Catherine Walworth Cleveland Fellow, Decorative Art and Design
During the Gilded Age, many of Cleveland’s inventors and captains of industry lived on Euclid Avenue. Known as “Millionaires’ Row,” Euclid was one of the most beautiful streets in America. Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt performed in Cleveland’s theaters, and local jewelry firms outfitted the affluent with bejeweled parasol handles, snuff boxes, lorgnettes, and silver serving pieces, everyday accessories that recall an era of elegance. On the corner of Euclid and Case Avenues, not far from Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller’s grand home, lived Jeptha Homer Wade (1811–1890).
Jeptha Wade had risen from poverty to found the Western Union Telegraph Co., a story he narrated in a handwritten account for his grandson. Jeptha began working at age 12 and over the years became, in turn, a shoemaker, brickmaker, carpenter, and portrait painter. In the 1850s he found work as a subcontractor installing telegraph lines across the Midwest. Recognizing the benefits of telegraphy—a forerunner to today’s fax and e-mail technologies—he wisely consolidated his own lines with those of 13 other companies to create Western Union.
Perhaps the proven science of telegraphy also made mental telepathy’s bodiless communication seem feasible, because Jeptha was a devoted participant at local séances. His personal belief in the spirit world may have inspired one of the family’s most important art commissions later on. The Wade Family papers at the Western Reserve Historical Society contain a lively correspondence between Jeptha and his first wife and son Randall, both before and after their untimely deaths, as illustrated by this short note to his deceased son from February 11, 1882:
My Dear Randall
Is Mrs. Cristie on the Crawford Road an honest Medium? Write me fully about that and anything else you wish. Give my love, thanks and a kiss to your Angel Mother for her last letter and ask her to write me again.
J. H. Wade
Randall’s son, Jeptha II, carried on the family legacy and was very close to his philanthropic grandfather, who had donated to the city the large tract of green space known as Wade Park. When not in Cleveland, the younger Wade and his wife, Ellen Garretson, traveled the world as art and gem collectors. In 1896 they visited Russia on the heels of historic and ominous events that surrounded the May 26 coronation of the last tsar and tsarina, Nicholas II and Alexandra. At a celebratory banquet thrown for Moscow’s citizens, rumors that free beer and souvenir cups were in short supply caused the crowd to surge forward, crushing thousands of people to death. Despite his own better instincts, the new tsar was persuaded to attend a coronation ball the following evening. This decision, and the apparent lack of mourning for his people, haunted Nicholas’s troubled reign until he was eventually forced to abdicate in 1917. Wade’s journal entry from July 2, 1896, reveals the tension just weeks after these events: “The emperor is now living a few miles out of the City. The line to St. Petersburg we found patrolled the entire distance by soldiers as the Emperor leaves for that city in a few days. . . . Drove out to the plain near Petrovsky palace where recently 4,000 were killed & 4,000 wounded in the stampede. The chief cause of the disaster was a trench, 1,000 feet long & 5 feet deep into which they fell & were trampled to death.”
Despite the tense air in Russia, the Wades marveled at the country’s grandeur, including the Hermitage Museum. They arrived to find it closed, but were granted half an hour to explore its collections on their own. Jeptha II and Ellen purchased art and luxury goods along their way, many of which they later gave to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Not content only to read about the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the couple traveled to Paris to see it firsthand and, while there, visited René Lalique’s studio in the rue Thérèse. There they likely purchased the elegant hair comb of carved horn decorated with enameled lilies-of-the-valley now in the CMA collection. Such a lyrical expression of the Art Nouveau aesthetic was wearable for a lady of society, unlike the massive sculptural ornaments Lalique designed for leading stage actresses. Wade remarked in his journal on the prevalence of American stones in Tiffany & Co.’s exposition display and visited their Paris store to shop for gems and pearls to add to his collection, probably built with the help of George F. Kunz, Tiffany’s celebrity gemologist. Ultimately gifted by Wade to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the collection includes rough stones and polished gems procured from around the world, as well as several lavish gems in settings by Tiffany & Co. and their rivals in New York, Marcus & Co. There is even a tiny case of rare pearls, which Wade reputedly liked so much that he often carried it in his pocket.
The Wades had another reason to attend the Paris Exposition. One of their artistic commissions, a Tiffany window, was to be placed at the entrance to the U.S. pavilion. The window had been designed for a memorial to Jeptha H. Wade I in Lake View Cemetery, a park-like burial ground whose plots were marketed to high society as an idyllic setting away from the pollution of downtown. By the end of the century the cemetery was outgrowing its facilities, and so in 1898 Jeptha II chose Hubbell & Benes, later the architects of the Cleveland Museum of Art, to design Wade Memorial Chapel. Italian stonemasons arrived from Europe to cut quarried stone for the neoclassical temple, and many settled permanently on the nearby slope in what is today Little Italy.
Jeptha II also commissioned the most important American artist and interior decorator of the era, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Frederick Wilson, an Englishman who specialized in ecclesiastical work for Tiffany’s firm, designed the glass mosaic panels that span each of the chapel’s side walls. Religious symbolism pervades Wilson’s two mosaics, with Old Testament prophets straining at their oars and Death surmounting their barge, but the interior is ecumenical in its design choices. Tiled like an ancient Roman bath, a wave-pattern floor carries the mosaics’ aquatic theme from wall to wall. The chapel’s white alabaster and gilt-bronze lamp fixtures, in Moorish style with Egyptian motifs, are said to be some of the first electric lights in Cleveland.
The interior’s crowning gem is the window above the altar. Flight of the Souls, designed by Tiffany himself, features the ascent of Jesus into heaven on a rainbow-arced sky, with lilies (representing rebirth) parting a field of poppies (sleep). Horizontal striations of Tiffany’s celebrated Favrile glass may refer to the apocalyptic vision of a sea of crystal before the throne of heaven.
As well as depicting the Christian Resurrection, Flight of the Souls may also reveal Jeptha Wade I’s transcendental belief in the afterlife, which included correspondence with his deceased loved ones. He explained this to his grandson Jeptha II in the following passage:
I have listened a good deal, and reflected upon Orthodox preaching, and have also been an honest and somewhat thorough searcher for proof touching the question of our future existence. And while the church never gave me any satisfactory proof of it, I have found elsewhere what is to me conclusive proof that life is continuous and that our departed friends are not absent from us after death, but are about us, invisible, and can under favorable circumstances, and sometimes do, communicate with us.
Louis Comfort Tiffany considered Flight of the Souls one of his finest windows, and chose it to represent his ecclesiastical work at the international exposition in Paris. Jeptha II recorded his impressions of it there, including its regrettably poor lighting. After the exposition closed, the Wade window returned to Cleveland and was fitted into the chapel wall above the altar, where it is continually transformed by shifting daylight.
The garden-like setting of Wade Chapel is a microcosm of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s park surroundings, which Jeptha I had donated for a future museum. The Wade family’s two greatest contributions to Cleveland may, in fact, be their art and gem collections and vast amounts of parkland. As a park commissioner, Jeptha II fought against city apathy to create Cleveland’s Metroparks system, known affectionately as the “Emerald Necklace.” He also became the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first vice president, and eventually president. He and his wife donated to the museum much of their collections of lace, enamels, jewels, textiles, and paintings—objects that Jeptha II faithfully recorded in pocket-sized journals the couple carried around the world and which now form a lasting legacy of one of Cleveland’s great entrepreneurial families.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2008