If you read this column regularly, you know that I usually write about the WRHS Italian American Collection. I share stories about building the collection, items within the collection and the programs, events and exhibits undertaken to bring the collection to the public. One thing I have not done is explore the larger organization of which the Italian American Collection is a part, the WRHS or Western Reserve Historical Society. Since the organization’s 150th anniversary occurs on May 28, I thought this would be a good time to take a closer look at WRHS.
In 1867, Cleveland’s manufacturing enterprises were expanding and the city was becoming more industrialized. The population was growing, wealth was beginning to accumulate and Clevelanders were taking an interest and investing themselves in cultural endeavors. It was amidst this environment, on May 28, that 21 men founded the Western Reserve Historical Society as a department of the Cleveland Library Association. The Society’s first headquarters was the third floor of the Society for Savings Building located on Public Square.
The original mission of WRHS was broad, basically including a directive to collect any and all articles and artifacts considered “historical.” Over time, the mission was refined to collecting items with significance to the history of Northeast Ohio. While at first this meant focusing on politics and politicians, businesses and socially advanced families, the quest to document the stories of all people expanded in the 1970s. During this decade, WRHS began collecting information on the various ethnic and community groups within the region. Special collecting initiatives in the African American and Jewish communities were started during that time followed by the Irish American community in 1994 and the Italian American community in 2006.
Today, WRHS operates six historic sites throughout Northeast Ohio, with the headquarters being the Cleveland History Center in University Circle. WRHS first moved to University Circle in 1938 with the acquisition of the Hay Mansion. Over the decades, the site has grown to include the Research Library and Archives, the History Museum, the Chisholm Halle Costume Wing, the Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel, and the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. With more than one million items in the WRHS Library and Museum collections, WRHS has one of the nation’s finest collections relating to the American experience and has become one of the largest and most diversified historical societies in the U.S.
WRHS celebrates not only reaching the landmark number of 150 years. We at the WRHS are also celebrating the opportunity to have been the steward of our stories over the last century and a half; stories of immigrants and influencers, philanthropists and business people, innovators and creators, families and communities. If you haven’t shared your story, be a part of history and do so with WRHS!
During this anniversary year, WRHS will host a number of events, festivities and exhibits that will explore our regional heritage and its impact on the American experience. The highlight event of the 150th year will be the grand opening of a new and dynamic Cleveland history experience called “Cleveland Starts Here” presented by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation. This permanent exhibit will feature WRHS’ vast collection of stories through extensive multi-media and interactive experiences that establish a sense of place, culture and identity in Cleveland’s evolving story. For more information about WRHS 150th Anniversary Celebrations and the new exhibit “Cleveland Starts Here,” visit www.wrhs.org or call 216-721-5722.