Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw
CHAPTER TWO: The Blahs Turn to Euphoria: 1920-1925
The 1920s began in Cleveland with a severe case of the postwar blahs. Part of it came from national disillusionment that World War I had not "made the world safe for democracy" as President Woodrow Wilson had hoped; the Senate had rejected his League of Nations; and Wilson himself had suffered a stroke, and became permanently disabled trying to turn public opinion against the Senate. The wave of disillusionment in 1920 elected a Republican, a senator from Ohio, Warren G. Harding, in a landslide.
Locally the feeling of disenchantment was focused on all politicians and political machines, Republican as well as Democrat. The Cleveland Democrats had not been able to produce a leader since Peter Witt had been beaten for mayor in 1915 and Newton D. Baker had gone to Washington to become Wilson's secretary of war. Witt had forsaken politics and become a nationally sought- after expert on traction systems; he had invented a new type of pay-leave street car and an articulated two-car tandem. The county officeholders were typical old-style pols. But the Republicans at city hall, under Mayor Harry L. Davis, were worse.
Davis had seen a chance to shift and broaden his operations by running for governor in the landslide year, and won in the 1920 sweep. He turned over city hall to his handsome but in-
efficient law director, William S. FitzGerald, and the FitzGerald administration was so inept that it set the stage for the advent of the city- manager charter and the election of Fred Kohler as mayor. The voters were really fed up in 1921, and when they took out their revenge on the pols of both parties they began the greatest period of volatility and instability in Cleveland political history. It lasted twenty-five years, swinging back and forth between hope and disappointment, ideals and cynicism. It produced strange alliances and unexpected results. It also created a climate of business optimism that made it possible for the Van Sweringen brothers to change the face of the downtown and absorb the whole business and professional community into their orbit. At least it did until the depression of the 1930s sank the whole country.
Contributing to the blahs were several sensational local murders and governmental miscues that filled the newspapers for months and further created the feeling that there ought to be a clean sweep of incumbent officials. Two well-known businessmen, W. W. Sly and G. K. Fanner, had been cold-bloodedly murdered during a payroll robbery at their factory; the subsequent manhunt for their killers sent three men to the electric chair and another to prison for life. Dan Kaber, another businessman, had been stabbed to death in his Lakewood home, and his socially prominent widow was convicted of having him poisoned as well; the "poison lady" was also convicted. The crime that most shook public confidence was the conviction of William J. McGannon, chief justice of the municipal court, for perjury. This grew out of his testimony in a previous trial, in which McGannon was acquitted of murder. A judge sent to jail, yet! The Cleveland Foundation, under Raymond Moley, financed a survey of crime here that was undertaken by Roscoe Pound and Felix Frankfurter.
On top of this, disenchantment was beginning to set in with national prohibition of intoxicating liquor, which became effective in 1920. A local scandal soon afterward resulted in the firing of almost the entire Lakewood police force for accepting cases of whisky from bootleggers.
Then came a recession in 1921. The community was ripe for a big change, and the reformers, always present in volatile Cleveland, came up with one -- a proposal to dump the elective mayor-ward council system, and replace it with a nonpartisan (theoretically) policy-making council elected under proportional representation, which would then choose a city manager. It sounded great, and the newspapers, fed up with machine politics and ever eager to trumpet a new day, supported it. The new charter carried, and was to go into effect with the election of 1923.
But there was still to be a mayor in 1923-24, and the mayor was Fred Kohler. Nothing like his mayoralty had been seen before, or since.
Kohler was one of the most colorful men ever to hold high office here. He began as a beat policeman and rose swiftly to chief under Mayor Tom Johnson. Blond, handsome, tall, he was physically attractive to women, and his affair with one of them, who happened to be married to someone else, stymied his career; he was fired as chief. He brazened it out, and every day afterward for months showed up in the Hollenden Hotel lobby to visit with friends. Men stuck by him, as well as women, and it was obvious that he would return to the public eye at some more favorable time. This he did, in 1918, when he ran for county commissioner without Republican party backing and defeated a Democratic incumbent. Then, as a minority member of a board of three, he continuously landed on page one by heckling the majority.
He ran for mayor in 1921 without making a speech, simply by punching doorbells, asking for support. Meanwhile, Mayor FitzGerald's campaign was a disaster. Republican Boss Maschke had to support him, though he feared the worst, for Fitz would often end an evening of speech-making practically in the bag. A private poll showed that Kohler would beat FitzGerald, and the shrewd Maschke bet a bundle on Kohler and cleaned up handsomely.
Kohler had the perfect formula for getting favorable attention from the newspapers. He ignored editorials and did exact-
ly as he pleased. He seldom answered reporters' questions, and was often absent from city hall, but he knew his image as the rugged independent and the "cop-who-had-been-unfairly-dealt-with" was intact. He exuded an air of mystery, which increased his news value. He had an uncanny sense of good timing, and he knew the voters wanted a change, so he gave it to them, spectacularly. At once, he fired 850 of the political loafers and announced the city was going to live within its income, after two years of $1,000,000 deficits. He appointed a law director, Paul Lamb, and a finance director, Gerhard A. Gesell, who were respected by the newspapers.
Then he ordered every fireplug in the city painted orange, had park benches painted orange and black, and repainted all city property that needed touching up (except the city hall itself) in the same garish colors, orange and black, which were visible night and day. Kohler said he wanted everyone to know which buildings belonged to the taxpayers.
That wasn't all. Kohler erected gaudy signboards (also in orange and black) proclaiming that he was keeping the city within its income, and others reading, "I Alone Am Your Mayor."
He was mayor, all right, from the first day, when he road a horse at the head of a police parade down Euclid Avenue -- something he had promised to do some day, after he had been fired. The man he appointed as police chief, inspector Jacob Graul, was an ascetic who neither smoked, drank nor swore, and could have been mistaken for a Sunday School superintendent. Graul stayed on after Kohler left office; his reputation for uprightness was incomparable.
Kohler made good his promise to live within the city's income, by a simple method. He refused to spend any money having streets paved or park repair done, leaving all this the incoming administration. He claimed a surplus $1,000,000 existed when his term expired and the city manager plan came in.
Kohler did not remain in private life long. Next year, was elected sheriff and soon got rich legally, at public expense,
by spending less than half what the law allowed him daily to feed prisoners. A great uproar in the newspapers caused the common pleas judges to devise a menu that would require him to spend all the forty-five cents a day he was allowed. In 1926, he was defeated by a Democrat, Ed Hanratty, now that his public image had been altered to that of a profiteer. He dropped out of public life, traveled extensively, and died in 1934. Then $250,000 in cash was found in his safety deposit box.
The Cleveland newspapers were a powerful political force in the twenties. Though they could not influence Mayor Kohler, they were primarily responsible for the adoption of the manager-plan charter, and fought down to the end to keep it. The editor most responsible was Erie C. Hopwood of the Plain Dealer, who was a tremendous mover and shaker for the right things during his too- short tenure as editor. Unfortunately, for both the community and the paper, he died suddenly in 1928 of a heart attack at age fifty-one.
The Press had had a succession of editors -- Earle Martin, Victor Morgan, Harry Rickey, Eugene McLean and George B.(Deac) Parker -- over the years, but the one who was on the job in 1924, H. B. R. Briggs, stirred things up the most. (He did such a good job of campaigning for Senator Robert M. LaFollette for president in 1924 that LaFollette carried the city of Cleveland, where the Press circulation was concentrated, by five thousand votes. Then he was fired, after pressure from advertisers.) Earle Martin was brought back for another short period, then quit to become editor of a new morning paper, the Cleveland Times. Ted Thackrey followed Martin, and finally Louis B. Seltzer was appointed and this ended the short-termers. Seltzer stayed as editor for thirty-five years.
The News didn't cut as much ice politically. Its top men remained knee-deep in Republican politics, for Dan R. Hanna, Jr. still owned control. A. E. M. Bergener, the hard-nosed city editor, was famous for his investigative reporting (he scooped the town with the Lakewood police liquor scandal) and his handling of police news generally, but the days of big
police stories were beginning to fade. The News was steadily losing ground to the Press, despite the revolving-door editors at the Press. Editorially, it was partisan and not very excited about governmental reform, lukewarm toward the manager plan.
The Plain Dealer, under Hopwood, was exactly the opposite, totally independent editorially, rigidly fair in reporting controversy and covering politics. It tended to be Democratic nationally, but locally was nonpartisan. It was a grandma kind of paper, with the same conservative first-page makeup day after day, and when it took editorial stands, it was always careful to finish the article by stating "on the other hand" and giving reasons why some might disagree. It fitted completely the upright character and stern puritan views of Editor Hopwood and his chief editorial writer, Archer H. Shaw, and the chairman of the board, Elbert H. Baker, all of whom had New England backgrounds. It was strong for civic uplift of every kind.
When Baker had taken over the paper around 1900, it was a poor second to the morning Leader of the Hannas, and had been a Democratic party organ. Baker's policy of nonpartisanship, strictly fair news coverage, and editorial backing of the good civic things paid off in advertising so well that by 1917, the Plain Dealer was able to buy out the daily Leader. Hopwood became editor-in- chief in 1920.
In his eight years as editor, Hopwood achieved national recognition, as well as local preeminence. He was a co-founder of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, was its secretary for the first three years, then president from 1926 till he died in 1928. He was one of the early pushers for a journalistic code of ethics, which has endured till today with little revision. He was a firm believer that newspapering was a profession, rather than a craft.
Broad-shouldered, muscular, he had a stern, formidable appearance, but showed great compassion and understanding and was beloved by his staff, for they knew he would defend them against politicians and tycoons. He firmly believed that
an editor should strongly support civic reform movements. He was way ahead of his time in insisting that county government and the numerous suburban villages should consolidate somehow to eliminate the characteristic Cleveland fragmentation. He gave big play to the recommendations of the Association for Criminal Justice, which led to court reforms after the McGannon scandal. He was the first to publish in full the Citizens League election recommendations. He was one of the first presidents and a founder of the City Club.
It was only natural that a man of these instincts would go strongly for the manager plan, especially since he was a good friend of Professor A. R. Hatton of Western Reserve University, the political scientist who wrote the charter. So the Plain Dealer strongly supported the new charter, and opposed all attempts to modify or repeal it. He had misgivings after the two local bosses got together to choose Hopkins as city manager, but he thought anything was an improvement over the old system of elective mayors, patronage, and boodle. So he battled to keep Hopkins on the job. The Plain Dealer's strong editorial stand and fair political coverage had a lot to do with keeping both the man and the system.
In 1924, national politics burst in upon Cleveland and took the spotlight away from the city hall for a while. The Republican national convention came here in June and nominated President Calvin Coolidge, who had succeeded to the White House after Harding's death. Newton D. Baker made a gallant but unsuccessful try to get the Democratic national convention in New York to pledge itself to the League of Nations. After a bruising fratricidal battle between William G. McAdoo and Alfred E. Smith, the Democrats finally chose a nonentity, John W. Davis, and the result was foregone, a landslide for Coolidge.
The one-sidedness of the campaign produced in Cleveland one of those oddities of politics, a third-party movement that completely absorbed the regular Democrats. Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin was running for president as an independent, financed by the railroad unions, which were then
big and powerful. It brought about the sudden rocketlike ascendancy of Peter Witt, as the LaFollette leader here.
Witt had returned to politics just before that by trying almost singlehandedly to defeat the Van Sweringens' Terminal-on-the-Square in a local referendum and in hearings before the Interstate Commerce Commission. He lost both battles, but he vowed to go on fighting the Vans, and ran for the Cleveland council in 1923 and was easily elected, leading the ticket in the west side district. He was back in the headlines regularly, and when LaFollette began to emerge as a big vote-getter on a populist platform, Witt became the local spearhead.
With the nonentity Davis at the head of the ticket, the Cleveland Democrats threw in the sponge; all during the campaign, Boss W. Burr Gongwer and his secretary were practically the only ones left in his headquarters. The congressional county and legislative candidates spent all their time at the LaFollette meetings, which were run mostly by maverick Democrats and Witt- worshipers.
Hopwood's Plain Dealer covered this campaign strictly according to the Hopwood bible of fairness. The local political reporter (who was I) gave equal attention to the LaFollettes and the Coolidge Republicans. The Plain Dealer supported Democrat Davis editorially. On the final Saturday night of the campaign, a hysterical LaFollette meeting of twenty thousand people at the Public Hall was given a two-column headline on page one, and a news story that ran three columns long. The national, county, and legislative tickets went Republican and the LaFollette fireworks fizzled out soon, except that the show of strength encouraged Witt to continue his annual autumn meeting, where for three hours all by himself he would "skin a few skunks." The skunks included practically every public figure in both parties whom Witt disliked. And he could really skin them.
Meanwhile, the physical tear-up of the downtown area southwest of the Square was proceeding at full speed. All the ratty old buildings around Champlain Avenue, West Third, West Sixth, and West Ninth streets were bulldozed down, in-
cluding the malodorous old Central Police Station. The tear-up was gigantic, extending to the Cuyahoga River, and included a rerouting of the New York Central main line by the river (it had previously run east and west on the lakefront). A big railroad bridge was planned to take the passenger trains across the river and out through the west side, to connect again with the lakefront route at Berea.
It seemed that all the structural steel workers, cement workers, plumbers, electricians and carpenters in northern Ohio had come on the job after the excavators had hauled away the ancient rubble. Huge concrete piers supported new streets (Prospect Avenue and West Ninth Street). The new Terminal Tower rose majestically, and before long, to the east of it, a new eleven-story building that was to be the home of a department store (the Van Sweringens had bought the Higbee Company that had been for years uptown at East Thirteenth Street and Euclid, and were moving it to the Square) was being erected, to balance the Hotel Cleveland on the other side.
Not only was all this construction going on, but the courts were full of appropriation suits to condemn the land for the titanic project, and it looked as if every big law firm in town had a finger in the pie. The suits were filed by the dozen, and they required big money, but the Van Sweringens had all the money they seemed to need, once the ICC and the Cleveland voters had given them the green light. They were big borrowers and they had persuaded the New York Central to advance 80 percent of the money needed for the big engineering tearup. They were looked on favorably by New York banks, and particularly J. P. Morgan & Company, and they also were big borrowers from the Cleveland banks.
All this construction, replacing obsolete buildings with shiny new ones, unquestionably gave the community a psychological boost --seeing the new stuff going on, and being told by the newspapers that Cleveland was again on the move, with a new form of city government, and new developers willing to risk millions to make over the downtown. Though the city was still in a daze from seeing the gaudy orange and black
signboards of the brief Kohler mayoralty on buildings and benches, a new euphoria took hold in 1924-25. It was to be the New Day. Though the Van Sweringens were quiet men who preferred to operate backstage, so many yes-men and self-promoters began to surround them that a wholly new social uppercrust came into being, based on money (much of it borrowed) rather than position. Even a new exclusive country club, the Pepper Pike Club, limited to fifty members carefully screened by the Vans' inner circle, was organized. Women were not permitted on the links.
The newspapers tried to report this new engineering, financial, and social whirl, but it was almost impossible to do it fully. They were given from time to time broad blueprints from the Vans' front office, but as the operation became bigger and bigger, the news became less and less available. Hopwood was more gung-ho about the city-manager government than about the Vans' projects, which were of course private ventures (except that the railroad was permitted by law to appropriate what property it needed). In fact, the Vans thought the Plain Dealer was not enthusiastic enough about the whole deal, and put some money into a new morning paper (called first the Cleveland Commercial and later the Times Commercial), which they believed would give them more plugs. (It failed.)
Nevertheless, this combination of new commerce and new government had banished the blahs after five years. The city seemed to be finding its way again; the Vans had triumphed and were building a new town, and the reformers had triumphed and were launching a new government.
This euphoria began to infect others, and any number of new real estate companies sprang up, and began to sell vacant lots in the suburbs. They were financed largely by private mortgage companies, and the mortgage companies sold stock in themselves. The promoters could see millions in profits ahead, for the population of Greater Cleveland was sure to grow. It was the sixth city in 1920 and by 1930 would be the fifth city. Volatility had brought the community to a new high and it was almost manic. The depressive part came later.
The Van Sweringens' story is worthy of Horatio Alger Jr. It has never been fully told and perhaps never will be, because all of the principals are now dead, but the Van Sweringens were the biggest thing that ever hit Cleveland. Their plans not only changed the future of Euclid Avenue but also threw the hooks into the Mall Plan that had been begun by Mayor Tom L. Johnson, and was almost completed when the 1920s began, except for a big ornate railroad station on the lakefront. All the public buildings around the Mall of a solid classic stone design, five stories high, were either built or under construction by this time -- the city hall, courthouse, Public Hall, school headquarters, Public Library. Only the railroad terminal remained unbuilt. The Vans needed a terminal to tie in with their rapid transit line from Shaker Heights. To get that meant junking the lakefront station. And that brought Peter Witt into conflict with the Vans. He was outraged, for he felt himself the principal disciple and political heir of Tom L. Johnson.
The Shaker rapid line unfortunately did not run directly into the Square. It emerged from the Kingsbury Run gully about East Thirty-fourth Street, and wormed its way slowly toward East Ninth Street. To make it accessible to the wealthy business and professional men to whom the Vans wanted to sell Shaker Heights lots, they had to bring it to the Square and lower Euclid. They also needed additional tracks.
The tracks were right there, waiting for them, owned by the Nickel Plate railroad, which paralleled the Shaker line in the Kingsbury gully.
The Nickel Plate, at the time of World War I, was considered no great shakes as a railroad. It primarily carried freight on a line almost parallel to the New York Central through Ohio, and was not a great money-maker. Its tracks curved back of Public Square and cut through the heart of heavily settled Lakewood. So to get the Shaker rapid transit access to the Square the Vans bought the Nickel Plate -- for not much money, as those things go. Then they came up with their big dream of a downtown commercial development, much like Grand Central Terminal in New York. The Shaker
rapid would turn around underneath, instead of wandering on the surface downtown amidst heavy auto traffic. The success of this Terminal would naturally depend on the way the railroad and rapid transit passengers spent their money in the stores, shops, hotel and restaurants, and rented offices in the Tower and the other office buildings. It seemed possible of attainment, for railroads were the only means of inter-city passenger travel in that day, both long-distance and short-haul. It was long before the automobile changed everything.
The brothers Van Sweringen were practical dreamers, who showed brilliant imagination. They were also superlative salesmen, for they persuaded New York financiers to lend them most of the colossal sums needed to tear up the downtown and build the Terminal. When it was finally built, the New York Central owned the station and tracks, but the Vans owned the commercially valuable air rights and the income-producing properties.
A battle over the Terminal was inevitable. The Vans' aim was to make money. The Mall backers had no thought of making money -- only of beautifying the city with dignified, majestic public buildings, all of them devoted to public service. Witt took the lead in fighting the Vans. He opposed the council ordinance that granted the railroads the right to appropriate city property (such as the old Police Station). He led the fight during a referendum to persuade the voters to reverse the council. He tried to persuade the ICC to refuse permission to the NYC and NKP to rearrange their tracks in Cleveland and finance the Vans' project. But Witt carried on the fight practically alone. With his keen instinct for the theatrical, he made quite a show of it, acting as his own lawyer, asking himself questions as a witness and supplying the answers. Witt's one-man battle, though it made page one news, did not convince either the Cleveland voters in the referendum, or the ICC. He lost on both fronts and the Vans' legal hurdles were cleared.
One important reason why Witt did not prevail was that another Johnson disciple, who also had a right to consider
himself the heir of Tom L. Johnson, turned up as a lawyer for the Vans. He was former Mayor Baker, under whom the Mall plan was begun. Baker had returned to Cleveland after World War I and gone into private law practice. His presence took a lot of the steam out of Witt's emotional pleas and this confrontation produced enmity between the two former allies that lasted the rest of their lives.
The Vans meanwhile were starting to get control of many other railroads -- the Erie, Chesapeake & Ohio, Hocking Valley, Pere Marquette and Missouri Pacific. They did this through the novel (at that time) device of the holding company. Best known of the Vans' holding companies were the Allegheny Corporation and Blue Ridge Corporation. They sold stock in these to the public, but always kept voting control themselves. The new money was used to buy control of additional railroads. They put little of their own money in, but borrowed like crazy, both from banks and by issuing new stock. The success of the pyramided, complicated structure depended, of course, on continued good business and expansion.
The Vans had even bought control of the much-fought-over Cleveland Railway Company, hoping to work out some inner-city rapid transit to tie into Shaker, and change schedules so that more and more people would come through theSquare.
Although the Vans, through expansion of their railroad empire, had now become national news, they were practically unknown to the Cleveland public. They shunned personal publicity and went to great pains to avoid it. The principal assignment of their skillful public-relations man, Joe Doherty, was to keep their personal doings out of the papers, and confine newspaper mention strictly to business. They came and went by private railroad car, and spent about half their time in New York. They were almost never seen at public meetings anywhere.
The big Cleveland event in the summer of 1930 was the opening of the new Terminal Tower and the railroad concourse beneath it. The trains were now running through it. The Higbee store was open. The Shaker rapid transit was turning
around underneath. The whole face of downtown Cleveland had been lifted, the center of mercantile gravity shifted westward from Euclid Avenue. But there was a sour note. The Terminal Tower, with its new offices for lawyers, doctors, and corporation headquarters, was practically empty. The big opening had come at the wrong time in economic history, and the Vans could not cash in on their air rights. The stock market had crashed nine months before, and another collapse was about to happen in the fall of 1930.
Nevertheless, the civic boosters and politicians had a field day at the luncheon, 28 June 1930. They praised the Vans to the skies and orated mightily about the bright future of Cleveland. The orchestration should have been in minor chords, for the Vans did not attend the luncheon, and the city's immediate future was dismal.
The two bachelors were really shy men, who preferred to operate quietly backstage, far from the spotlight. They could have walked down Euclid Avenue at noon any day without being recognized. They mingled with only a few close friends. They resisted attempts to publicize and glamorize them. The Cleveland papers respected the Vans' wishes and did not pester them, any more than they pestered the patrician Mathers, Wades, and Sherwins.
Unfortunately for themselves and their financial backers -- the whole community of Cleveland, as it turned out -- the Vans peaked twenty years too soon. Their railroad and real estate empire collapsed completely in the big depression, and took many otherwise conservative investors down with them. Cleveland never quite recovered from the shock -- even today, more than forty years later. Had the Vans been able to weather the depression, they would have been recognized and lauded for what they really were, practical dreamers who made their dreams come true. Shaker Heights today has become one of the country's suburban showplaces. The Terminal Tower today is jammed with tenants. The Higbee Company is prosperous. The office buildings along the new Prospect Avenue are full. The Nickel Plate (which later merged with the Norfolk &
Western) and the C & O (now part of the Chessie System) prosper from hauling coal.
Unfortunately the magnificent Terminal concourse no longer accommodates great crowds of railroad passengers. It is alive with rapid transit commuters who use both the Shaker rapid and Cleveland Transit lines, but there is no more railroad passenger service there. The expensively built underground tracks have been made into a big parking lot. The great marble concourse itself is now a hippie hangout, a mess of quick-repair shops, hotdog, sandwich, orange juice and bakery stands. A big indoor tennis court for a private club was put up, surrounded by backstops and canvas coverings in the area where the passengers used to wait for their trains.
When the Vans were in Cleveland, they spent their off hours in castle-like homes in Shaker Heights and Hunting Valley. The big home on South Park Boulevard where their sisters lived, has been sold and resold many times. Daisy Hill Farm in Hunting Valley, named for Mrs. Ben F. (Daisy) Jenks, an intimate friend of the brothers, has been cut up into large attractive homesites. Orris P., the older bother, was soft-spoken, sensitive, a true dreamer, who preferred to be alone with his big thoughts much of the time. Mantis J. was more outgoing and did not shun female companionship. Neither of the brothers ever married, nor did their two sisters. There was also another brother, Henry.
The strain of trying to stave off the inevitable disaster in the depression was too much for the quiet brothers. Minority stockholders who saw their investments shriveling plagued them with suits. Receiverships were inevitable when they couldn't meet current debts. The holding companies had no assets of their own, only the stock certificates signifying ownership of railroad companies. When their assets were eventually examined by probate court, they had debts of more than $80 million, and only $500,000 in assets. They were stone broke.
Both of the Vans died in their fifties of heart attacks. M. J was the first to go. After he died, O. P. seemed to lose
interest in life, and he, too, died a year or so later, in November 1936. It was an appropriate time to go, for this was the month that Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had campaigned against "princes of privilege," won his second presidential election by a landslide, carrying forty-six of the forty- eight states.
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