A longtime house of the dead may get new life as a house for the arts. That’s the goal of Cleveland artist Erich Freeman, who purchased the historic House of Wills funeral home at 2491 East 55th Street and has begun the arduous task of renovating it.
He hopes to have the building functional by the end of the year — full restoration will take longer — to use as an arts hub with shows by underground performers. Among the initial plans on tap: hosting “The Dirty Show,” a Cleveland version of an annual erotic art show in Detroit.
“My main goal is to rebirth the phoenix,” says Freeman, known for his challenging, macabre sculptural work.
For more than 60 years, the startlingly pink, 42-room structure housed one of the black community’s most prominent businesses, but it’s also been a gathering place for the black community, a refuge for teenagers, and headquarters for the local civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
Built at the turn of the century by a German social club, the building housed the House of Wills from 1942 until 2005. For five years, it was ravaged by the elements and looters. Then Freeman stepped in last March. No stranger to tall tasks, he had already restored a former bank building in the Superior-St. Clair neighborhood as a live-work space.
“The building was in shambles,” he says. “It looked like a bomb had gone off. There was water and ice everywhere, rubble everywhere.”
Despite the ruin, many elements of House of Wills’ heyday are still visible: the spacious auditorium, with its wooden balcony and starlit ceiling; the two pillared “Egyptian” viewing rooms, a former casket showroom with sculpted clouds protruding from the ceiling, intricate molding — even remnants of the ’60s Austin Powers-style decor.
Freeman is cleaning up the rubble, removing damaged carpet, and preparing to restore the place with the help of friends. — Anastasia Pantsios