Filed Under Businesses

The Thomas Axworthy House

Where a Popular West Side Gym Once Stood

Clement and Katherine Folkman, immigrants from Eastern Europe, probably didn't know much, if any, of the history of the house at 4206 Franklin when they purchased it in 1923. So they, and their son Clement Jr. proceeded to make their own history there.

The house at 4206 Franklin Boulevard is one of only a few Second Empire style houses on Franklin Boulevard. It has approximately 3,000 square feet of living area and is notable for its hexagonal mansard roof, decorative window hoods and wrap-around single-story covered front porch. The house was built in 1866 and, while the name of the contractor who actually built it is unknown, it may have been Ferdinand Dreier (Dryer), a German immigrant and house carpenter by trade. Dreier built a number of houses on or near Franklin Boulevard in the late 1860s, including a somewhat similar Second Empire style house almost directly across the street at 4211 Franklin.

According to National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) records of the Franklin Boulevard Historic District, the house at 4206 Franklin is named for Thomas Axworthy, a nineteenth century coal merchant, who purchased it in 1873. Its original owner was Atherton Curtis, a liquor dealer, whose family only lived in the house for a year or so before moving to Huron County, Ohio. The family then rented the house out to tenants for several years before selling it to Axworthy, who lived in the house with his wife Rebecca and their three daughters for more than a decade.

Thomas Axworthy was an interesting figure who left his mark on Cleveland city government, although not in the way you might think. An English immigrant, Axworthy became involved in Cleveland politics in the 1870s, serving in that decade as a city fire commissioner as well as president of the "West Side Democracy," a political club for Democrats living west of the Cuyahoga River. In 1883, while his star was still rising, Axworthy was considered to be a likely candidate for city mayor, but he ran instead for city treasurer and was elected in a close race. He was re-elected to the office in 1885 and again in 1887. By the time he was re-elected the second time, he had already sold the house at 4206 Franklin, moving, like many other Franklin Boulevard residents during this period, to the city's far west end. There, he built a grand house on Lake Avenue, not far from where political kingmaker Marcus Hanna, also a Franklin Boulevard resident, would build his Lake Avenue mansion just a few years later.

In October 1888, Thomas Axworthy's political star crashed and burned when the Cleveland Leader broke the news that he had fled the city after embezzling some $440,000 from the city treasury. (To appreciate the size of his embezzlement, that sum would be almost $13 million in 2022 dollars.) The papers, not only in Cleveland, but across the country, were abuzz for months with stories of Axworthy's whereabouts, the efforts made by Cleveland to recover the funds he had stolen, and the inevitable litigation that followed. The person who headed the effort to locate Axworthy was attorney Andrew Squire, who just two years later would co-found Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, for many years one of Cleveland's largest and most prestigious law firms. Squire also happened to be a former neighbor of Axworthy, having lived just three houses down the street from Axworthy during the years that the latter resided on Franklin. Squire doggedly searched for Axworthy, located him in London, and traveled all the way there to confront the disgraced treasurer who was living in England's capital under an assumed name. Squire successfully negotiated a settlement with Axworthy which required him to surrender all of the cash and bonds still in his possession, and agree to sell properties that he still owned back in the States--which included Colorado and Tennessee as well as Ohio--to cover much of the rest of what he had stolen. In the end, after bondsmen made up the difference, the City of Cleveland was fully reimbursed for its loss.

After the Axworthy family moved from the house at 4206 Franklin, it was next owned and occupied by the family of a district passenger agent for the Erie Railroad and after that by a treasurer of a trucking company. In 1919, the house was purchased by a Hungarian immigrant whose family lived in it for four years before selling it to Clement and Katherine Folkman in 1923. Clement, a German immigrant who worked in Cleveland as an auto body builder, and his wife Katherine, a Hungarian immigrant, were among a large number of German and Hungarian immigrants who settled on and around Franklin Boulevard in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. A number of them, like the Folkmans, purchased grand houses on Franklin that had once been occupied by the West Side's wealthiest families, and then converted them into multi-family dwellings or rooming houses. The Folkmans created three suites in the house at 4206 Franklin, living in one themselves and renting out the other two.

Clement and Katherine Folkman's son Clement, Jr., who was sixteen years old when his parents bought the house at 4206 Franklin, initially entered the workplace as an auto body builder like his father. In 1936, however, when he was 29 years old, he decided to become a different type of body builder. "Clem," as he was referred to by his family, was an adherent of the "physical culture" theories of Bernarr McFadden, an American entrepreneur who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, advocated physical fitness through weight lifting regimens. McFadden later published a series of popular magazines which may have caught young Clem's eyes. With his father's help, Clem built a gymnasium in the two-story carriage house that stood in the rear yard of their property. An avid weightlifter himself, Clem soon was training young men in the neighborhood at his Folkman's Athletic Club, which he later renamed Folkman's Physical Culture Studio. By October 17, 1938, when an article about his gym appeared in the Plain Dealer, he was training 50 young men, ages 20 to 30, who came to the gym three times a week, some with Olympic medal aspirations.

For decades, Folkman's Physical Culture Studio was a popular gym and rare commercial enterprise on historically residential Franklin Boulevard. The Folkman family at some point in time built another two-story building on the property, the first story of which served as a garage, and connected the new building to the old carriage house, which itself was extensively remodeled to accommodate Clem's growing business. The gym was located on the second floor of the remodeled carriage house, and a locker room, sauna, and massage room on the first. A large round clock was also installed on a pole in the front yard that for years reminded passers by on Franklin that it was "Time To Exercise." The gym was still thriving in 1967 when legendary Plain Dealer reporter Bill Hickey paid a visit to Folkman's gym. By this time, Clem's son Ronald, a Cleveland firefighter, was also working part-time at the gym as a masseuse. Bill Hickey referred to the two of them in an article that appeared in the Plain Dealer on March 30, 1967, as "the Squires of Franklin Boulevard." When Hickey reminded Clem that he had been exercising at the gym for years, Clem, according to the article, took one look at Hickey's body and responded, "Please don't tell anybody that. It will ruin me."

In 1986, the Folkman Physical Culture Studio had been operating at 4206 Franklin Boulevard for 50 years. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter James Neff visited the property in August of that notable anniversary year to interview Clem Folkman. When he arrived, he found an elderly man who was gravely ill and reliving past glories, and a gymnasium that was literally falling apart and papered with city building code violation notices. Clem Folkman died just three months after this interview. After the death of Clem Folkman, one of his grandsons attempted to revive the business, but was unsuccessful. In 1991, the house at 4206 Franklin Boulevard was sold to a new owner, and one year after that the buildings on the rear of the property, which had housed Folkman's Physical Culture Studio for more than a half century, were unceremoniously torn down.

Today, no evidence remains of the Folkman Physical Culture Studio where Clem Folkman trained so many Clevelanders for so many years in the theories, methodologies and regimens of Bernarr McFadden. The Thomas Axworthy House, however, now nicely renovated as a three-family dwelling, and celebrating its 156th birthday in 2022, still stands at 4206 Franklin Boulevard.

Images

4206 Franklin Boulevard The Thomas Axworthy House today. Source: Jim Dubelko Date: 2021
1881 Map The 1881 G. M. Hopkins City Atlas of Cleveland, Ohio, notes (area in the middle of the map outlined in red) that "T. Axworthy " was in that year the owner of the house at 275 Franklin (today, 4206). This may be why the City of Cleveland, in its 1989 nomination of Franklin Boulevard to the National Register of Historic Places, identified the house as the Thomas Axworthy House. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Representing the West Side Democracy In 1879, Thomas Axworthy's star was on the rise in Cleveland. This October 13, 1879 Plain Dealer article notes that he was serving as president of the West Side Democracy, a political club of West Side democrats. Note that immediately below his name are listed the names of two legendary Franklin Boulevard residents of this era--James M. Coffinberry, a former Common Pleas Judge and father of shipping magnate Henry Coffinberry, and Stephen Buhrer, a close friend of John D. Rockefeller and Cleveland's mayor from 1867-1870. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Thomas Axworthy (1836-1893) An English immigrant who became a coal merchant in Cleveland in the mid nineteenth century, Thomas Axworthy was the second owner of the house at 4206 Franklin Boulevard, where he and his family lived from 1873-1886. In 1883, Axworthy was elected Cleveland City Treasurer, an office to which he was re-elected by the voters of Cleveland in 1885 and 1887. In 1888, in the midst of his third two-year term, he fled the City after embezzling some $440,000. from the City treasury, equivalent to $13 million in 2022 dollars. While Cleveland eventually recovered all of the money he stole, Axworthy never returned to Cleveland to be held accountable for his crime and he died in Canada in 1893. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Axworthy's Lake Avenue Residence This rare photo of Thomas Axworthy's grand house on Lake Avenue was found in an album of John Bousfield, who was a Franklin Boulevard neighbor of Axworthy. The man sitting on the lawn is John Bousfield and the photo has a notation that it was taken in 1888 at the Axworthy House misidentified by Bousfield as on Detroit Street. One has to wonder whether it was taken before or after Axworthy fled to England that year, whether it was taken by Thomas Axworthy himself before he fled, and why John Bousfield decided to put this photo in his family album. Source: Patrick Wilhelm, a third great-grandson of John and Sarah Bousfield
A Notorious Scandal News of Thomas Axworthy's embezzlement from the Cleveland City Treasury was reported in newspapers across the United States. This article reporting the embezzlement appeared in the New York Tribune on October 24, 1888. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
The Folkman Family This photo was likely taken in Cleveland in the 1920s, around the time that the Folkman family moved into the house at 4206 Franklin Boulevard. From left to right are: Clement Folkman, daughter Rose Folkman, son Clement Folkman Jr., and Katherine Toth Folkman. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a great-granddaughter of Clement and Katherine Toth Folkman
Maintaining the Property. This photo, taken in September 1930, shows Clement Folkman Sr. watering the lawn in his back yard at 4206 Franklin. In the background is the house's nineteenth century carriage house which six years later was remodeled into a weight lifting gym for his son Clement's Folkman Athletic Club. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a great-granddaughter of Clement and Katherine Toth Folkman
Folkman Athletic Club This photo and article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 17, 1938. According to a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, her grandfather opened his Folkman Athletic Club, later renamed Folkman Physical Culture Studio, in 1936. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Clement "Clem" Folkman, Jr. (1907-1986) The son of Hungarian and German parents, Clem Folkman operated a popular gym at 4206 Franklin Boulevard from 1936-1986. In this circa 1940 photo, he is posing for the camera. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, Jr.
The Way to Health This brochure advertising the Folkman Physical Culture Studio was printed in 1956 and noted that the popular gym had been in business at 4206 Franklin Boulevard for twenty years. The man on the left is Clement Folkman, Jr. The identity of the woman on the right is unknown. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, Jr.
Expanding the Gym This 1963 photo taken by the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals shows the two story building (center) that was at some prior point in time built on the lot at 4206 Franklin and connected to the old carriage house (left) which had been remodeled into a gym in the 1930s. The view in this photo is from the back yard of the property facing east. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
The Squires of Franklin Boulevard That's how legendary Plain Dealer reporter Bill Hickey referred to Clement Folkman and his son Ron in a 1967 article about the then ongoing physical fitness craze in America and some of the gyms in Cleveland that were capitalizing on it. This photo was taken by a Plain Dealer photographer for the article. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Visiting Grandpa's gym Dorothie Folkman and her daughter Traci , a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, Jr. pay a visit to the Folkman Physical Culture Studio in circa 1972. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, Jr.
Coming to an End This photo was taken by a City of Cleveland photographer in May 1986, just months before Clement Folkman, the owner of the Folkman Physical Culture Studio, died. The photo captures a view of the house at 4206 Franklin which includes the once familiar clock that reminded passers by for years that it was time to exercise. Source: City of Cleveland, NRHP registration for Franklin Boulevard Historic District
The End of an Era This March 1992 photo shows construction equipment in the back yard of the house at 4206 Franklin, leveling the area where the Folkman Physical Studio stood for more than 50 years. Source: Traci Folkman Thorpe, a granddaughter of Clement Folkman, Jr.

Location

4206 Franklin Boulevard | Private Property

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The Thomas Axworthy House,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 23, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/956.