Moving Forward

The Western Reserve Historical Society unveils its big renovation and new Cleveland-focused transportation exhibit this month.

A tiny silver aircraft looks as if it's pouring on the speed as a gold plane ahead of it tears through a razor-sharp turn.

It's a scene straight out of the Golden Age of air racing, but it isn't taking place in the skies near Hopkins airport as it did decades ago. It's happening inside the renovated Crawford Auto Aviation Collection galleries at the Western Reserve Historical Society in University Circle.

The two planes — Roscoe Turner's 1932 Wedell-Williams Model 44 and Benjamin Howard's 1929 "Pete" — now hang suspended from the ceiling of the museum's History Center. The dramatic visual reflects the big changes that have taken place inside the Western Reserve Historical Society over the past year.

"We basically tore down all the interior walls," says Derek Moore, curator of transportation history. "It's created more of an open gallery space for us to display the artifacts and new exhibits."

The museum will unveil its first-floor transformation Feb. 2 with a dynamic 5,000-square-foot exhibition titled Setting the World in Motion. Comprising 24 cars, four airplanes and scores of artifacts, it explores Cleveland's role in the early development of automobiles and airplanes as well as their impact on society.

The makeover was made possible by a $4 million investment — $2.8 million in state grants and the remainder of funding from foundations and private donors. Aside from the reimagined Crawford space, the renovations brought the installation of better lighting, museum store improvements, a community room and an auditorium.

The renovation marks a new era for the Western Reserve Historical Society, which has been working diligently since 2007 to retire millions of dollars of debt accumulated largely from an unsuccessful effort to build a transportation museum downtown and the subsequent exodus of many long-time donors. Under the new leadership of president and CEO Gainor Davis and through careful use of endowment interest, donations and the sell-off of several cars, planes and duplicate items from its other collections, the organization has balanced its books for the last three years.

"To live within its means, the WRHS downsized extensively and focused on the areas where it has its greatest strengths," says Davis, citing entrepreneurial history and the history of man's effect on the landscape as examples.

She says the long process has better positioned the institution to carry on its mission.

This month's kickoff exhibition gives special attention to Cleveland's automotive pioneers such as Alexander Winton, whose popular vehicles predated those of Henry Ford, and Garrett Morgan, an African-American who patented an inexpensive-to-make traffic signal.

First-floor space has also been set aside for short-term exhibits, be it additional autos from the Crawford's 157-car collection or exhibits on loan from other institutions, Moore says.

Although the total number of cars on display on the first floor will remain at 24, rotating exhibits will regularly give visitors new things to see, he adds.

Work is also planned for the Crawford's lower level, where a showcase of sleighs, carriages, bicycles, artifacts and about 40 cars will dramatize the evolution of automotive technology. This phase is expected to be complete by mid-2017, and a newly installed elevator will make the area more accessible.

For Moore, a car enthusiast who worked at the Henry Ford Museum before coming to Cleveland in August 2011, the project has offered many rewarding moments. He recounts with a smile recently finding a little wooden box in museum storage. It turned out to be an old spark-plug salesman's kit that was perfect for an exhibit he was designing.

"It's one of those moments when you're like 'This is just too cool,' " he says.

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