Filed Under Businesses

The House of Wills

In 1904, J. Walter Wills received an offer he couldn't refuse. William Gee, a newly minted mortician, sought a partner. After paying Gee $250, Gee & Wills Funeral Home was in business. It was the genesis of what would become one of Cleveland's illustrious and long-standing African American enterprises.

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.

Images

The House of Wills The House of Wills was located on East 55th just south of Shiloh Baptist Church in Cleveland's Cedar-Central neighborhood from 1941 to 2005. The building was originally built as a German singing society's hall in 1899, the same year that J. Walter Wills came to Cleveland. It later housed a Hungarian immigrants' hospital and a Jewish school. For many years the building was painted pink with white trim, a reflection of founder J. Walter Wills Sr.'s longtime practice of using a profusion of color in the funerals he directed. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1940s
Funeral Car Special streetcars such as this one were used to transport caskets and mourners from funeral homes like the House of Wills to cemeteries. This one ran to Lake View Cemetery, one of several cemeteries the House of Wills served. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1920
J. Walter Wills Sr. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1942
Gee and Wills, 2323 Central Ave. J. W. Wills's first funeral home was located here from 1905 to 1912, in the home of his late father-in-law John L. Lee. Within a few more years, the Great Migration would increase the African American population in Cleveland, which shaped both Wills's business and the Cedar-Central neighborhood it occupied. After two decades at this location, the increasingly crowded neighborhood (whose crowding was largely a result of the real estate industry's imposed limits on black residential choice), would be demolished for "slum clearance" and replaced by the Cedar-Central Apartments public housing project. Source: Call and Post, May 23, 1942
Second Location, 2529 Central Avenue The 1912 Sanborn fire insurance map of Cleveland shows the new location of the J. W. Wills Co. at 2529 Central Avenue. The same map book, on the previous (adjacent) page, also labels the original location "undertaker." The funeral home occupied this two-story tile-roofed brick building for twenty-three years until it was pushed out for construction of the Cedar-Central Apartments housing project, which destroyed not only the first two locations of Wills's business but also virtually every other structure in the area bounded by Cedar and Central Avenues between East 22nd and East 30th Streets. Source: Sanborn map, 1912, Cleveland Public Library; inset photo: Call and Post, May 23, 1942
Third Location, 2340 East 55th Street After being forced out of his funeral home at 2529 Central Avenue in 1935, J. Walter Wills Sr. and his family business and residence moved to this former Jewish funeral home. The Victorian house was the business's most lavishly decorated to date. Already a prominent figure in African American organizations, Wills responded to the hardship of the Depression by converting the third floor of his funeral home into a storehouse for food staples to distribute to those hit hard by the economic collapse. Source: Call and Post, March 1, 1941 Date: 1941
Cadillac Fleet Outside House of Wills A 1941 article pointed out that the House of Wills had a fleet of fourteen Cadillac funeral cars, none of which, it proudly noted, were "second" (used) cars. The business had come a long way since J. W. Wills Sr. bought its first automobile – a used Stearns-Knight – about thirty years earlier. Source: Call and Post, March 1, 1941 Date: 1941
Cedar-Central Apartments Cedar-Central Apartments (sometimes denoted simply as Cedar Apartments) was one of the first public housing projects in the United States. It obliterated both of the earliest locations of what became known as the House of Wills. Cleveland, in fact, was an early adopter of public housing thanks to the 1930s advocacy of Ernest J. Bohn, who served for many years as the city's planning director. The project's 650 units were originally reserved for almost entirely for whites, ensuring that the displacement of African Americans from the eastern edge of the downtown district was sudden and complete. The city's practice of segregating public housing eventually ended and Cedar-Central Apartments became predominantly African American. Source: Library of Congress Creator: Works Progress Administration Art Program Date: ca. 1936-40
Carver Park Homes This housing project, shown here looking southwest from the corner of Central and East 55th, was built just north of the older Outhwaite Homes in the early 1940s by the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority. The caption on the reverse side of this postcard reads: "This once slum area is now the living area of thousands of Negroes in comfortable family and apartment units." Of course, as was too common nationally, white leaders saw slums where black residents saw communities, and the "slums" they redeveloped usually offered fewer housing units than were demolished, a sure recipe for housing insecurity even it supposedly made for more healthful urban environments. The House of Wills was but one casualty of this particular instance of "slum clearance." Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1952
House of Wills with Car Fleet in Front Source: Call and Post, February 12, 1955 Date: 1955
Entrance Awning This photo is among the few that show the entrance of the House of Wills in more detail. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Cleveland Press
Egyptian Motif Inside House of Wills J. Walter Wills Sr. turned his back on black as the only acceptable color for funeral homes and funeral services. Even in the 1900s he introduced bright red rugs and other colorful furnishings and floral displays, suggesting his desire to celebrate the life of the deceased rather than only mourning loss. By the 1930s, the House of Wills was introducing more Egyptian influences into its decor, a trend that was reinforced at the funeral home's fourth location (shown here) that it occupied between 1942 and 2005. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1940s
Abandoned House of Wills Building This photo shows the former funeral home after five years of abandonment. At some point its exterior had been repainted from pink to gray. The same year this photo was taken, a new owner took possession of the property. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA) Creator: Christopher Busta-Peck Date: October 13, 2010
North Side of Former House of Wills The covered area at left is where funeral processions began. Source: Flickr (Public Domain) Creator: Warren LeMay Date: July 27, 2018

Location

2491 E 55th St, Cleveland, OH 44104

Metadata

J. Mark Souther, “The House of Wills,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 30, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/911.