Western Reserve Historical Society
The Western Reserve Historical Society is Cleveland’s oldest existing cultural institution. It was established on May 28, 1867 as the historical branch of the Cleveland Library Association which dated from 1848. The Society’s creation was part of an important trend in the United States, the establishment of private organizations to oversee the collection and preservation of documents and objects relating to various aspects of national, regional and local history. While its original focus was on the history of “…Cleveland and the Western Reserve, and generally what relates to the history of Ohio and the Great West,” it now concentrates on the history of Northeast Ohio.
Between 1867 and 1898, the Society was located in downtown Cleveland in a building which stood on what is now (2011) the site of the KeyBank headquarters. During this period the Society’s collections grew rapidly as did its means of support as leading citizens, including John D. Rockefeller, collectors, and scholars became associated with its operations. The growth and stature of its collections were such that it obtained a charter from the State of Ohio on March 7, 1892 which made it an independent organization, one on a par with other major cultural and educational institutions that had arisen in the post-Civil War period.
In 1898 the Society moved to the University Circle area, occupying a large new building that was situated at the southeast corner of the intersection of Euclid Avenue and what is now Stokes Boulevard. It remained there until 1938 when it began a move to its current location on East Boulevard with its acquisition of the Hay-McKinney mansion to house its museum. During the next six decades the construction and acquisition of structures on East Boulevard would continue, to the point where, today, its “History Center” is one of the largest complexes of its kind in the United States. The Center today houses the Society’s library and its museum complex (which includes the Frederick C. Crawford Auto Aviation Collection and the Chisholm Halle Costume Collection) as well as its administrative offices.
This period also saw expansion outside of Cleveland including the donation of the 1815 Harper Family home, Shandy Hall near Unionville in 1948, the bequest of the Jonathan Hale Homestead in 1957 and Loghurst, near Canfield in 1978.
The physical and geographic expansion of the Society’s facilities was complemented by increased professionalism of its curatorial operations and an important topical expansion of its collections. Beginning in the late 1960s the Society began aggressive programs to acquire and preserve documents and artifacts that represented the histories of Northeast Ohio’s diverse populations. Specific programs were established in African-American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, LGBT, labor, and other areas of community history which have provided it with unparalleled resources relating to urban, industrial, immigration, and family history. These provide a critical complement to its collections on the pioneer settlement and early growth of the Western Reserve as well as to major topics such as the American Civil War, decorative arts, genealogy, and automotive and aviation history.