Friday, January 17, 2014

Bewahrung, Erweckung


A more positive modern preservation story has appeared out of nowhere, in Cleveland, Ohio, after all hope had been lost.

Like Detroit and other rust belt cities, Cleveland is home to only about half as many people as fifty or sixty years ago; while its metropolitan area still holds about 2.5 million people, what was once the sixth largest city in the US in now something like its 45th most-populous municipality.

Photo courtesy of All Things Cleveland. 

In more prosperous days, Cleveland, an industrial capital, spurred the growth of many of the nation's largest banks, and boasting something of the Wall Street of Ohio, East Ninth Street: the only prospect in this midwestern metropolis where rows of business-houses formed colonnades along the boundaries of the boulevard, an effect more common in Manhattan or Chicago.

It was on the southern end of this arrangement that the celebrated architect Marcel Breuer's only built skyscraper was realized in 1971. And, more recently, where it was nearly razed.

The blogosphere and the architectural press covered the story in 2007, as the threat of demolition has hung over the Breuer building seven years ago. The tower, once the proud headquarters of a major bank, and the largest and most modern of one of half a dozen motley buildings that made up the Ameritrust's block-long headquarters complex, stood vacant, a victim of bank consolidation.

The County government took over the block and, in a typically-bizarre logic that is all too common with the reasoning that governs the destruction of many architecturally-significant landmarks, set about plans to pull down the Breuer skyscraper and replace it with one of several glassy, ersatz low-rise designs. One of the few outstanding modern features of downtown Cleveland would be lost, to make room for a suburban-style pavilion in a half-empty city.

But in the past year, this story has taken a remarkable turn, and it was a suburban element that came to the rescue. A construction and development firm from a distant county bought the complex from the county at a bargain price…and decided to painstakingly preserve the Breuer tower. Rather than level it, or strip it out of all recognition, the private company not only recognized the compelling power of the architecture, but has even publicly pledged to thoughtfully resurrect several of its signature features, such as Breuer's nave-like sunken lobby with its paneled-glass street wall, which were damaged during an earlier phase of asbestos removal.

While the plan features the typically-contemporary formula of upmarket hotel and condominiums, the programming seeks to utilize the building's unique aspects, such as the concept to transform the formally-off limits rooftop, home to Breuer's enigmatic oculus, a true sculpture of vacancy, into a roof deck. The ground-floor of the complex will also house a mid-market grocery in the middle of one of mid-America's urban food deserts. Between its public amenities and the population draws of its hotel and residences, the landmark will even be more positive for the city than ever before.

All the above photos except as noted ©2013 Bauzeitgeist.


  1. Positive preservation stories in Cleveland are all too rare. Typically, in Cleveland, there seems to be no perception of the significance of a building or the value of preservation among the stakeholders in any redevelopment project. Hence the initial proposal to demolish the Breauer building. This attitude seems to inform decisions to demolish significant vacant buildings as well. And when a neighborhood group or the Restoration Society pushes preservation for a property all kinds of arguments like "We can't save everything" or "don't stand in the way of progress" are typical. I've read down right hostile, vitriolic remarks made by regular people in comment sections on-line venting their hatred for preservationists. I've noticed in the Midwest as opposed to the East Coast there is a latent sensibility that who ever owns a property should be able to do what they like with it. The corollary of this is that owners feel little responsibility toward the community or for anythig like the history of a place.

    I can't figure out what motivates these sorts of attitudes. I think many people do still think OLD is bad and NEW is good. And it is possible that many are contemptuous of Cleveland because they see it as a nexus of crime, poverty, dereliction and failure. There are very few people still around who experienced the urban vitality of downtown Cleveland 40 or 50 years ago. And there are very few public institutions or commercial developers that have made a virtue of adapting an old building for a new purpose instead of wiping it away. The Cleveland Clinic is the worse imaginable example. The Clinic has had a hostile relationship to it's context from day one. Within the last six months they have demolished two historic churches to clear the zone for their expanding suburbo-urbanish campus full of massive medical buildings sporting zippy-zoomy contemporary design. And government is delighted to leave their grand old buildings and move into something new instead of renovating those buildings. The magnificent police headquarters on Prospect will be vacated and staff will move into a suburban office park like building now under construction.

    (Well....I've really overdone this comment!)

    Iit is a fine thing that the old Cleveland Trust complex, including Breuers tower and the rotunda building (Geo. B. Post & Sons, architects) has managed to survive and may have a more inspired fate.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David. Interesting what you say about the Cleveland Clinic, which of course is among the first names trotted out in speaking of Cleveland's remaining vitality: the eds-and-meds University Circle area. Downtown is in a very strange circumstance: relatively high demand (and rental rates) for housing, but still too little housing, too few large employers, too little street life. What's remarkable about the Cleveland Trust complex's new life is that its various components: housing, hotel, and grocery store, is the best possible outcome for that property to contribute to a revitalization of the downtown area, even if it does mean that Cleveland's erstwhile Wall Street no longer has enough corporate residency to retain it's financial district atmosphere (which maybe isn't something to lament, anyway). Thanks again for reading and commenting.


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