Iron Age Cleveland
Gregory M. Donley Photographs by Philip Brutz
One of the interesting challenges involved in restoring the 1916 building was that the original architects, Hubbell & Benes, had worked in a Cleveland that was well populated with skilled craftspeople who had trained in the “old country” before immigrating to America, and the specifications for detail work on the building assumed the ready availability of such skills. Today, many of the individuals and firms who carried out the original work are long gone and the skills they employed are rare if they exist at all.
One example of such a trade is fine-art ironwork. The firm that had fabricated the railings and grates for the original construction is no longer in the ironwork business. But Cleveland-area architects’ specification sheets from those times offer a helpful lead: for ironwork they often noted that the quality should be “Rose Iron Works or equal.” Rose Iron Works itself is still very much in business, on the same East 43rd Street site where it was when the museum was built—and Rose Iron Works was able to make new railings to match the original specifications.
Martin Rose (born Rosenblüh, literally “rose bloom”) was born in Hungary. “When my dad came to the United States from Budapest in 1903,” recalls his youngest son, Melvin, now 90, retired president of the firm and 2008 recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize, “he’d already done a formal apprenticeship and journeyman’s training to qualify for certification. He found a lot of ironwork being done in Cleveland, but it was heavy, not very refined. My dad saw an opportunity to produce more artistic work and started the firm in 1904, at one point employing 29 people, most of whom had trained in Europe.” The business was always a combination of heavy industrial production and fine art work.
The company adapted to the times, weathering the Great Depression and supporting the war effort through the early 1940s, only to find after the war that tastes had changed and builders and architects were no longer calling for decorative ironwork. The industrial side of the business carried Rose Iron Works until, just as the last of the original skilled craftsmen Martin Rose had hired decades earlier were preparing to retire, a smoldering ember of interest in fine ironwork sparked back to life. Had that rekindling happened ten years later, the chance to pass on all that knowledge and expertise might have been gone forever, but Rose Iron Works took the opportunity to train a new generation. Future generations of museum visitors will feel the benefit of that old-world knowledge every time they grasp that iron railing to walk up those marble stairs.
Cleveland Art, March 2009