Sunday, February 3, 2013

DHTiSH Nostalgia: Terminal Tower

I found this on Tumblr and it evidently comes from Shorpy's blog.  This is a wonderful view of Cleveland's often overlooked Terminal Tower in 1930.  The building on the right is long gone and was replaced with the Illuminating Company tower in the late 1950s/early 1960s.  I always thought that was my most romantic name for a utility - The Illuminating Company.  Today, all the utility names of old have yielded to generic names like AEP, BGE, First This and Power that.  But look at those lights on that tower and the street lamps below - illuminating.

The building on the right holds special memories for me.  Cookie's father had his law office in that building, which is 77 Public Square.  A stout, early 20th Century skyscraper, was better known as the Union Commerce Bank Building, no to be confused with THE Union Commerce Bank Building up on Euclid & Ninth Avenue, which is where the bank had its headquarters.

77 Public Square was mostly lawyers and accountants.  It is an old school building, no nonsense like atrium  escalators or the like.  What it did have was Cleveland's first installation of electronic touch film for an elevator control.  Today we take these pads that you just touch and it lights up for granted, but in Cookie's childhood - the zenith of the mechanical button age, it was very cool and better yet, mysterious.

Terminal Tower itself is a real DHTiSH thing because it was build by the Van Sweringen brothers.  The brother was odd ducks.  They never married and were at each others side constantly for their entire lives.  They built a huge estate up in Hunting Valley, named Daisy Hill with more bedrooms than a Sheraton, but they shared the same bedroom for their entire lives. They were also the creators of Cleveland Heights,  Shaker Heights and Hunting Valley.

They started making it big as real estate developers.  When they started Shaker Heights, it was so far away from downtown that professionals balked at buying homes up there because of the amount of time it took to go downtown. Housewives hated the idea because all the shopping was downtown, too, and no way for them to get there, either.

So the Vans decided to build a "rapid transit system" of interurbans to move people from out there into Cleveland.   But there were a couple problems with this plan - namely rights of way.  To start from scratch would have taken decades to buy land, grade it and that would have been expensive.  So they did the next best thing - they bought the Nickle Plate Railroad since it had the right of way.

But the Nickle Plate made to much money to scrap it, so they bought ANOTHER railroad to use that right away for the Nickle Plate.  And before you knew it the brothers, were just developers controlled a huge chunk of the America rail system in the midwest - all to sell some land east of Cleveland.

Then they had a second problem - Cleveland's chief rail system on the lake front, and that meant rail cars blocked city streets.  It was a real clusterfuck.

So the brothers agreed to buy up the SW corner of Public Square and build a rail terminal and Union Station.   "The land drops off into the Cuyahoga River Valley!"  the people all laughed.

But the Vans saw the river valley as the perfect way to get trains into and out of downtown without impeding traffic.

And to make the terminal pay for itself, they built a modern, first class hotel on one side, and a department store on the other side of the terminal, that was mostly underground. Then above the terminal, they built a fifty story skyscraper that would generate office rental income. And this building would be the tallest building in the United States east of New York City.  Smart, huh?

Then the stock market crashed and before you can say "On Board" the Van's investments, which were heavily mortgaged started to flounder.  M.J. Van Sweringen died first in 1934, his health ravaged by the stress of their financial predicament, and his brother O.P. died lees than two years later.

But the Terminal survives, a noble monument to two brothers who just wanted to build some houses in a place called Shaker Heights.


  1. This was a nice bit of history. The Terminal Tower really is very cool, I loved going up to the observation floor, what fun! I remember going to the restaurant there, (The Silver Grill ???), in 1968, I was young but remember a glass bottom goldfish pond where you could see people going about their business on the floor below (or was that Higbee's?) either way the memories are dear...

    PS- What about the quicksand?

    1. Pilings into the bedrock. Same thing happened with the AIU Citadel (now the Leveque Tower) in Columbus, which when built had a bigger quicksand problem. I think five people lost their lives on that one. BTW, when completed, the Citadel was the tallest building west of New York until it was unseated by Terminal Tower.

  2. Have you been back to Cleveland to see the casino? Tower City is not what it used to be in the early 90's, but the Higbee building is thriving now as the Horseshoe Casino. It is a nice addition to downtown. Also Michael Symon is helping with his many restaurants. Several old buildings are coming down to make way for the new I-90 bridges and that intern helps the revitalization of Cleveland. People might think Cleveland is on the down slide but it is just recreating itself. A little smaller but don't count her out.

    1. Cleveland is always reinventing itself. And there is so much to work with. If it weren't for that damned lake effect snow, it would be much more in demand than it is.

  3. Cookie the librarian/local history buff in me LOVED this post!