The WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY is Cleveland's oldest existing cultural institution. Founded 28 May 1867 as the Western Reserve & Northern Ohio Historical Society, it was initially a branch of the CLEVELAND LIBRARY ASSN. The society's stated purpose was the collection and preservation of materials relating to the history of Cleveland, the WESTERN RESERVE, Ohio, and the "great west." During its early decades, such activity usually centered around the accumulation of manuscripts, books, and other library materials relating to the early history of the community. However, the institution also began to acquire a variety of artifacts relating to local history; these eventually formed the basis of its museum. Leadership and funding were provided by a number of prominent citizens, among them CHAS. WHITTLESEY and CHAS. C. BALDWIN. The institution was originally located on the 3rd floor of the Society for Savings Bank building on PUBLIC SQUARE. By 1871 it had garnered enough support to open to the public. However, the increasing size of the collections created a space problem. With the help of a series of wealthy trustees, including JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER and Rutherford B. Hayes, it was able to purchase the bank building in 1892 and expand its operations to all 3 floors. The library alone occupied the upper 2 stories. On 7 Mar. 1892, the society was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit institution. In 1898 the society moved to a new structure at E. 107th St. and EUCLID AVE., a 3-story facility that permitted expansion of both the museum and library collections and an increased number of public lectures. Under the direction of WALLACE H. CATHCART, president of the society 1907-13 and director 1913-42, the society's library expanded greatly, acquiring extensive new collections of local material, CIVIL WAR records, genealogies, and material relating to the Shakers. Beginning in the 1960s, the library instituted special collecting programs in fields such as urban, African American, ethnic, Jewish, labor, and Gay-Lesbian history, which added significant amounts of material to its holdings. By the 1990s the library's collections included over 14 million manuscript items, 3 million photographic prints and negatives, 238,000 books, and 25,000 volumes of newsprint, as well as one of the largest collections of genealogical sources in the nation.
In the late 1930s the society expanded its facilities, acquiring Lawnfield (1936), the home of Pres. JAS. A. GARFIELD in Mentor, and Shandy Hall (operated by WRHS beginning in 1936, deeded to WRHS in 1948), a home constructed by the Harper family in Unionville in 1815. Between 1938-41, the institution's main operations were moved to 2 mansions on East Blvd. The museum was relocated in the Hay House, constructed by Mrs. John Hay in 1910, and the library in the adjacent Hanna House, constructed by Harry Payne Bingham in 1918. By this point the museum's holdings had become extensive and contained the nuclei of the costume and American furniture and decorative-arts collections that would grow to national importance by the 1970s. Further facilities expansion occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Under the administration of Director MEREDITH B. COLKET, JR., a central addition joining the 2 mansions and a 3-floor library stack facility were opened in 1959. In 1963 TRW, INC., donated its collection of historic automobiles and aircraft. An adjoining structure, the Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, was opened in 1965 to house these collections, which had formerly been exhibited at the Thompson Products Auto Album & Aviation Museum at E. 30th St. and Chester. In 1957 the society acquired the Jonathan Hale homestead in Bath, Summit County, a facility that it developed as an operating early 19th century farm and village. An additional operating farm, Loghurst, in Mahoning County, was acquired in 1978.
In 1984, under the leadership of Director Theodore A. Sande (1981-93) the society opened a new 68,000 sq. ft. library building at its East Blvd. headquarters. In 1993 it constructed and opened the Reinberger Gallery, which connected the library to the main complex, and the Thomas Lester Annex, which expanded the auto-museum complex. By the 1990s WRHS had evolved into one of the largest privately supported historical societies in the country. At this time the museums at East Blvd, including The Crawford Auto and Aviation Collection, and outlying sites, including Hale Farm and Village, employed more than 80 full time employees.
In 2007, Gainor B. Davis became the society's first female President and CEO. Under her leadership the institution paid off a major debt incurred in an unsuccessful effort (during the late 1990s) to construct a museum of transportation and industry on the Cleveland lakefront, and began a process of restructuring that led to a major rennovation of the Crawford Auto Museum in 2013.
In 2017 the Society celebrated its 150th anniversary under the leadership of President and CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall. Falcone-Hall, who had held positions in the institution's research library, Hale Farm & Village (including its directorship), and development department began her tenure as President and CEO in 2014. During that period the Society opened the restored 1910 Euclid Beach carousel, acquired the Holsey Gates house in Bedford, Ohio, and began construction of a new core exhibit, "Cleveland Starts Here," which was slated to open on the 28th of November during the institution's sesquecentennial year.
Benton, Elbert Jay. A Short History of the Western Reserve Historical Society, 1867-1942 (1942).
Knowles, Margaret K. The First Hundred Years (1967).