Walter C. Leedy, Jr.

Cleveland's Terminal Tower -
The Van Sweringens' Afterthought

The Terminal Tower, imposing architectural center and symbol of the City of Cleveland, actually came into being as last minute addition to a train station that was years in the planning, but that is itself now abandoned and largely forgotten.

In 1910 a visitor to Cleveland would almost certainly have come by train. If he had traveled from Washington or Kansas City, he would have bought his ticket at the new union station in one of these cities. 1 But when he arrived in Cleveland, he might have gotten off in any of fifteen locations, depending on which railroad he patronized. If he had taken the New York Central, he could have gotten off at the old lake front station, located at the foot of West Sixth Street, from where he could have walked to Public Square, the hub of Cleveland trolley lines, to catch a streetcar to his destination in the city. Or he could have taken an interurban -- a self-propelled electrified railway car -- to any number of cities in northeastern Ohio beyond. At that time Ohio had one of the most extensive interurban networks, with over 2000 miles of track. Before automobiles became common, the interurbans provided short- to medium- distance transportation, hauling freight as well as passengers. They were the forerunners of today's bus and truck lines. 2

Photo of S.W. corner of Public Square in 1922, showing buildings to be demolished
The southwest corner of Euclid Avenue and Ontario Street as it appeared in 1922, before demolition for new construction. The site is now occupied by the Higbee Company, part of the Van Sweringens' efforts to create a high-density development. The writing on the photograph indicates land parcels that the Van Sweringen interests were acquiring. Photo: Gerald Adams collection.

Where Cleveland's Terminal Tower complex now stands were dilapidated old buildings covered with rust, soot and advertising, which bore witness to Cleveland's first mercantile age. Once considered a beautiful corner of the city, the southwest quadrant of Public Square and lower Superior Avenue had experienced a continual decline in real estate values, as business enterprises moved to newer and more modern buildings located to the east -- strung out along Euclid Avenue. Public Square was no longer the center of gravity of Cleveland's business or financial community. On the north side of the Square was located the Old Stone Church (1855) and the medieval-revival Society for Savings Bank (1889). On the east side was the new Federal Building (under construction), the pioneering but plain Cuyahoga Building (1893), and the Williamson Building (1900). 3 (In spite of vigorous objections, these last two were demolished in 1982 to make way for the Sohio headquarters.)

In the southeast quadrant could be found the Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, the siting of which caused considerable controversy in the late 1880's. 4 It was originally to have been located in the middle of Public Square, at the present junction of Superior Avenue and Ontario Street. But the streetcar companies gained control of these streets for the placement of their tracks, and thus deprived the Monument of a central location, though Public Square's function as an important transportation node was reinforced by this outcome. The controversy then shifted to the appropriateness of the southeast quadrant. Judge Samuel E. Williamson, the owner of a property on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Public Square, in a letter to the City's Park Commissioners (October 3, 1887), expressed the fear that, because of the size of the Monument, his property would no longer front on a park, but on a street, thus decreasing its value, and that the Monument would completely obscure the view from Euclid Avenue across the Square. Furthermore, (important for the Terminal Tower project 35 years later) he questioned the City's legal right to permit the erection of a building not to be under city control, and not to be used for strictly public purpose, on city property, It took an Act (passed in 1888) of the Ohio Assembly to make the use of the south-east quadrant legal for the Monument's location.


Continues in: A "City Beautiful" mall for Cleveland

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