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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ARCHITECTURE, CIVIC - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ARCHITECTURE, CIVIC. In Cleveland, as elsewhere, the architecture of government is an indication of the civilization of the city. Almost without exception, the city's civic buildings have been in the classical modes that were the standard for government buildings throughout America's history. The majority of Cleveland's government buildings were erected during a period when the use of architectural style was understood to be symbolic. The most obvious precedents for civic buildings were the Greek style, because of the evolution of the democratic city-state in ancient Greece, and the Roman, because of the development of the body of civil law by the ancient Romans. These style references were consistent in federal, county, and city buildings alike. The first public building with any architectural character, and the most ambitious building of the period, was the second Cuyahoga County Courthouse, planned and constructed in 1826-28. It was a Federal-style building with facade of 6 Doric pilasters, a pediment, and an octagonal cupola and dome. It was planned just 2 years after the completion of the national Capitol's first dome and rotunda by Bulfinch. That precedent immediately established the domed classical building as the primary governmental symbol, imitated on most of the state capitols and many county courthouses. According to Edmund Chapman, the 1828 courthouse was "an attainment of considerable significance and reflects the national artistic revolution of these years." The building stood in the southwest quadrant of PUBLIC SQUARE until 1860, when a new courthouse was built and the city decided to clear the square of public buildings.

The culmination of the 19th-century phase of a national classical style came in a group of 3 buildings erected between 1858-75. The first U.S. Post Office, Custom House, and Courthouse was planned in 1856 and completed in 1858 on the east side of Public Square. It was designed by Ammi B. Young, official architect for the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, as one of a large number of federal government buildings erected to serve the expanding western regions before the Civil War. The original central block of the 3-story building was Italian Renaissance rather than Greek or Roman in style, and in the 1880s large symmetrical wings were added in the same style. At the same time, a new county courthouse was constructed in 1858-60 on the north side of Public Square. It was also a Renaissance building of simple proportions and relatively plain treatment, with arched windows and the use of quoins at the corners. When a fourth courthouse was needed, in 1875, it was built around the corner on W. 3rd St.; the somewhat more pretentious 4-story building was also Renaissance in style. Together, the federal building and the 2 county buildings summed up the civic aspirations of the city at mid-century. None of them is extant.

Though many 19th-century federal buildings, county courthouses, and city halls were built in the High Victorian, mansard-roofed style, Cleveland might have bypassed that phase of civic architecture except for happenstance. The City of Cleveland built no permanent structure of its own until 1916. There was a competition for a city hall in 1869, and surviving drawings show a lavish domed and mansarded structure in the French Second Empire style, but it was not built. After having occupied several commercial buildings, the city leased offices in the 5-story Case Block in 1875. Although it came to be known as City Hall, it was designed as a commercial block, not as a government building. Throughout the 19th century, these early civic buildings were located wherever land was available in the general vicinity of Public Square. There was no thought of a unified ensemble until the concept of grouping the monumental public buildings occurred to several people in the 1890s. New federal, county, and city buildings were contemplated, and the logic of creating a grand ensemble was inescapable. A new U.S. Post Office, Custom House, and Courthouse was already projected on the same site as the 1858 building and extending east to E. 3rd St. This location became the south end of the MALL that resulted from the Group Plan. The Group Plan Commission was established in 1902, and its report the following year brought Cleveland into the forefront of national civic planning.

The inspiration of the "Great White City" at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, as well as the presence of Daniel Burnham on the commission, ensured that the Beaux-Arts Roman idiom would be the uniform style recommended. The Federal Bldg., erected in 1905-10 and designed by Arnold W. Brunner, member of the commission, is a 5-story granite structure with a rusticated basement, a colossal 3-story Corinthian colonnade, and a massive classical entablature. Since the Corinthian order was used on the Federal Bldg., the Ionic on the courthouse, and the Tuscan on city hall, it has been suggested that the classical orders were intended to symbolize the hierarchy of governments. Another important aspect of the Beaux-Arts ideal was the incorporation of decorative sculpture, paintings, and murals by major artists of the day; in the case of the Federal Bldg. these included Daniel Chester French, Kenyon Cox, and Edwin H. Blashfield.

The CUYAHOGA COUNTY COURTHOUSE (1912) and CLEVELAND CITY HALL (1916) were planned as nearly symmetrical Beaux-Arts monuments to complete the north end of the Mall. Significantly, they were designed by architects of local rather than national reputation, the courthouse by LEHMAN AND SCHMITT and city hall by J. MILTON DYER†. The county building is more embellished, having pedimental sculptures of historic lawgivers and bronze statues of Jefferson and Hamilton. The interiors of both buildings are grand public spaces with high vaulted ceilings in the Roman style. More than any other places in the city, the courthouse and the, city hall embody the classical symbolism of governmental architecture. Although not governmental buildings, others in the vicinity of the Mall carry out the idea of a uniform classicism. The PUBLIC AUDITORIUM, the Public Library, and the Board of Education Bldg. all reflect the uniform height and generally classical formula prescribed by the Group Plan Commission. The result is a civic ensemble in Cleveland that is unequaled among the cities of America.

The late 1920s brought the last generation of civic buildings to retain references to the ancient classical style, while exhibiting features that were transitional to the modernistic style characteristic of the 1930s. The Central Police Station, completed in 1926 to replace an old 3-story brick headquarters built in 1864, illustrates the transition perfectly. Wall piers are drastically simplified, and window spandrels contain geometric ornament that prefigures the Art Deco style, yet the 2 columns surmounted by eagles that flank the doorway are old authoritarian symbols. The Criminal Court Bldg. completed 4 years later on the same block is a completely modernistic building, all of whose geometric lines and ornament are in the Art Deco style. The simplified forms of the style were quite congenial to the classically trained architect; the idiom was symmetrical, it provided for the use of sculptured ornamentation, and building masses were treated in a way appropriate to the traditional use of masonry.

On the other hand, the innovative County Juvenile Court Bldg. (1932), housing the independent juvenile court and a detention home built around 3 sides of a quadrangle, is a 3-story brick building with a small tower and arched windows at the entrance. The reference here is to the eclectic domestic architecture of the period, a style that sought to express the security and comfort of home, and hence appropriate to a function dealing with juveniles. The last building of this period was the third U.S. Post Office, completed in 1934 as part of the Terminal Group. The customs, federal courts, and other federal agencies remained in the 1910 Federal Bldg. Like the Criminal Court Bldg., the post office was a thoroughly modernistic structure, exactly consonant with federal buildings of the Depression era's Public Works Admin. across the country. Bearing the stamp of the 1930s official style, its fluted vertical piers and long symmetrical sandstone facade marked the post office as the last of the classic government buildings in Cleveland.

In the decades between 1934 and the next group of civic buildings, a number of changes took place in both government and architecture. The Great Depression and 2 wars provided the background for the greatest consolidation of centralized government in America's history. At the same time, assumptions about the responsibility of government for social welfare changed. In architecture, the period was marked by the complete dominance of the International style imported from Europe in the 1930s and, 1940s. The expression of a building's function through its form, style, or ornament was relegated to the past, and commercial, institutional, and governmental buildings were frequently undifferentiated in appearance. These developments were reflected in the buildings erected by all branches of government between 1950-80. Cuyahoga County built a new administrative office building in 1956. Located on the west side of the mall opposite the courthouse, the county administration building is a 4-story structure, bland and almost featureless, with the main entrance placed unsymmetrically at the north end of the facade facing Ontario St. The symbolism of democracy and law was replaced by the expression of business efficiency.

In 1960 the Erieview urban-renewal plan designated the entire block east of the Mall and the Public Auditorium for a massive square federal office building adhering to the cornice line of the Group Plan buildings. As built in 1967, however, it became a 31-story office tower of utterly flat reflective surfaces of stainless steel and glass. It may be symptomatic that it was designed by 3 architectural firms in collaboration, as the Federal Bldg. enshrines the methodical and workday aspects of bureaucracy even more eloquently than the county building. Also located in the Erieview area at the north end of E. 12th St. was the first new city office building in 30 years. Completed in 1971, the Public Utilities Bldg. exemplifies the influence of Edward D. Stone, an exponent of the idea that an ornamental grace could counter the sterility of the glass box. The symmetrical marble-clad structure, long and narrow with a cantilevered 5th floor, contains an interior atrium with a skylight. Because of the plan, the materials used, and the general effect of regularity, this building is the closest to the gestures of monumentality that persisted in the federal buildings of the national capital through these years.

A different gesture toward monumentality was demonstrated in the Justice Ctr., completed in 1977 to house the county prosecutor, probation office, common pleas court, municipal courts, police headquarters, and corrections center. The combined county and city complex occupies a 26-story tower and an 8-story mass on the block opposite the earlier county administration building. Faced with pink granite and displaying ranks of windows set in deep horizontal reveals, the monolithic pile is articulated only by repetitious honeycomb units that are indistinguishable from those of a hotel, hospital, or laboratory. Abstract symbolism is not totally absent; just as the classical orders may have been used to express the hierarchy of federal, county, and municipal governments in 1910, the placement of the courts in a tower might be understood to symbolize their supremacy over the police function.

The first State Office Bldg. in Cleveland was completed in 1979 and contains offices of the attorney general, the lottery commission, and workers' compensation, among others. The angular site west of the, 1934 post office was an undeveloped parcel on the air rights over the rapid-transit tracks in the Terminal Group. The constraints of the site produced an irregular trapezoidal building of black-toned steel and glass with an acute angle facing the approach to Superior Ave. from the west. The form was conceived as a piece of monumental sculpture; but again, only a sign distinguishes it from a commercial office building.

Thus, Cleveland's most recent civic buildings were in the fully developed modern style that had dominated architecture since World War II. By the 1980s, the new architectural design called Postmodern was turning once again to representational forms that could express or symbolize the function of the building. As yet no general consensus has been reached as to what kind of forms might be appropriate for governmental buildings. An intriguing blend of classicism and modernism was contrived by New York architect Malcolm Holzman for the new East Wing of the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, presently under construction on the site of the old Plain Dealer Bldg. at E. 6th and Superior Ave. While the building's core will consist of a 10-story glass oval, it will be encompassed at the 4 corners of the site by 6-story masonry towers, relating to the surrounding design and height of the Mall's Group Plan. Until such a consensus is realized, Cleveland's most characteristic civic buildings remain those of the classical period, and especially the Group Plan ensemble.

Eric Johannesen (dec.)


Last Modified: 10 Jul 1997 03:22:20 PM

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