By the 1920s, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States; today it doesn’t crack the top 50. Its period of posterity and prestige birthed some outstanding architecture before the slump kicked in. Walking around the city under an oppressively gray winter sky, it did appear to me a little depopulated. Even the birds seemed to have fled, except those that were embedded into an icy Lake Erie. Since 1930, Cleveland has lost more than half its population, but there are signs of its rebirth. Its impressive architecture, however, reflects the importance of this city when it was a powerful economic engine. Cleveland is kept interesting thanks to these old buildings — and a newer one that helped put the city back on the map. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist
A corner lot on two broad streets in the heart of downtown Cleveland blesses the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist with a highly advantageous setting both to view and appreciate its beauty and to provide a convenient location for its original parishioners, who were worshipping at a small church (the city’s first Catholic church) along the Cuyahoga River, where malaria was a common threat. In 1847, the bishop selected the prolific Patrick Charles Keeley to construct a new cathedral, and by 1852, this gorgeous ornamental Gothic revival structure was completed — one of nearly 600 churches that Keeley would design throughout the United States. Changes and renovations over the decades since have only served to improve its beauty. Outside, the orange sandstone is the result of a post-WWII refacing, and the spired 185’ bell tower was added in 1948, although it didn’t actually receive real bells until 40 years later and rang for the first time on Christmas Eve. A broad staircase leads up to the main entrance, a trio of arched doors below a tremendous recessed arch with three Gothic windows below a sculpted Crucifixion scene. I stepped through the central door, representing God the Father, and into a magnificent arrangement of fluted pillars, vaulted ceilings, a 1,400-pound single piece of marble for the altar, and a pulpit adorned with an image of St. Stephen holding his traditional symbols — stones and a palm branch. Behind the altar, the intricate reredos, from 1948, contains more than 800 pieces of hand-carved oak, with St. John the Evangelist taking pride of place at the top, above the three other Evangelists and nearly three dozen smaller angels. Stained-glass windows, imported from Munich in 1902, portray key events in the liturgical calendar, including the Annunciation, Nativity, Last Supper, and Resurrection. Several chapels added during the expansion in the late 1940s made a home for the tombs of former bishops as well as relics of St. Christine. Today, the cathedral can seat 1,500 worshippers, about 100 short of the parish’s total membership. That would have provided plenty of space when, in 1929, a lunch-hour Mass was initiated for downtown workers and another Mass, at 2 a.m., was started for printers and others working the graveyard shift. But it certainly wasn’t enough in 1920, when thousands crammed the cathedral, and the grounds around it, for the funeral of Ray Chapman, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians who was struck in the head by a baseball while at bat and died 12 hours later — the only baseball player to have ever died from an injury sustained during a Major League game.
#2 Terminal Tower
A prime example of Cleveland’s former power, Terminal Tower was the second-tallest building in the world when it went up in 1930. With 52 stories reaching up more than 700’, it remained the tallest building in the world (outside of New York) until 1953, the tallest in North America (again, excluding New York) until 1964, and the tallest in Ohio until 1991. As I stood before this soaring structure with the fantastic top, I contemplated what a steal the new owners made when they bought it in 2016 for $38.5 million — a far cry from the $179 million it cost to build just as the Great Depression was sinking in. Originally planned as a 14-story office building atop a new rail station, the scheme grew to include a hotel, shopping venues, and a much larger footprint for all its interconnected buildings that I was looking at — it necessitated the demolition of more than 1,000 buildings. Modeled after New York City’s Municipal Building from 1914, this Beaux Arts beauty features an outdoor arcaded loggia toward the top and is capped by a Roman-type sepulchral monument that strikes more than a passing resemblance to its forebear. At ground level, a series of five huge arched windows above brass and glass doors, separated by fluted Corinthian columns and a modest clock, invited me inside to the spectacular lobby. A magnificent coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling drew my eyes upward, toward the lantern-like chandeliers it supports as well as the murals inserted into the lunettes. Today, the tower serves a mixed-use purpose of offices and residences. Those who live and work here get to experience its grandeur and utilize the bank of elevators with fine brass doors every day. Visitors like me can enjoy both the public spaces as well as the tower’s nightly light show, when 508 LEDs that were added in 2014 light up the city’s skyline in a flashy display, from red and green during the Christmas season, to red for the American Heart Association, to colors associated with some of the city’s ethnic groups, including Irish, Italians, and Poles, to displays that show support for the city’s sports teams. Like the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Terminal Tower also has a baseball connection. In 1938, the Indians pulled off a stunt of questionable safety: They threw a dozen baseballs off the top of the building to players on the street. Twenty-two-year-old Catcher Frankie Pytlak set a world record for fastest ball ever caught: 138 miles per hour. To mark the tower’s 50th anniversary in 1980, the stunt was re-created, this time with the softball team the Cleveland Competitors — and with less than admirable results. The team owner lobbed balls from the top of the building: The first left a massive dent in a car, the second cracked a spectator’s shoulder, the third shattered a woman’s wrist, the fourth bounced off the sidewalk, and the fifth was caught (finally!) by one of the team’s outfielders. Undoubtedly, that will be the last time such a promotional gimmick will be performed at the city’s iconic structure.
#3 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Revolutionary. Unapologetic. Brash. Indeed, groovy. Like the genre of music it honors, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum electrified Cleveland with a bold and unmistakable presence. Cleveland’s main attraction gave this shrinking city a much-needed shot in the arm when it opened in 1995. Encouraged by a $65 million commitment from city officials and energetic public support, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation selected Cleveland over competitors Memphis, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco as the home for its physical museum. But it was more than money and boosterism that gave Cleveland the nod; history played a roll, too: It was a young Cleveland deejay who coined the term “rock and roll” in 1951. Designed by I.M. Pei, the building is a study in geometry that jazzed up the city’s waterfront. Seven levels of exhibits and performance spaces are spread throughout the structure of rectangular, trapezoidal, and circular forms. The main entrance is through glass pyramids. Combined, the simple shapes of the building, juxtaposed against one another, reflect the richness and sometimes clashing sounds and forms of rock and roll. Of course, I was just as engaged by the exhibits as by the building. You’ll be able to see everything from Michael Jackson’s glove to Tina Turner’s leg-revealing dresses, Elton John’s piano, scribbled notes that morphed into classic songs by the Eagles and James Taylor, radios from the 1940s and 1950s, John Lennon’s report cards, Bruce Springsteen’s 4F card, and correspondence between Simon and Garfunkel. You can also find out if your favorite tunes made it to the list of “Five Hundred Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” and learn little tidbits about such classics as “Hey Jude,” “Hotel California,” and “Light My Fire.” The Hall of Fame remains relevant with its annual induction of rock legends, and your visit here will be one of the few times when the philosophy of form following function actually achieved its goal.
#4 City Hall
The tremendous City Hall is one of the handsome survivors of the 1903 Group Plan, an initiative forwarded by three prominent architects to create a vast public space with grand neoclassical civic and governmental buildings. Completed in 1916 after five years of construction at a cost of today’s equivalent of $65.7 million, City Hall takes advantage of its position a couple of blocks from the North Coast Harbour, offering views of the water, the terribly corporate-named FirstEnergy Stadium (home of the Cleveland Browns), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Great Lakes Science Center. With fairly equal treatment on all four sides, City Hall is a treat for visitors to admire a façade of Vermont granite that has barely changed over the past century. I did a 360 around the building, appreciating the arcaded ground story, the two-story Tuscan colonnade encircling the entire building, and the balustraded lines along the roof and above the first floor. The main entrance features three arched entrance bays with figurehead keystones, bronze doors, and big, spiky sconces. Make sure you step inside to be wowed by the vaulted two-story great hall, a fantastic public space with fluted columns, standing chandelier lamps, a barrel ceiling combining skylights and paterae, and the city’s corporate seal mural painted into a lunette.
#5 Federal Reserve Bank
One of only 12 Federal Reserve Banks in the United States, the one in Cleveland showed the world how important this city was a century ago. One look at this building and you know your money is safe. After four architects and a team of draftsmen worked for 13 months on the design, producing 1,000 sketches and twice as many blueprints, after two years of construction, and after spending $8.25 million, the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank formally opened in 1923 — an event that attracted 40,000 spectators. They clearly would have been impressed by what they saw, just as I was. Spanning a width of more than 200’, this 13-story building rises up to 203’ in a style reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance palazzo — indeed, it was inspired by the Medici palace in Florence. Above the base, the pink marble façade features a balustrade, quoins, and a cornice with brackets and egg-and-dart bands. But the base gets most of the eye-catching appeal: garlands; large, arched windows with eagle and star keystones; an allegorical statue, Energy, at the side entrance, and Integrity and Security at the main entrance. Be sure you step inside to marvel at the exquisite lobby. Gold marble walls and pillars, and a gorgeous coffered, vaulted ceiling make it seem like you’ve buzzed into a honeycomb for the insanely rich. Maps and murals, as well as ornate iron grilles, add to the beauty, and the Money Museum is open to the public. And if you take the guided tour, you may very well get to see the world’s largest hinge on the world’s largest bank vault door — a two-story, 100-ton, 6.5’ thick barrier keeping things safe.
- Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (1894)
- Centennial Building (1924)
- The Arcade (1890)
- Old Stone Church (1855)
- Cayuga County Courthouse (1912)
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