Walter C. Leedy, Jr.

Cleveland's Terminal Tower -
The Van Sweringens' Afterthought

Continued from the introduction

A "City Beautiful" mall for Cleveland

Although the buildings on Public Square were a source of pride to many of the city's residents, there were some critics. Writing in 1910, Samuel Orth, a historian of the city, said, "The stately Williamson Building ... overlooks[the Square] with majestic disdain." 5 Public Square lacked a cohesive visual image. To many, the glory of the Square had evidently departed. By 1890, the stately elms were all gone, and the sycamores that were planted every year only sickened and died as a result of the sulphurous air pollution. The character of Public Square and especially of the southeast quadrant did not reflect the emerging greatness of the growing city.

Public Square had been and was the traditional center of civic life. It was the site of the first execution in the county. It was where dignitaries, like Abraham Lincoln, were greeted and where public debates were held. And it was where, during the Municipal Centennial of 1896, the Pageant of Peace marched under a great triumphal arch of victory especially built over Superior Avenue for the occasion. But since the early 1890's, plans had been in the making that would change all that. Prompted by the fact that federal, county, and municipal governments were all in need of larger new buildings, a group of citizens and Cleveland's Architectural Club promoted the idea of creating a unified grouping of public buildings in a central location. 6 Populist Mayor Tom Johnson, after his election in 1901, endorsed the idea of Group Plan proposal and made it part of his program, in the hope that public architecture and landscaping would symbolize the city's riches and would stimulate civic pride. Johnson appointed a commission headed by architect Daniel Burnham which made its report on the proposed Group Plan in 1903. The public at large was not consulted: Burnham was not a believer in town meetings.

Photo of Burnham Commission's plan for the Cleveland Mall
The Burnham Commission's plan for the Cleveland Mall, including buildings projected for the near and distant future. From 1903 until 1919, the anticipated site for the new Union Station (1) was to be at the end of the Mall near the lake. Recognizable in this rendering are Public Square (2) and Euclid Avenue (3) Drawing from the Commission Report, reproduced in Charles Moore, Daniel H. Burnham (1921).

The Commission's Report called for placing a "civic center" now known as the Mall, just northeast of Public Square, running from Superior Avenue all the way to the Lake. The conception -- a grouping of monumental civic buildings around a grand open space -- was derived from the City Beautiful movement: a show city of dazzling public buildings illuminated by street lighting inspired by the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

By the early twentieth century some planners, such as Jens Jensen, were critical of City Beautiful schemes as grandiose, inhumane, imperialistic and undemocratic. "The more formality in its feeling and tendency." 7 And by the early teens taxpayers across the country, including those in Cleveland, were reluctant to pay for architectural magnificence when urgent practical problems confronted them.

The building of the Mall constituted a large-scale redevelopment near the core of the city, which was then primarily a clutter of waterfront dives, bordellos and slums. Progressive citizens had for years demanded the improvement of this area, especially since it was "downtown". By the end of World War I, over 25 million dollars had been spent on it. And at least 5-10 million more would be needed to finish the job. This task was perceived both as an improvement of the quality of life in the city and a visible symbol of the city's collective image. There was little apparent concern for the people to be displaced by this project, and no effort was made to help relocate them. On the whole Clevelanders supported the project. The average citizen was fond of palatial grandeur, and dedicated architects were willing to provide it. Mayor Johnson was in touch with popular taste.

Along with the plan for the Mall arose a sense that a new lake front railroad station was needed. The old station, built in 1864, was inadequate and hardly represented the first impression that the city's leaders wished to give to the visitor. By 1903, after some debate, it was decided that the station would be relocated at the north end of the Mall, since the railroad tracks were already along the lake front. Almost twelve years of continual litigation about the price the railroads would be charged for the site were to follow this decision.

Photo of proposed Union Terminal for the Cleveland Mall
The Union Station that never was; one of several proposed schemes done between 1915 and 1917 for the new terminal to be located on the lakeside end of the Mall. Drawing by the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Gerald Adams collection.

Finally, in 1915, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads entered into an agreement with the city, approved by a public referendum, that appeared to settle the long dispute. 8 The railroads were to pay the city about one million dollars for the new site next to City Hall, and the city in turn was to use that sum to acquire more land for the Mall, thus relieving the need to burden the taxpayer with the costs of the project. America's entry into the War caused further delays, and as late as November, 1917, alternative architectural plans were still being prepared for the proposed station. 9 It began to look as if construction would never start and Cleveland would never have its new station. To make matters more complicated, the railroads had begun to realize that a new passenger station on this site really did not address their important needs for improved freight service.


Continues in: "Enter the Van Sweringens"

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