History of Cleveland's skyscrapers

Frank Gerlak, AICP

Copyright 2000, All rights reserved • Unauthorized reproduction in part or in whole is strictly prohibited by federal law.

An Abstract

As Cleveland is located between New York and Chicago, design inspiration for Cleveland's high rise buildings came from both cities. Unfortunately, much of this "lofty" inspiration has been dampened by weak bearing soil. Periods of Cleveland history that have been arbitrary classified for the purposes of defining high rise construction follow.

Development of Industry (1880 - 1910) - As industry grew, existing buildings became unsuitable for expanding administrative needs. With development of the steel frame and elevator, cities began to rise - they couldn't go elsewhere as transportation and communication systems were in their infancy. Buildings from this period include: Society for Savings Building (the first of the "modern" high rise building and, in 1890, "Ohio’s Skyscraper"): Cuyahoga and Williamson Buildings (both demolished for BP America): New England Building (now a Holiday Inn Express): Rockefeller Building of 1903 (built for John D. and the part of his oil empire that had not yet moved to New York City). The Rockefeller Building is one of the finest "Louis Sullivan" buildings not designed by Louis Sullivan. The Rockefeller, New England, and Williamson buildings pushed Cleveland to new heights and stood as markers to the new industrial age.

Cleveland Grows and Prospers (1910-1925) - Cleveland’s peak as a city of influence occurred from about 1916 to 1925. At this time four large (by 1920 Cleveland standards) twenty-story buildings were built in four years; Keith, Cleveland Discount/Superior, Standard, and Union Trust/Huntington. By this time, Cleveland's building projects became sizable enough to be influenced by Cleveland's weak sub-soil. Certainly any height aspirations by the builders of the Union Trust Building (the Van Sweringen’s) were tempered by the need for expensive foundation work. Thus that building sprawled all over the northeast corner of East 9th and Euclid.

The Twenties that Roared - In the late 1920's, corporations rushed to adopt the new American Perpendicular (much later renamed Art Deco) style as an image of their success in the "modern" age. Avoiding the craziness of the Manhattan Great Art Deco Skyrace of late 1920’s, three Art Deco high rise buildings were built in Cleveland. They are the Ameritech Building on Huron, the Fenn Tower, and the profusely detailed Landmark Office Towers. The Landmark Office Towers was originally planned as four interlocked buildings. Only three were built – Medical Arts, Builders Exchange, and Midland. A gap exists over the rapid transit tracks where the fourth was to be. The Ameritech (aka Ohio Bell Building) is an especially fine example of the American Perpendicular style with its characteristic setbacks. It was designed as a taller building but was "downsized" because of soil conditions and changing corporate needs of the Ohio Bell Company and its parent (at the time) – AT&T. A drawing exists of the original version with the top blacked out with ink. The tallest building of the period, the Terminal Tower, was not designed in the new Art Deco style. Art Deco was too modern to be monumental in the minds of the Van Sweringens. However, the Terminal Tower’s foundations were heroic. Hand dug caissons, 250’ deep, support the building. By 1929, a 15% vacancy rate indicated that downtown was over built, ending any new construction. Thus the great Art Deco skyscraper that might have been built in Cleveland was never built. Pictures of it reside in various collections today.

The Awakening - (1955-1960) - It was 25 years before office building construction resumed, so thorough had been the depression's undoing of Cleveland! Newspapers pleaded with businesses to build a skyscraper in Cleveland. William Zeckendorf, a prominent 1950’s New York builder, was seduced to Cleveland for a visit that got newspaper publicity befitting the end of World War II! He affably nodded his head and said, "Cleveland is a good place to build a building" – but he never built one here! Even a high-rise Hilton Hotel was proposed for the mall but no one cared to build it. For a time, it seemed that every developer in American wanted to build in Cleveland – but didn’t. For sure, Cleveland had the most unbuilt skyscrapers in America! A Proposal was made for a convention center accompanied by a 30-story building over Cleveland’s waterfront railroad tracks. Even a Mr. Wygamore, a local Clevelander, proposed a skyscraper for the northeast corner of Euclid and E. 12th St – the foundations had been put there in the 1920’s. In 1956, The Illuminating Company built the first new post-depression building (55 Public Square). Employing a glass skin and a half-concrete half-steel structure, it included the latest trend from New York City, setting the entire building back from the property line into a landscaped plaza – shades of the Seagram Building. The East Ohio Building was under construction a year later (less landscaped plaza) completing a building coup by Cleveland area utilities. Both buildings were built on slab foundations, which limited the building’s height to 22-stories (or so), thus "ducking" the soils issue.

Erieview, Urban Renewal, and Glass Boxes (1960-1965) - In 1959, the Erieview plan was developed for Cleveland by I.M. Pei (much to the joy of Louis Seltzer and the Cleveland Press). Constructed as part of this plan were the Erieview Tower (1964 – ending the reign of Dwight’s Donuts on East 9th Street forever) and the Federal Office Building (1967). Originally the Federal Building was to be an eight-story square donut. But, cooler heads prevailed and the Fed rose to 32 stories (it also included a beautiful landscaped plaza) and did not "duck" the soils issue. Because of that, the Federal Building bears mute testimony to the unyielding characteristic of Cleveland's mucky subsoil and the "price" of excessive height. The caisson-drilling rig is still under the northwest corner of the building!

More Glass Boxes (1965-1980) - After the initial Erieview spurt, construction settled down to such examples as 900 Euclid (originally Cleveland Trust, with only one of proposed twin towers built), McDonald Investments (originally Central National Bank), the IMG Tower (missing corner columns and all), and the National City Center (displacing Walker & Week’s Art Modèrne Bond Clothing Store). Besides pushing the limits of slab foundations to new "heights" – 400+ feet, the National City Center rented so quickly, its investors (the Oliver Tyrone Company of Pittsburgh) started another building immediately – the Eaton Center. Most buildings of this period were glass or masonry faced flat-topped rectangular buildings with minimal architectural detailing or expression. The Bond Court, however, was an exception as an especially well-detailed glass and metal building. This excellent design resulted because Bond Court was the investment of J. Stewart Irwin, the "patron" of great architecture in Columbus, Indiana.

The Return of Form (1980-1987) - By the 1980's, a new style of building had evolved. Investors and corporations were again looking for statements of image as they were in the 1920's. One Cleveland Center provided an example of this with its "chisel-like top. This period culminated with construction of the "bent in half" BP America (Sohio) Building. Although carefully designed so as not to overtop the Terminal Tower, the building "overbulked" the Terminal with its large size. It also took its place as the "stop" for the south end of the mall axis – a place formerly designated for a giant Art Deco skyscraper. Interestingly, during these two periods, Cleveland, regarded as a city in decline, more than doubled its office space downtown.

The Eighties that Roared - In the late 1980's, office buildings were planned as speculative ventures rivaling the 1920’s. Ironically, many of these buildings mimicked forms popular in the Art Deco period but excluded the profuse (and expensive) ornament. In 1991, the unthinkable happened! The new "Art Deco Revival" Key (aka Society) Tower overtopped the Terminal Tower! But, stop! The Key Tower was soon to be overtopped by the proposed Ameritrust Tower! Other construction of the period, Bank One, Renaissance, North Point, and the buildings that filled in spaces behind the Terminal Tower created a problem of "too much space chasing too few tenants". By 1991, a 20% vacancy rate indicated that downtown was over built, ending any projects still on the drawing board; a 30-story building for Sherwin-Williams, a skyscraper on the plot at W 3rd and Superior, and the Ameritrust Tower. Deja vu!!!

The present - Only one skyscraper is under construction - the Federal Courthouse Building. All commercial office building activity has been halted while the excess space built in the late 1980-1990's is being absorbed. Instead of a few large skyscrapers, building in the 1990’s consisted of smaller restoration projects all over downtown. For the first time, these restoration projects included commercial housing. By the year 2000, a few large projects, such as the 360’ 28-story Courthouse Square Tower at W. 6th and Lakeside, were under development. Unfortunately, these projects get announced, get designed, but never seem to get off the ground – shades of Mr. Wygamore’s 1958 skyscraper at 12th and Euclid! Hopefully, Cleveland will not have to wait 25 years for its next skyscraper.