Architecture Book Helps Decode Messages In Cleveland Buildings

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As you walk, hop a bus or even scoot through downtown Cleveland, it’s easy to miss the fact that the buildings have something to say. Some of these hidden messages are revealed in historian Jeannine Love’s new book, “Cleveland Architecture, 1890-1930: Building the City Beautiful.”

Many of us live in a world of text messages, web browsers and social media feeds. With every ding, buzz and chime, our eyes are drawn to a screen asking for our attention. But, Love argues that, the lives of Clevelanders were also filled with an abundance of messages a century ago. The messages weren’t coming through screens. They were baked into all the new buildings that were sprouting from our streets. Formerly sleepy little towns throughout the Midwest were transforming into big cities, thanks to the industrial might of oil and steel companies.

“It wasn't just Cleveland,” Love said. “It was cities like Buffalo, Toledo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, all of these cities.”

The new buildings were designed by a crop of young American architects who had recently studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where they learned a trendy new style, based on what was actually an ancient look, emulating Greek and Roman temples.

The architectural style of many century-old Cleveland buildings was taught to local architects at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. [Joao Paulo V Tinoco /]

The city’s new moneyed class wanted the downtown architecture to make statements, in a couple of different ways. First, it was a notice to old world cities on the East Coast like, New York and Boston, that Cleveland was an up-and-comer. But, the buildings were also talking to local residents. Love describes these structures as “billboards,” advertising a message that the owner wanted to tell you about this office building, auditorium or bank.

In 2016, Heinen's retrofitted the Beaux-Arts-styled Cleveland Trust building at E.9th and Euclid into a grocery story. [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

“Banks, in particular, were concerned about their image,” Love said. “And often they would incorporate murals and sculpture that would subtly convey messages.”

Love’s book presents the history of 22 buildings in the downtown district and University Circle, exploring not just the structures themselves, but the social conditions that led to their construction.

“Books on architecture typically describe a structure in terms of its style, but they give little attention to the social issues,” she said. "And during this period, the decorative additions were not meant only to beautify.”

Next time you’re downtown at East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, take a look up at the old Cleveland Trust bank building that was converted into a Heinen’ grocery store six years ago. There’s a triangular frame – called a tympanum – over the front entrance, that features a group of sculptures.

Symbolic characters fill the tympanum above the Cleveland Trust entrance. [Jeannine Love]

“The figures there are holding elements that Clevelanders produced to make a great economy,” Love said. “So, you'd have evidence of fisheries, mining – all the occupations that were common to the area. The central figure represents 'capital.' So, the bank is saying, ‘We are the holder of capital and we, as a bank, are helping to produce all these other areas that make the city great, all these other professions.’”

Across the street, there’s a subtler message inside the Huntington Bank lobby, where a series of massive columns support a towering ceiling.

Architect and Gund Foundation program officer Jennifer Coleman gives a tour of the Huntington Bank lobby in 2012. [David Staruch / ideastream]

“During that time, there were a lot of bank failures and that was a very strong concern, to convey this image of solidarity and strength,” Love said. “And if you put your money in that bank, it was going to be safe.”

Athena, goddess of wisdom, watches over those who enter the Cleveland Public Library, with a flame of knowledge on her helmet. [David Staruch / ideastream]

Several blocks away, if you walk around the headquarters of the Cleveland Public Library you’ll see lamps. They’re in the leaded-glass windows, the sculptures and carvings. A lamp, a symbol of knowledge, is there by design. Similar decorative art with a message can be found in government buildings and even the Public Auditorium.

Public Auditorium gives Clevelanders some aspirational ideas. [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Some of these messages are still easy to access. But that could change.

Love worries that security concerns following events like the Capitol insurrection have made it a little harder to appreciate the beauty and the history that surrounds us, due to heightened security measures at public buildings.

“You used to be able to walk into the Federal Building or City Hall or the courthouse without obstruction,” she said. “And you could see how the architect envisioned that impression when you first walked in. Now, you are encountering all the apparatus to check you for metal or weapons or whatever, and it really ruins the whole impression of the building. But that's the world we live in and I don't think that's going to go away very soon.”

In an era, bursting with visual clutter and a constant stream of dings, buzzes, and chimes from technology, it’s worth it to look up from your phone occasionally. Try reading these stories from a century ago that tell us where we come from, and give us a sense of stability.

For more on Cleveland architecture, watch the ideastream production, "Downtown Cleveland."

Huntington Bank lobby [Jeannine Love]



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