Positioned on East 55th street between Scovill Avenue and Outhwaite Avenue is the House of Wills. It was once a bold pink funeral home stablished in 1905 by one of Cleveland’s first African American entrepreneurs, John Walter Wills. He employed over 40 people that oversaw the day-to-day operations of the funeral home, including driving the fleet of new Cadillac limousines. The House of Wills was known for an elaborately decorative interior, many of the remnants of which are still evident today despite the conditions of the interior.
Note: Many of the darker areas had to be lit with flashlight for photos to be taken, so coloring might not be true in those cases.
To the right of the main hall at the entrance lies the Egyptian Slumber Rooms. The pastel purple with white engraved designs persists today, though the purple carpeting, white and burgundy curtains, and sphinx sculptures are long gone.
To the left is the Grecian Chapel, a large oval shaped room with church pews on the lower floor and benches in the balcony level. There are grand burgundy drapes somehow still left clinging to the olive green walls despite evidence of trespasses and water damage in the years since the building was abandoned.
Beyond the chapel is the preparation room, a long stretch of chalkboards potentially used to keep track of scheduled funerals, and a series of small offices that give you a sense of the more mundane business activities that commenced here.
Below ground is the Cloud Room where its once white ceiling and inset lighting was a bright casket showroom displaying ornate wooden caskets with luxurious velvet linings, as well as dressing gowns for the dead. Now gives one the feeling of a deep dark cave with curious mineral formations. Indeed while my tour peers were shining their multi-colored flashlights around I couldn’t help being reminded of exploring Jewel Cave years ago, where they put on a light show to showcase different formations more easily.
There are other rooms and spaces in this lower level. Even a very creepy set of iron stairs descending even further into the pitch black. These lead to old hot water tanks now, but once they went to the coal room for cremation services.
The upper levels of the House of Wills, which are a cheery contrast to the dark and dilapidated lower levels, operated as residential and gathering spaces. They still hold photographs and other bits of ephemera that paint a picture of the people who lived there.
The House of Wills also served as a cornerstone in the community as it provided a place for many social gatherings that African Americans were barred from at other locations due to segregation laws. Mr. Wills called this room Dreamwold, a room for “free cultural use” because he believed providing safe spaces for people who are normally kept apart to come together would make it happen. A prominent member of the local Civil Rights movement, many meetings were held here.
Aside from its obvious decorative and historical merits, the House of Wills is now largely known on the local ghost touring circuit as being a place full of spirits. Mr. Wills died in his residence on the upper floors of this building. There are those that say a man dressed in white, presumably Mr. Wills himself, can be found walking the halls. Our tour leader, Patricia, shared many stories of personally taking people through the house and strange things happening. In certain rooms she said that those that could see spirits often did see dark shapes floating through the rooms. Perhaps because of the building’s history not only as a funeral home but also at one time as a hospital, to those that believe, it is a veritable hotbed of spiritual activity.
The artist who purchased the building in 2010 had plans to restore it to some of its former glory so that the space could be used for art shows or rented out for events. Sadly, from images easily found online it is easy to see that the building has only fallen into further disrepair since then. But he is currently in the process of moving in, which has resulted in some of the building being off limits to tours for his privacy, so perhaps good things are yet to come for the House of Wills.
I wanted to give special thanks to Patricia Mahon, who leads the tours of the building and has seen it through its deterioration process. She is a wonderful resource when it comes to what features have been stripped away by looters and weather, as well as the ghostly what might be if you are interested in a ghost tour.