Eleanora Alms and her legacy

Eleanora Alms survived her husband Frederick by more than 20 years. She stepped in to the role of a leading philanthropist, lavishly memorializing her late husband, but also imprinting her own cultural tastes for art and design on the city of Cincinnati. As mentioned in the previous post, in 1902 Eleanora Alms donated the enormous sum of $100,000 to the College of Music, a favorite charity of Frederick. Shortly before her death own in 1921, Eleanora would make a rather splashier $100,000 donation for Alms Hall, a dormitory, at the College. Her memorials in the years after she lost Frederick funded an art boomlet; she supplied oil portraits of her late husband to many of the institutions he had funded generously. She further authorized a biography published in 1904. Yet Eleanora stepped out of the shadows of her husband’s charitable activities to launch initiativeses of her own in the Queen City.

In the spirit of Frederick’s early role as a soldier in the Civil War and his life-long attachment to the Fred Jones Post of the Grand Army of the Republic – the Walnut Hills organization of Civil War Veterans – Eleanora proposed to put up another $100,000 to pay for a memorial to Abraham Lincoln to celebrate the centenary of his 1809 birth. She hoped to engage the sculptor Gutzon Borglum. As a woman in the highly political republican stronghold of Cincinnati, she offered the money to a commission of local worthies; she included Henry Probasco (donor of the fountain bearing his name in front of Clifton School, as well as of the Tyler Davidson Fountain downtown) who agreed with her choice of sculptor. Charles P. Taft also joined the commission, with his own agenda. Taft and three other commissioners determined to engage George Grey Barnard to create the statue. Mrs. Alms was sufficiently taken aback that she threatened to withdraw her offer. Taft, inheritor with his wife Annie of the estate of his father-in-law David Sinton, stepped in to provide the sum Eleanora Alms had proposed. It is ironic that the Lincoln Statue in downtown Cincinnati is associated with a post-Civil War generation Taft rather than with the Union soldier Frederick Alms.

Eleanora’s next attempt to memorialize her husband proved more successful and lasting. In 1916 she purchased sixty acres of land at the top of Mt. Tusculum to donate as a Park in memory of her husband, complete with a bronze sculpture. Like Eden Park fifty years earlier, Alms Park stood on land once cultivated as a vineyard by Nicholas Longworth. Mrs. Alms further committed a substantial sum to expand the park by another sixty acres. (As with Eden Park in Walnut Hills, the value of the surrounding land was inflated by the development of Alms Park, making the purchase of surrounding land sufficiently expensive that only about half of the additional acreage was added.) In another touch of irony, Alms park contains a life-size bronze sculpture of Frederick Alms’ contemporary, the composer Stephen Foster (placed in the 1930’s by another donor) but not of Frederick Alms.

Eleanora’s will, announced when she died in 1921, provided for several specific and significant arts and educational institutions, along with a foundation with assets rivaling those of Jacob Schmidlapp. The Alms estate was variously estimated at $1.5 to $2 million. The dispersal of the specified funds was spread out over more than thirty years. The Cincinnati Art Museum was to receive $250,000 for the Alms Wing. This addition would include not only exhibit space dedicated to decorative arts, but a much-needed library, storage, auditorium and offices. When the Museum Board met to consider the bequest, they determined that it would be impossible to achieve all that Eleanora had specified within the budget proposed. The managers of the Eleanora C. U. Alms Trust agreed to add $110,000, for a total of $360,000. The opening ceremony on October 1, 1937, emphasized the programming possibilities above all: lectures, classes, a pitch for membership and member-only events, motion pictures in the auditorium.

The University of Cincinnati waited even longer for Eleanora Alms’ bequest. The Alms Memorial Building, begun in 1948 and completed in 1953 to house the Department of Applied Arts, newly separated from the College of Engineering and Commerce. The Alms building, soon joined by others in the same corner of campus in what became the Department of Art and Architecture – later, of Art, Architecture and Planning – nurtured the arts on campus. It might be observed that it moved the locus for arts education away from the Eden Park Museum and Art Academy to the University.

The Eleanora C. U. Alms charitable trust continues to fund the arts in Cincinnati to this day.