a new city hall, courthouses, an exhibition hall, and other structures were proposed. Some thought had been given to including an art museum in this group, but it was finally decided to locate the museum in University Circle some five miles to the east, where Western Reserve University and Case School of Applied Science had been neighbors near Wade Park since the 1880s. When the new museum debuted in 1916, a stark contrast was noted between the imposing, rigid formality of the downtown Group Plan and the informal character of the nascent “University Circle group,” each appropriate for its purpose. In 1929, the Plain Dealer labeled these districts as “civic center” and “cultural center” respectively, a contrast of typologies that was a first in city planning history—one that most American cities would imitate only after World War II.

Last fall I was granted special permission to examine a selection of unprocessed materials at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS), courtesy of John Grabowski, its longtime director of research and editor of a number of its architectural and historical publications (and a professor in the department of history at Case Western Reserve University). Archivists for the most part have not yet begun to catalog these materials, which were donated over a period of decades from a variety of sources. These materials have allowed me to begin to construct a portrait of a previously obscure period in the planning of University Circle.

Benjamin S. Hubbell (1867–1953) and Dominick W. Benes (1857–1935)were the architects of the Cleveland Museum of Art (1916) and partners in a prolific Cleveland firm. Sometime in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Hubbell & Benes had sketched a number of plans for a proposed cultural center at University Circle to surround the museum, but only a very few disparate and undated sketches were ever exhibited or published. In 1918, Hubbell formed the University Improvement Company with members of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, as a “land bank” to buy up University Circle properties to prevent their commercial development.


Wade Park

Before At the turn of the last century, most of the Wade Park area of University Circle was open land. Thanks in large part to the combined vision of Frederic Whiting and architects Hubbell & Benes, the district is now home to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, Western Reserve Historical Society, and numerous buildings of Case Western Reserve University—the first and most fully realized urban cultural district in the nation. 


The architects were connected to Frederic Allen Whiting, director of the new museum, through J. H. Wade II, the sensitive and cultivated heir of the Western Union telegraph fortune who eased land restrictions to allow the museum to locate in Wade Park. Jeptha Wade was the forceful trustee who had handpicked Hubbell & Benes as the museum’s architects and later affirmed Whiting as its founding director. He was also one of the principal stockholders in Hubbell’s University Improvement Company, as well as a discerning art collector whose donations and advice to Whiting were crucial in the formation of the museum’s permanent collection.

The unprocessed materials among the Benjamin S. Hubbell Papers at the WRHS include correspondence, minutes of meetings, glass slides, and other documents of the University Improvement Company, donated over a period of decades from a variety of sources. Many accessions arrived only after the last significant scholarship on University Circle had been published more than 30 years ago. Just a handful of key finds among this selection allowed me to connect the dots among already processed but largely overlooked materials at the historical society and other Cleveland archives.

During the 1920s, Whiting was a driving force behind the Conference for Educational Cooperation, which produced a series of nationally influential events and publications. In light of information in the Hubbell papers, hundreds of pages of correspondence and mimeographed reports generated by Whiting and the Conference—lodged at the historical society, the CMA’s museum archives, and the Case Western Reserve University archives—take on much greater significance. These writings, hitherto largely ignored, now reveal their true significance as the earliest sustained attempt to think through the concept of the urban cultural center.


Plan for a Cultural District in University Circle

Plan for a Cultural District in University Circle dated May 1916. Courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society


The most important object among the unprocessed WRHS materials is the 1916 plan by Hubbell & Benes, donated by Virginia Hubbell, Benjamin’s sister, in 1988. The horizontal wood-mounted plan, with north oriented to the left, measures 102 x 65.5 inches and is surrounded by a flat, gold-painted four-inch border. It is dated May 1916 in the lower right corner. The drawing has darkened considerably over the years and suffered some damage, but is substantially intact. Photographs among the unprocessed Hubbell papers show this same mounted drawing on a museum cart, documenting the damage as not new. The drawing’s sheer size as well as evidence of attempted restoration attests to its importance. It shows 51 numbered buildings, keying on the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is building number 1. The firm of Hubbell & Benes evidently viewed its new building as the first of a new generation of development at University Circle, which would include a new University of Cleveland among many other institutions. Unfortunately, a legend listing the other 50 buildings and the institutions or functions intended or imagined for them has not been located.

Also among the unprocessed materials is a description of this very plan in a report that Hubbell made to stockholders of the University Improvement Company in 1920. Hubbell writes,

Under the auspices of the Chamber [of Commerce], the National City Planning Conference was held in Cleveland in May 1916. Prior to that date the Cleveland architects were invited to prepare drawings showing possible improvements in various portions of the city, so that the drawings could be exhibited at said Conference and national as well as local interest developed therein. Among the drawings was a plan submitted by Hubbell & Benes under the title of The Proposed University of Cleveland. 

Hubbell’s full description matches the drawing at the WRHS in almost every respect. A number of buildings in the upper portion of the drawing presumably already existed on the Western Reserve and Case campuses. His report goes on to describe a number of new buildings that might be erected around the proposed university campus: new and larger buildings for the Cleveland School of Art and the WRHS, a school of architecture, a natural history museum, War Memorial Museum, School of Music with auditorium and recital hall, a university library with a school for library instruction, a dormitory for the College for Women, First Church of Christ Scientist, Catholic Cathedral, Methodist Church, Masonic Temple, a large addition to the Normal School, and the John Hay High School Group.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s dedication took place on June 7, 1916. Clearly the Chamber of Commerce had carefully orchestrated the National Conference on City Planning to coincide and climax with the dedication ceremonies in order to build momentum for the further development of University Circle. A tour of Hubbell & Benes’s new museum building would have lent considerable credence to plans for a proposed University of Cleveland. Plans for the circle, it would seem, grew naturally out of plans for the museum, and were fully formulated by the time the museum was ready to open.

As for the drawing itself, a declaration by the Municipal Art and Architecture Committee affirmed that Hubbell & Benes’s 1916 plan had been “prepared under their auspices.” Whiting later recalled that in 1916 he had approached Charles Franklin Thwing, president of Western Reserve University, with “my plan for grouping the museums together on East Boulevard,” but did not find a receptive partner at the university until 1924, when Robert S. Vinson had assumed that post. A grouping of museums may have been Whiting’s most important contribution to the 1916 plan. In 1927, Hubbell & Benes submitted a significantly altered plan, very similar to a plan by the firm of Walker & Weeks, who became consulting architects to the Cleveland Conference for Educational Cooperation in 1928. Both plans indicate three similar buildings north of Euclid Avenue to the southeast of the museum; in the Walker & Weeks plan, they are labeled from north to south “art school,” “natural history,” and “symphony” (in the location of the future Severance Hall); in the Hubbell & Benes plan, only the middle building is labeled “Natural History Museum.”


One That Wasn't Built

One That Wasn’t Built Architects envisioned a new University of Cleveland uniting Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, with its administration building facing squarely down Euclid Avenue. Illustrations courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society and Donald E. Simpson.


On February 20, 1924, Whiting met with Hubbell concerning the expansion of the museum, and a little over a month later, Whiting and Western Reserve’s Vinson convened the first meeting of the “Cleveland Educational Council” in the faculty room of Adelbert College. Whiting wrote: 

With a wider and coordinated use of museums it becomes evident that the more closely they can be brought together physically, the more effective will be their development and the wider their use. . . . The bringing together within a few hundred yards of each other of the three museums representing the primary museum functions of the community and bringing in close proximity to them a new building for the Cleveland School of Art, which uses material contained in all three museums, would make a constructive museum unit such as does not exist elsewhere. This group, in close proximity to the [Western Reserve] University, Case School of Applied Science, and Cleveland School of Education, and the proposed large high school building, makes the opportunity offered by Cleveland for constructive educational work, one not to be excelled anywhere.

It is clear that Frederic Whiting was aware of and involved in the planning of University Circle as early as 1914. Whiting’s efforts to integrate museums with other educational institutions in Cleveland, and to bring such institutions to University Circle, were integral to his ideas on art and education at the outset of his tenure as CMA director. This in turn casts the proceedings of the Cleveland Conference for Educational Cooperation, and the vast extant literature generated by it, in a whole new light. More than an experiment in education, the efforts to find grounds for cooperation and to create institutional synergies now must be read as an important effort to theorize the functions of an urban cultural center, the first such effort ever undertaken in the history of city planning.

Cleveland’s University Circle stands as a crucial case study in the planning and thinking of the urban cultural center. Hubbell exhibits the thinking of traditional planners like Burnham who devised a particular design and then sought to fill it with whatever institutions were available; Whiting represents a new kind of thinker committed to building consensus and thinking through the institutional functions of a cultural center, to a degree that is both unprecedented and extraordinary. Whiting’s views on the role of the museum and its educational collaborators are perhaps best summed up in “A First Statement from the Study Committee,” from the Cleveland Conference for Educational Cooperation, April 20, 1925, excerpted here:

In considering what meaning should be given to the term “education” [we look] at the question from the standpoint of the interest of the community as a whole. It is of vital importance to the community that the members of emerging generations should be properly oriented with respect to the society of which they become a part, with respect to the natural environment in which they find themselves, with respect to themselves, their abilities and needs. It is important that these individuals be qualified for productive life. It is important that they should be enabled to draw personal joy and satisfaction from the wealth of experience which the life of the community affords. And finally, it is important that the individual as a result of his educational experience shall consciously contribute to the general welfare and betterment of his community.

The functional unity of the educational process in a community makes necessary the correlation and integration of its institutional mechanisms under leadership which shall envisage the process as a whole. The advancement and broadening of education in the community comes through increasing where appropriate the area of purposefully organized experience . . . as a basis for the individual’s growth and development.

For Frederic Whiting, the new Cleveland Museum of Art and its proximity to other museums and educational institutions presented an opportunity unique in the world to create a cultural and educational center that could contribute in myriad ways to the betterment of life in Cleveland. For nearly a century, the institutions of University Circle have been imbued with Whiting’s ideal of cooperation, carrying it forward into the 21st century. 


Big Plans

Big Plans Detail of the Hubbell & Benes 1916 plan, with buildings colorized by the author for legibility. North is oriented to the left. The legend for the 51 numbered buildings has not been located. Building No. 1, on the left, is the Cleveland Museum of Art, suggesting that the architects viewed their new building as the linchpin of future University Circle development. Building Nos. 2 to 8 along the bottom are most likely arts, music, and architecture schools; building No. 9 is probably the proposed museum of natural history, the institution that seemed likeliest to move into the neighborhood at that time; building Nos. 10 to 13 probably indicate the John Hay High School Group; building no. 14 is most likely the planned Normal School. Building no. 18 is certainly the proposed administration building for the proposed University of Cleveland (see illustration above), a unification of the Case School of Applied Science and Western Reserve University that did not take place for another half-century. Buildings coded blue near the museum seem to have been existing residences for the museum director and university officials, and an early concept for what would become Severance Hall. In all, the Beaux-Arts–inspired plan would have rivaled Daniel H. Burnham’s downtown Group Plan for sheer ambition and grandeur, but Hubbell’s University Improvement Company could not gain control of sufficient property south of Euclid Avenue to bring it to fruition.


Cleveland Art, July/August 2012