The much-beloved Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Armor Court is unique among the galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Not only does it showcase a breathtaking installation of arms and armor, complete with regimental banners and tapestries, it is also the only gallery to have remained in its original location since opening in 1916. Planning for this magnificent space began two years before the grand opening of the museum would even take place.
In 1914 the museum’s first director, Frederic Allen Whiting, knew he wanted arms and armor prominently displayed.
“I already have our former Court of Casts arranged in my mind’s eye as a Court of Armor and wish to make every possible effort to carry out this scheme, which I am sure will work out very beautifully.” — Frederic Allen Whiting, December 19, 1914
Little did Whiting know how difficult the journey would be to make his dream a reality. Armed with pen and paper, his quest would take place mostly at his writing desk (fig. 2).
Whiting began his search for a suitable armor collection with the help of Bashford Dean, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of arms and armor (fig. 3). Whiting and Dean became interested in the collection of Henry Griffith Keasbey, an American who lived in Great Britain. His collection of 700 works of arms and armor was assembled with great love and care from many prominent dealers. Negotiations lasted more than a year because Keasbey was prone to changing his mind and continually reconsidering offers. By 1915 negotiations broke down, much to Whiting’s consternation.
“It looks as if I will have to give up the idea of getting this collection, which is a matter of serious disappointment to me, as I had set aside the so-called Court of Casts for this purpose and it will be difficult to secure other material to take its place satisfactorily.” — Frederic Allen Whiting, January 7, 1915
With construction proceeding rapidly, the museum was set to open in less than a year’s time, and Whiting once again found himself seeking an armor collection (fig. 4). With the continued help of Dean, the Macomber collection of Boston was targeted. Frank Gair Macomber, a wealthy Boston attorney who made his money through insurance, had built his collection in the late 1800s by acquiring objects from some of the same prominent dealers as Keasbey. Many considered Macomber to have one of the top collections in the country. With only two months before the scheduled opening of the museum, however, negotiations with Macomber seemed to flounder, despite Whiting’s impassioned pleas.
It was now inevitable that an Armor Court would not exist when the museum planned to open in January 1916. However, due to other construction delays, the opening was rescheduled for late spring, and Whiting still had a chance. Increasingly frustrated, he began to explore the possibility of borrowing armor as a last effort to have at least some objects in his new Armor Court. In late March his hope was renewed when he received word that the Macomber collection was once again for sale — but at a high asking price. With only one month until the museum’s scheduled opening, Whiting was able to purchase the collection with the financial backing of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Severance. The Macomber collection became known as the Severance Collection of Arms and Armor.
Although he now had his armor, the emotional rollercoaster and anxiety was not yet over for Whiting. The armor was hastily shipped by railcar to Cleveland, but the car never arrived. It was determined that the boxcar with the armor had been lost somewhere on the rail lines between Boston and Cleveland. Whiting sent railroad officials up and down the line frantically looking for the lost car, but there was no trace of it.
Days passed, and the impending museum opening crept ever closer. One night while riding the local train home, Whiting, unable to sleep, was looking out the window. He saw a lone boxcar sitting about nine miles from downtown Cleveland, near the Collinwood railyard. He hurriedly arranged for rail crews to be called, and they were astonished to learn that they had found the lost armor collection. As the Plain Dealer famously reported on May 22, 1916: “The $100,000 mystery of the Cleveland Art Museum and the Lake Shore railway was solved . . . when a big yellow steel case weighing over six tons was found in the Lake Shore yards at Collinwood. For ten days it had been missing . . . it disappeared . . . as easily as though it was no larger than a penny. . . . With an escort of railroad men [it was] sent downtown.”
Although overjoyed at its final arrival, there was now only one week before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The car was swiftly opened, but the crew found that instead of complete suits of armor the majority were dismantled, and Macomber had not attached any tags to identify individual pieces. It was the ultimate jigsaw puzzle: several hundred pieces of steel with no instruction manual. With the help of Dean, staff members worked through the night and were ultimately successful. The museum, with a full Armor Court, opened in June of 1916 to great fanfare and success (fig. 5). Whiting would later reflect on why he was so passionate about Cleveland having an Armor Court in its new museum and why it was worth so much exertion.
“Cleveland is one of the great iron and steel centers, and should own the most useful collection of fine examples of wrought iron and steel, cast bronzes, etc., as an inspiration to workers and designers in these fields.” — Frederic Allen Whiting, December 1918
Since 1916 the Armor Court has enchanted generations of visitors and has often served as children’s or young adults’ first introduction to the museum. Lois Ann Koff, a longtime museum visitor, recently shared her husband’s memories of the Armor Court from the 1930s.
“George, a young boy in Cleveland during the Great Depression, had no money. His favorite thing to do was visit the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Armor Court, but it was a long journey on the streetcar to the museum from the west side, which included a transfer downtown. He would borrow, beg, and work to get these precious passes. On one occasion he mowed a neighbor’s front lawn for a pass. When the neighbor angrily asked why he didn’t mow the back he said, “That will cost the return pass.” He fondly remembered how welcoming the staff at the museum were, answering his questions and telling him about the armor. He appreciated that he was never asked to leave or given a hard time, as he was an unaccompanied ten-year-old boy. He promised that he always behaved himself. When he grew up and met me, it was on our third date that he took me to the museum to see the Armor Court. We returned for many subsequent dates.” — Lois Ann Koff, a longtime museum visitor
The museum is continually adding to its collection of arms and armor through acquisitions and loans. To this day it is one of the most beloved spaces in the museum and for many is the heart and soul of the building (figs. 6–7).