By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ
He began his career as a Cleveland Philharmonic violinist at the Euclid Avenue Opera House in the 1890s, but Asher D. Bonfoey would be remembered not for his music but for establishing the oldest art gallery and framing service in Cleveland!
Bonfoey’s namesake gallery at 1710 Euclid Avenue, continues to frame and restore art for Northeastern Ohioans (just as it did for Asher’s famous millionaire clients John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford), and to exhibit and promote Cleveland artists. The Gallery’s 130th anniversary exhibition, which began October 6 and continues through November 18, will include a retrospective of Cleveland artists throughout the years including Dana Oldfather, Laurence Channing, Chris Pekoc, Clara Deike, Abel Warshawsky, Viktor Schreckengost, Julian Stanczak and Joseph O’Sickey.
Asher Bonfoey (born 1867) and his wife Della (born1866) moved to Cleveland from their native Michigan for Asher’s Philharmonic position. One Valentine’s Day, Asher gifted Della with a simple silhouette of herself. (Popular in the late 18th and early-19th centuries, “silhouettes”— then known as “shades”— were simple outlines filled in with black paint or cut from black paper.) To display Della’s silhouette, Asher crafted an elegant frame, adding his own artfully carved flourishes to the wood with no idea the gift would launch a new career for the couple.
When friends witnessed Asher’s craftmanship, they began to request his handmade frames for their own artwork, asking if Asher could add some matting around the artwork.This is where Della discovered she had a gift for incorporating just the right matting material to best display any artwork. Soon the couple was spending all their spare time in the basement on framing projects.
By 1893, violinist Bonfoey realized more of his time was being devoted to framing than his music, with the “cottage” business outgrowing his basement. The solution was to open a storefront framing business at 268 Erie Street (now East 9th Street).The company had already attracted a sterling list of clients, including Asher’s fellow bridge club member John D. Rockefeller who was so impressed he introduced Asher to another friend, automaker Henry Ford, who became a satisfied client.
But 10 years later, a fire destroyed the Erie Street operations, forcing a move to 2069 East 4th Street…just a few steps from the Opera House where Asher had begun his career. By 1903, Bonfoey had diversified from framing/restoring to become one of the largest purveyors of silk and velvet coffin liners in the Midwest. Thus, with the continued growth of their business, in 1928 the Bonfoeys realized they needed “a numbers man.” George Moore, an Ohio Bell accountant, was hired but became more of a protégé than accountant. The Bonfoeys schooled him in every aspect of the business, preparing him as the company’s successor when Asher retired.
By 1939, George Moore had become Bonfoey’s owner. While still providing framing for Cleveland’s prominent private citizens, Bonfoey saw its clientele add a prestigious corporate base with large clients such as The Plain Dealer and Firestone Tire & Rubber. (Della and Asher Bonfoey passed away in 1940 and 1953 respectively, both buried in Lake View Cemetery.)
Just as his father had done in ‘39, Moore’s teen son Richard joined the company in 1955, learning framing, restoration and sales. But in 1961 one more Bonfoey relocation was in the cards…the result of yet another fire, moving the business to its present 1710 Euclid Avenue address (originally the Copacabana Nightclub location).
While the fire destroyed most of Bonfoey’s archives (such as receipts from Rockefeller and Ford, plus valuable client pieces), the gallery retained a 1936 letter from Cleveland’s director of public safety, the famous Eliot Ness. Due to the time’s so-called “Blue Laws,” businesses were not allowed to operate Sundays. Ness, however, gave Bonfoey special permission to work Sunday, Sept. 27 of that year to move some of the company’s wares to another location.
The new location’s expanded footprint prompted Moore to move beyond framing and restoration services to become an actual gallery space. In 1971, after being named company president, Richard Moore invited watercolorist Richard Treaster to exhibit at the gallery, leading Bonfoey to become the first commercial gallery to present and promote Cleveland artists.
Bonfoey’s legacy has included restoring both textiles and famous paintings, including the famous Archibald Willard “Spirit of ’76” paintings displayed at City Hall. The company has created shadowboxes of artifacts including a bullet-torn flag that hung outside Saddam Hussein’s palace in Iraq brought home by a soldier; an Indian headdress; an African witch doctor’s circular straw shoes; an Eskimo totem pole; first editions of books by Mark Twain and Robert Frost; a wedding gown and veil and an ancient kimono’s obi sash.
Today Bonfoey Gallery is still owned by its president, Richard G. Moore, with Marcia Hall and Diane Schaffstein as co-directors. Richard expanded the business to offer art appraisals, storage, shipping, installation and consignment to the already long list of services under one roof.
Over the years, the gallery has represented the works of artists from many ethnicities and orientations with the goal to present fine quality work regardless of an artist’s background or professional training. Many artists’ works are reviewed throughout the year looking to maintain quality. Bonfoey admits such a benchmark presents an encumbrance to their ability to always maintain a diverse stable. Looking to the future, the gallery wants to continue to reach out to artists of all backgrounds to enlarge and grow their stable, as well as being community minded by hosting exhibits and events which benefit various charitable causes and organizations.
As part of their 130th anniversary celebration, Saturday, November 18 Bonfoey staff will host tours of their custom framing department from 11-12 pm and 12 – 1 pm. Tours are free, but reservations must be made. Visit the website at bonfoey.com, call 216.621.0178 or contact them at email@example.com.
130 years in CLE gives reason to celebrate and reflect
By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ