Born in 1874 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to formerly enslaved parents who had migrated from eastern Kentucky after the Civil War, J. Walter Wills arrived in Cleveland in 1899 after graduating from Antioch College. He was among eighteen African American men that the Cleveland Street Railway Co. brought to the city as strikebreakers during the streetcar conductors' strike that year and worked nine months as a conductor on the company's Central Avenue car line. After crushing the strike, the company fired all of the strikebreakers. Wills, who had originally planned to become a physician, now turned his attention to insurance, beginning his job search with Mutual Life of New York. He landed an interview and was at the point of signing a contract when the manager told him that Mutual agents could only sell policies to whites. Wills, who was light-complexioned, revealed his racial identity, whereupon the manager said if Wills called himself a Cuban he could go ahead and take the position. Wills walked out. After similar treatment by Metropolitan Life, he interviewed with State Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts, which was bound by its state's anti-discrimination law.
Wills worked for State Mutual Life while attending Cleveland Law School at night. In his work selling insurance, Wills continued to become better known in the community. When he joined William Gee in the funeral business in 1904, the only other black-owned funeral home in town was that of James A. Rogers, established in 1895. Gee and Wills got underway two years before Elmer F. Boyd started the city's third black-owned funeral home. They began with only a small office at East 33rd Street and Central Avenue. In 1905, Wills, who was effectively the managing partner, moved the mortuary into the former home of his wife Alberta's deceased father, John L. Lee, at 2323 Central Avenue. He remodeled the downstairs as a funeral parlor and lived upstairs. Thinking funeral homes were generally too dark and gloomy, he chose to make his as bright and colorful as possible. After Gee died, Wills reorganized in as the J. W. Wills Co. in 1907. The growing funeral home, which served all clients regardless of race but primarily African Americans, moved to a larger building at 2529 Central Avenue.
The business was truly a family affair. Wills's sisters Anna Wills Hern and Mary Wills Moss worked as funeral attendants. His son Walter (J. Walter Wills Jr.) helped out as a teenager and became integral in the business. In the early years, Wills used special "funeral cars," specially outfitted streetcars, to carry coffins. For burials at Woodland, Harvard Grove, and Evergreen Cemeteries, Wills used hand-drawn hearses for the short distance from the streetcar tracks to gravesites, while at Lake View there was a special streetcar spur track running into the cemetery. Occasionally he rented horses and carriages from local liveries before investing in his own carriage and team of horses (Barney, Richard, and Colonel) and, in 1911, an automobile. Before long, Wills became the first black mortician in Cleveland to own a funeral limousine – a Cleveland-made Stearns-Knight chain-drive sedan that he bought used for $400 – and a black Packard sedan that doubled as a hearse and ambulance. In the 1910s and 1920s, Wills became known for pioneering a number of funerary practices that broke decisively with tradition. In addition to his decision to replace black with other colors in parlor furnishings, he also became the city’s first undertaker to forgo hanging black crepe in the doorway of the home of the deceased in favor of using floral wreaths made by various African American florists.
In 1935, after the U.S. government condemned the house near East 25th and Cedar for redevelopment as one of the nation's first public housing projects, the Wills business moved into the former Koebler Funeral Home at 2340 East 55th Street in what had been until recently a largely Jewish neighborhood. Wills invested heavily in remodeling the home, adding expensive murals, mosaics, oil paintings, chandeliers, and plush furnishings. In its new location, the funeral home, dubbed the House of Wills, began to develop a reputation for community engagement. Amid the Great Depression, Wills converted his third floor into large food pantry to dispense canned goods, flour, sugar, and other staples to those in need. He also conducted many funerals for the indigent at no cost.
At a time when many public accommodations practiced Jim Crow exclusion, the House of Wills served as an important home for African American civic events of all kinds. Wills welcomed them all, gratis, and served free refreshments. A civic beacon in his own right, Wills was among the founders of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men (a precursor to the Future Outlook League), Cleveland Chapter of the NAACP, Negro Welfare Association (later the Cleveland Urban League), and Phillis Wheatley Association. He also invested in Dunbar Life Insurance and Quincy Savings & Loan, both of which were instrumental in writing mortgages for African Americans when white-owned firms refused to breach the color line in real estate. In doing so, Wills, like other black morticians, was an embodiment of a profession whose practitioners flourished in a society where mortality weighed heavily upon African Americans but often emerged as key figures in the long civil rights movement.
In 1941, the housing authority was again knocking on Wills's door, this time to take his property to build the Carver Park Homes. More than 20,000 citizens signed a petition started by Call & Post publisher William O. Walker to protest the destruction of the landmark funeral home and other businesses, as well as the discriminatory practices of the local housing authority. Although the campaign failed, it did produce a more favorable settlement that enabled Wills to acquire an even larger building down the street at 2491 East 55th Street, which gained distinction as the largest black funeral home in Ohio. The 42-room building reflected the waves of demographic changes in the Central area. It was built in 1898 as a German singing club called the Gesangverein Hall. After fourteen years it became the Hospital for Immigrants from Hungary and, in 1920, started an eighteen-year stint as home to the Cleveland Hebrew Institute. Wills remodeled it with strong Egyptian motifs.
In its newest home, the House of Wills continued to grow and prosper, employing as many as fifty people with the capacity for up to eight funerals in a single day. J. Walter Wills Jr. died in 1967 and his father passed away four years later. Harry Allen Wills, the founder's adopted son who had worked at the funeral home since 1936, not only kept the business going but oversaw its expansion to a second location at 14711 Harvard Avenue in the city's outlying Lee-Harvard neighborhood. The House of Wills kept its Harvard Avenue location open for nine years after it closed its East 55th Street funeral home in 2005.
Abandoned, the hulking building became an easy target for copper thieves until Eric Freeman, a newcomer from Los Angeles, bought it in 2010 with a dream of restoring it for community-based uses, possibly for future use to help juvenile offenders or the homeless. In the meantime, the building's past use and present decadence have, with a little encouragement by its owner, made it an irresistible destination for people who seek out paranormal activity. At first glance, the former funeral home's latest iteration seems an offbeat coda for a building that once housed one of the nation's preeminent black-owned businesses. Perhaps in a different sense, Freeman's unconventional way of giving new life to the House of Wills is a faint echo of Wills's own penchant for breaking taboos about how best to memorialize the departed.