A weekend in Cleveland and environs (10 cents)

We were invited to a wedding in Mentor, Ohio, this weekend, a town on Lake Erie some twenty plus miles east of Cleveland. Although the wedding was scheduled for Sunday, we decided to drive to Cleveland on Friday, to give us the opportunity to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art, about which I had heard some wonderful things. Here are my quick thoughts about trip.

The Museum of Art is located in an area known as the University Circle area. Located a few miles east of downtown, the University Circle area, based on what I saw, is pretty spectacular. Not only the museum of art, but a natural history museum, botanical garden, history museum, medical history museum, some large old homes (many of which are now institutions),along with Case Western Reserve University and all that it has to offer, Severance Hall (home of the Cleveland Orchestra) and what I assume is the main campus (and a very extensive one it is) of the Cleveland Clinic/University Hospitals. Nearby is a large park, with everything that a large urban park has to offer, including at least one special feature, individual areas dedicated to the various ethnic groups that make up the Cleveland community.

I’ll get back to the art museum in a moment, but first, a little about the rest of Cleveland. Downtown does not have the number of new glass high-rises that you find in many cities today, but there does seem to be a fair amount of renovation activity, although there is no shortage of empty buildings and store fronts. But there is also a theater or two, the Rock and Roll Museum, the science museum, the football and baseball stadiums, and the Warehouse district just west of downtown, but on the east side of the Cuyahoga River, which has its share of upscale shops and restaurants. Not great, but not bad.

But the rest of the city (which probably means 95% of Cleveland) is an embarrassment to the people of Ohio and of the country. Like some other older larger cities in the United States, Cleveland is simply falling to pieces (or more accurately has fallen to pieces already). Yes, there are pockets of renewal, and there are places where old derelict buildings have been cleared and replaced by well-tended grass, but there is slum, after slum, after slum, as you drive through much too much of Cleveland. Having toured parts of eastern Europe last summer (former Soviet areas), I can report that the large cities of these countries look much better than Cleveland; if an American tourist would find a Cleveland in, say, Lithuania or Latvia, we would write off those countries, criticize their governments, and feel for the citizens. How can we let these things continue in this country? (Of course, I know – and you know – the answer to that.)

OK, back to the Museum of Art. First, it has free admission, and a covered parking garage. Second, you are allowed to take photos. Third, the art work is beautifully displayed, with very interesting signage, which gives not only brief descriptions of artists and subject matters, but also gives interesting factoids that museums would ordinarily avoid. Finally, while it has a rather expansive layout that (in part because of ongoing construction) is a bit chopped up, the exhibition galleries are about as airy, and pleasant, and light as they can be. There are two (at least) buildings. The original early twentieth century building has the more classical collection, while the new section concentrates on late nineteenth and twentieth century art, where the collection is spectacular. There are a few well known paintings – a large Picasso blue period masterpiece, one of George Bellows’ boxing paintings, to give two examples. Much of its collection (but by no means all) can be viewed on the museum’s website. The museum is definitely worth a visit, and even worth a trip to Cleveland.

We did not have the opportunity to visit the other museums. We had visited the Rock and Roll Museum several years ago, and were surprised at how much we enjoyed it.

But who supports all of these museums? I would assume by and large families who live in the suburbs. We did drive through Shaker Heights with its early and mid-twentieth century mansions, and we did see evidence of additional wealth outside of the city limits. But poor, poor Cleveland.

In Mentor, we went to see the home of President James A. Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881, and had lived in a large (then farm) house near the center of the city on extensive ground. After his death, his widow raised money to expand the house and include room for a memorial library for Garfield, who had an extensive book collection. The site is now maintained by the National Park Service. I didn’t expect too much (I assumed we would see a comfortable house, like we did when we visited Martin van Buren’s house in Kinderhook NY last summer), but again was very pleasantly surprised by a beautifully and uniquely designed and furnished house, with original furnishings of the Garfield era and the Garfield family (his widow lived in the house almost forty years after her husband was killed). We also watched the Park Service movie on the life of Garfield, which (as was the van Buren film) extremely informative and well done. Highly recommended. If you get to Cleveland, take the 30 minute or so drive to Mentor to visit the Garfield estate.

Finally, by chance, on the way home, we drove past Niles, Ohio, near Youngstown, south of Cleveland, the home of President William McKinley, also assassinated (in 1901). Although his boyhood home no longer exists, there is an extensive marble monument to McKinley in the middle of this highly depressed town, with a museum on one side of the outdoors atrium with a larger than life statue, and a library on the other. Worth visiting? Yes, but only to see it quickly and say you’ve been there. If you have a choice between McKinley and Garfield, choose Garfield every time.

We did have a chance to sample two restaurants in Mentor – one, Molinari’s is typical upscale Italian, neither bad nor memorable, and the other a seafood restaurant, Brennan’s, where the specialties are Lake Erie perch and walleye, but they only serve it deep fried with (an extraordinarily large portion of) french fries. If you aren’t worried about your heart, you can eat at Brennan’s, but if you are……stay away. (And, in fact, even if you aren’t, there’s no great reason to go.) Does Mentor have other better restaurants? It sure has a lot of restaurants, but as to their quality, I am not sure.

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