Walter C. Leedy, Jr.

Cleveland's Terminal Tower -
The Van Sweringens' Afterthought

Continued from: "A 'City Beautiful' mall for Cleveland"

Enter the Van Sweringens

Meanwhile, Oris Paxton Van Sweringen and his brother Mantis James Van Sweringen were trying to develop Shaker Heights into a suburban housing community. 10 Their lots were selling slowly, and they concluded, that the cause was inadequate transportation. It simply took to long to go by streetcar from downtown to their new development on the Heights. Transportation along a private right-of-way (to avoid street congestion) was needed to shorten travel time. And the fare had to be low. With this in mind they began to lay plans for a rapid transit system. This solution was hardly innovative, for many (including the liberal U.S. Senator Frederic C. Howe and New York planner Edward Bassett) had realized that the housing problem in the rapidly growing metropolitan areas hinged on easy and cheap transport to the suburbs. At this time, suburban life was coming to be regarded as the ideal of human existence, and decentralization was perceived as a blessing and a necessity.

Photo of map titled
This prospectus illustrates how other entrepreneurs jumped on the Van Sweringens' band wagon, hoping for magnificent profits through real estate sales and speculation. Pamphlet, author's collection.

Across the country, planners mistakenly assumed that the new transit facilities to be installed would be self-supporting. But severe inflation during World War I and legislation that fixed fares at low levels, as here in Cleveland, made rapid transit an unprofitable investment, and so brought an end to the dream of low rent and country living for the working people of the great American cities. Arguments on behalf of rapid transit, however, lingered into the 1920's and affected the plans being made in Cleveland.

At first the Van Sweringens planned only the Shaker line, to connect downtown with their land development. This objective prompted them to purchase land in the vicinity of Public Square as early as 1909 to provide a terminus for their rapid transit line. 11 By 1926, as their ambitions expanded, they projected and started building additional lines to cover the entire county, including some stations on what is now the Airport-Windermere line. 12 Their plans for "Super Transit" were based on traffic studies and surveys charting population growth. They were also interested in buses and hoped Cleveland would emulate Detroit with a highway program that would permit a commuter to take the bus to the rapid and the rapid to work. 13 These plans stimulated further land development by other entrepreneurs who visualized land development stretching from Painesville in the east to Lorain in the west. Today, it is obvious that, because of high suburban land values and the unemployment which accompanied rural depopulation, rapid transit did little to help the poor escape from the city. Even at the time, critics of the Van Sweringen plan for comprehensive rapid transit said it was not economically feasible. The railroads favored the idea, however, because they did not want the responsibility of providing commuter transportation, which previous experience had taught them was not self-supporting.

Engineering drawing of track layout in downtown area
Map from Engineer's Report of March, 1917, showing the track layout for the stub-end station planned at that time for the southwest quadrant of Public Square. Plans were still going ahead for a Union Station on the lakeside end of the Mall. Gerald Adams collection.

The Van Sweringens realized that, if their plans for a Public Square station were to succeed, they would have to include all the electric railways -- streetcars, rapid transit and interurban lines -- as well as local freight and warehousing facilities. 14 But only later did they add plans for steam railways, following the suggestion of an official of the B&Q Railroad. 15

As a result this suggestion, by the first of March, 1917, the engineers of the Erie, the Wheeling and Lake Erie, and the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroads, plus the Cleveland Terminal Company (a Van Sweringen enterprise) produce a report16 concluding that a new freight and passenger terminal was feasible not only physically but economically. The plan arising from the report included a station located between Ontario and West Third Street and extending from Public Square to Huron Road. The main entrance was to be at the southwest corner of Public Square -- where it actually is today -- with minor entrances from abutting streets. It would be immediately adjacent to the 1000 room Hotel Cleveland (now Stouffer's Inn on the Square), which was being built by the Terminal Hotels Company, another Van Sweringen enterprise. The railroads hoped for a large increase in passenger business because of the location on Public Square, which made it easily accessible to all city and interurban lines, and its contiguity to the large new hotel. Traveling businessmen, then as now, demanded comfortable accommodations. But the decision for a "union" station at Public Square, one which would house all the incoming steam railroads, had yet to be made.

The 1917 plan provided twelve stub end tracks for the steam passenger trains, with loops for local and interurban cars above them between Prospect Avenue and Huron Road. The space above the tracks was to be developed for stores and office buildings. Thus the idea for the development of air rights over the station -- the concept that ultimately led to Terminal Tower -- was settled early in 1917. The Van Sweringens no doubt anticipated profitable results from the creation of high-density development in this location. 17

But events outside the Sweringens' control also played a great role in the development of the terminal complex. Contracts governing use of the proposed facilities had just been distributed to the participating railroads for their consideration when unexpectedly, on January 1, 1918, control of the railroads passed to the Federal Government under the United States Railroad Administration (U.S.R.A.). The event made additional approvals necessary before construction could begin. Early in 1918 O.P. Van Sweringen was called before A.H. Smith, the regional Director of the Eastern Division of the U.S.R.A. and an old friend and business partner of the brothers. Smith asked whether the proposed facility could be sufficiently enlarged to include the railroads using the lake front station. Thus it was Smith who initiated the idea for a union station on Public Square. 18

Van Sweringen immediately took up the idea and with typical audacity suggested stub-end tracks be extended straight north from the proposed station site and connected through to the lake front rail lines. Smith would not accept this proposal, for it failed to accomplish the very thing he was after, relief from the rail congestion east of the Cuyahoga River to Collinwood on the main line from New York to Chicago. He proposed a through station with tracks which crossed the river on high-level bridge -- the bridge that was ultimately built, and today is still used by the Airport Windermere, rapid transit line -- to relieve the congestion on the lake front tracks and accommodate more through freight business as well as freight-to-water business. Since warehouses could be built next to or over the new right of way, the arrangement would have the advantage of eliminating the need to truck goods from trains to warehouses and would save merchants money. At this time Cleveland ranked first of the eight largest U.S. cities in growth of product manufacturing; freight traffic was expanding at 7 percent a year. Freight facilities had to be expanded if growth was to continue. Moreover, the additional railroad frontage would permit industrial expansion. Cleveland needed this project which was in tune with the expansionist tendencies of that era. The Van Sweringens foresaw great personal profit in developing new freight and warehousing facilities.


Continues in: "Wheeling and dealing"

SIDEBAR: Van Sweringen biography

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