A rare look inside a historic building in Cleveland, Ohio, also gave a glimpse into the era of Titanic and the work of an artist whose career was ended by the disaster: Francis Davis Millet.
The old Cleveland Trust Company bank building, no longer used or open to the public since 1996, was opened in December 2003 for a special community project called “Luminocity.” The monthlong series of events featured music, dance and lectures, and the building’s exterior was illuminated by “painting” it with light.
I had read in some books on Cleveland history that Millet had painted murals inside the Cleveland Trust building and also in the old federal courthouse, now undergoing restoration. As soon as I heard about the Luminocity events, I knew this was a rare chance to see Millet’s work in Cleveland, so I decided to attend a lecture by Michael St. Clair, head of the audiovisual service of the Cleveland Museum of Art. He discussed the architecture of the bank building and other city buildings of the era, and how various artistic influences contributed to Cleveland’s great era of civic architecture.
To understand the influences that led to the design of the Cleveland Trust and to Millet’s artistic contribution to it, one has to backtrack a bit to the origins of the “City Beautiful” movement of the 1890s and early 1900s, St. Clair pointed out.
Prime among those influences was the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Among the architects involved in the exposition were George Post and Daniel Burnham, who was chief of construction. Frank Millet was director of decoration for the exposition and he was responsible for the color scheme that led to the world’s fair’s designation as the “White City.” The talents of these three men would surface later in Cleveland.
The layout of the grounds, the classically influenced architecture and the harmonious grouping of buildings of the White City had a great impact on American ideas of city planning and urban beautification. Burnham became a central figure of the City Beautiful movement, which sought to transform American cities with neoclassical civic centers, parks, tree-lined boulevards, and plazas with fountains and statues. Also, St. Clair said, wealthy Americans who took long vacations to Europe discovered that the urban landscape could be beautiful, in contrast to what they saw back home, where many cities were exploding with growth and were often ugly, dirty and squalid. All these factors coalesced to change America’s cities.
Cleveland was the first Midwestern city to take architect Burnham’s ideas to heart. In 1895, inspired by the Columbian Exposition, the Cleveland Architectural Club sponsored a design competition for grouping Cleveland’s public buildings. While the contest did not produce results, it got the issue on the public agenda. Cleveland’s mayor got state legislation authorizing an expert commission to plan a civic center. One of the three men on the commission was Burnham – and in 1903 they presented a plan to arrange Cleveland’s public buildings around a grand mall with fountains and sculpture at either end. The federal building (which also contains Millet’s work) was finished in 1910, the county courthouse in 1912 and the city hall in 1916.
The Cleveland Trust building, completed in 1908, became yet another facet of this new vision for the nation, although it was a commercial building, not public. George Post was the architect; it’s not surprising that Millet, who had worked with him on the Columbian Exposition, was chosen to paint murals inside it. At the time, St. Clair explained, murals were a popular way to decorate the interior of buildings. It was all part of the vision that the arts should be expressed in grand civic structures.
At the time Cleveland Trust was built, the goal was “building for a century to come,” St. Clair said. The granite building’s design, a reinterpretation of the Renaissance style, was intended to convey security, honesty and integrity, yet not be cold and austere. The rotunda is 85 feet high and 60 feet in diameter and is covered by a stained-glass dome in the Tiffany style. The stained-glass dome, the Millet murals and the iron and bronze railings all serve to “warm” the space.
Millet’s 13 murals, which circle the upper level of the rotunda, depict the rise of civilization in the Midwest. Starting sometime after the building was finished, he worked more than a year with three assistants to complete the paintings. About 18 months later, he died on the Titanic.
The murals depict scenes such as a priest overlooking Niagara Falls, American Indians canoeing on one of the Great Lakes, settlers clearing land and planting crops. The colors are vivid: the bright blues of sky and water, the scarlet of trees in autumn, the rich brown of earth.
“Mural painting as a calling in itself was unheard of in this country until Millet organized the work at Chicago and brought together a remarkable group of artists,” stated the National Cyclopedia of American Biography. After the Chicago fair, where he also painted murals, Millet began to devote more time to that art form, and executed large works in several cities. While Millet is not considered one of the great masters of art, “his mural paintings are unquestionably among the greatest achievements in decorative art that this country has produced,” the National Cyclopedia stated.
While Millet’s career was halted tragically by the sinking of the Titanic, his work lives on in buildings across the United States, nearly 100 years later.
Michael St. Clair, Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Public Art
Cities of the Heartland, Jon C. Teaford, Indiana University Press, 1994
National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XV, James T. White & Co., New York, 1916
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio (various articles)
Guide to Cleveland Architecture, Second Edition, Cleveland Chapter of American Institute of Architects, 1997