Walter C. Leedy, Jr.

Cleveland's Terminal Tower -
The Van Sweringens' Afterthought

Continued from: "Enter the Van Sweringens"

Wheeling and dealing

Before 1918, Warren and Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Station in New York, had given architectural advice about the station near Public Square. It seems likely that they were the one who gave the Van Sweringens the idea for air rights development. But in 1922 they were paid $12,000 in exchange for a release from further obligation19: the brothers, being politically astute, once they had decided to build a union station, knew that the architectural contract would have to go to Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, who not only had designed the Cleveland Hotel next door, but as the successor firm to D.H. Burnham, designer of the Group Plan Mall, were at present commissioned to provide the design for the lake front station.

Drawing of early version of Union Terminal building on Public Square
Design for the Union Station on Public Square, as of August, 1918. The Hotel Cleveland (right wing),already built, was to be a subordinate element in the overall design. Reproduced from Engineer's Report, 1919, CSU Archives.

The idea of changing the location of the station from the Mall to Public Square engendered a heated debate in 1918 which was to end with a public referendum on 6 January 1919. Some critics said that the entire Mall project depended on the train station. Out of this discussion came the suggestion of closing the Mall loop with a monumental peristyle -- a colonnade. Obviously, the Mall scheme could be reversed, with the peristyle serving as background rather than functioning as gateway to the City of Cleveland. Furthermore, the Mall location had been decided on by Johnson and reaffirmed by his successor Newton Baker (Mayor 1911-15), now Secretary of War in Woodrow Wilson's administration. How could this idea be abandoned after so many years of nurturing? What was to become of the Mall? Without the station, how would it emerge as the symbol of the city?

Critics of the Public Square station pointed out that the topography of the Square would require steep grades and curved platforms for the trains, and they urged that the interests of the city as a whole would be best served by avoiding the kind of concentration that had occurred in downtown New York and Chicago. But the Union Depot at Public Square had the advantage of providing a unified transportation system. It would reinforce Public Square as the center of the city, thus almost demanding high-density development of the surroundings. Trains, interurbans, rapid transit, and streetcars would be brought all together, and nine existing passengers stations would be abandoned. The Van Sweringens saw these circumstances as a reason for going ahead. They realize that there was little land left for private development adjacent to the Mall area. Thus, they argued there would be little opportunity to add to the tax rolls, where as a new station would surely stimulate development around it. (This argument -- developers still use today -- goes back to Roman times.) Critics of the Van Sweringen scheme described it as a ruse to further their own real estate interests. There was obviously some truth in this charge.

Long before the public debate about the proposed site took place, preliminary architectural and engineering studies for a union station at Public Square had begun, in May, 1918. After a meeting in New York with Ernest Graham, the architect, W.E. Pease of the Terminals Company went to Chicago to discuss the project with Graham's partner, Pierce Anderson. 20 From all the available evidence, it seems that Graham secured the commission for his firm, while Anderson was the actual partner in charge of the work. A few days later, on May 28, 1918, representatives of the railroads met with Van Sweringen. Anderson presented plans for the terminal. The railroad men, who were far from committed to the project, were shocked at the Van Sweringens' precipitousness, and demanded that the architect prepare no more plans until certain studies had been completed. At this time, as the needs of the future users of the terminal had not yet been determined, the design was being drawn from the outside in!

In the summer of 1918 an Engineering Committee consisting of representatives from the railroads began studies of population growth, ticket sales, numbers of trains, etc. (what is now called a market analysis). 21 They ultimately decided on a station capacity that would suffice for 25 years, and insisted that their needs for storage yards, coach storage, engine repair shops and the like be taken into account. One of the key questions, the city's attitude toward steam operations so close to the center of the city, was eventually answered when the city insisted on electrification between East 37th Street and West 30th Street to avoid the emission of large amounts of smoke and soot in the downtown area.

On August 13, the Committee issued a preliminary report calling for a double-deck station with a concourse in between, located at or near Public Square. The lower deck was to be planned and leased as a separate facility and terminal for electric, interurban and local rapid transit service. For steam trains there were to be 15 tracks with a provision for expansion to 24. Warehouses were to built over the passenger tracks from Broadway to Eagle to East 23rd Street. The cost for these would borne by the Van Sweringens' Terminal Company. Cost for the total project including the right of way was estimated at more than $41 million.

After this tentative Engineering Report, the Cleveland Union Terminals Company was incorporated to oversee the design, construction and management of the station by the Van Sweringen interests; 22 during 1918, however, it was a dormant corporation: it conducted no operations and had no income. The entire stock of this company was eventually transferred to the railroads, but even the O.P. Van Sweringen was authorized to vote the stock for the election of directors until completion of the depot. The Van Sweringens were in control of the project. The railroads needed them to negotiate a favorable deal with the City.

On 23 October, 1918, the city council passed enabling ordinances which led to the battle over the proposed site for the station. 23 Although O.P. Van Sweringen was a member of the City Planning Commission at the time, he was not allowed to vote on the terminal project. On 29 October, 1918, Mr. Smith of the U.S.R.A. wrote to the Mayor of Cleveland saying it was now necessary that the ordinance be approved by popular vote for the matter to proceed further with the Railroad Administration and railroad corporations involved. To the railroads he wrote this reassuring note: "It is not the intention to do any extensive construction under present war prices. It is estimated by the time the preliminary steps are taken a readjustment of prices will likely have taken place." 24 But the City wanted and took steps to have the project completed quickly. Prices did not fall and the railroad executives continued to be concerned about increased costs: by 1921 the estimated cost had risen to over $54 million, and by November, 1925, to over $106 million.

The Engineering Committee, on 6 December, 1918, reported that a passenger station approached directly from Public Square was feasible and practicable. 25 After many months of negotiations with the City and debates in Council, a public referendum, on the question of the site was held, on 6 January, 1919. The Public Square site for the Union Station was approved by the citizens of Cleveland. No doubt civic pride played an important role in this vote. Everybody could see that Cleveland's present passenger facilities were inadequate. At the time, this action must have pleased the lake front railroads, for they thought they were going to save the large expenditure for the monumental construction contemplated for the Mall site because the Van Sweringens were to develop the air rights over the station. The Cleveland Terminals Company expended over $25,000 for advertising and printing costs to influence a favorable vote. 26


Continues in: "Further delays"


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