Thursday, December 27, 2012

THE QUESTIONABLE PLANNING REVIEW PROCESS IN CLEVELAND



The following little item was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer Business Briefs on Christmas Day:

UPTOWN REVIEW DELAYED: 
“A review of plans for a new building at the Uptown project in University Circle has been delayed until Jan. 4.  The Cleveland City Planning Commission did not see the plans Friday after City Councilman Kevin Conwell said he was not told about the project and needs time to discuss it with neighbors.”

An article about the project was published on the front page of the Plain Dealer Business section on December 19:

So a high profile story on the development was published in the newspaper on December 19, but the local councilman “was not told about the project,” before it was to go under review by the Planning Commission on December 21? 

It would seem that it would be beneficial to the community at large if the local council representative had the opportunity to review and have some input into a project of this magnitude, significance, and impact PRIOR to it coming before the Planning Commission for final approval.

How backwards the approach to development is in this city!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

ANOTHER TREASURE ABOUT TO FALL: JOHN MARSHALL HIGH SCHOOL


The landmark John Marshall High School is about to succumb to the wrecking ball.  At the beginning of October, I sent a plea to each of the Cleveland School Board members, to the School CEO Eric Gordon, and to Mayor Frank Jackson, asking them to to reconsider their decision to demolish John Marshall.  All of these public servants have the power to stand up and say, “Let’s not do this.”  But they have not spoken up.   They are choosing to remain silent.



It is almost too late now.  Within a few weeks, this beautiful structure will be gone. Some of the stonework is currently being removed, to be saved “for future reuse.”  I would still welcome some sort of stay of execution for this wonderful landmark.  But damage has now been done.  It is definitely the eleventh hour for John Marshall.


What they are about to do is a tragedy and a travesty.  

And there is nothing I can really do to stop  it.  A ‘Save John Marshall’ Facebook group, led by the indefatigable Satinder Puri, has lobbied the city administration and the school board for months to try to save the building, but their voices were not heard.  As mine has not been heard.  Maybe our voices have been heard, but not really listened to.  This pretty clear from the reply letter I received from School CEO Gordon (posted below), where he reiterates the same tired talking points about why the building must come down. 

Existing spandrel panel soon to be lost under a pile of rubble.

There are questions about the whole decision-making process.  Questions about the propriety of the Landmark de-listing hearing by the City Landmarks Commission.  Questions about the calculations used to compare the costs of replacing the building versus renovating the existing structure.  Questions about the accuracy of the square footage numbers used in those calculations.  And questions about whether the cost of asbestos abatement and building demolition were figured into the pricetag for the new building.  These questions have gone unanswered.  

CEO Gordon did offer me an image of the new building to be constructed in John Marshall’s place.  The reader can judge for oneself whether he or she thinks the new building will have the character and level of craftsmanship of the old, and whether the new John Marshall will ever stand a chance of being listed as a City Landmark.

Rendering of Proposed New John Marshall High School (Image courtesy CMSD)

Here is my letter to CEO Gordon:

4 October 2012

Eric S. Gordon, CEO
Cleveland Metropolitan School District Board of Education
1380 East Sixth Street, Room 152
Cleveland, Ohio 44114 

Dear Mr. Gordon,

I am writing to you to tell you that it is not too late.  Yes, the construction trailer is on site, the fences have gone up, and interior materials abatement has begun, but the solid shell of the John Marshall High School building is still wholly intact.  I am writing to you as a concerned citizen, neighborhood resident, and architect to urge you to STOP the demolition of John Marshall.  This noble structure can and should be renovated to continue serving the educational needs of our children for generations to come.  

    
John Marshall boasts beautiful brick and stone construction, as well as fine Art Deco detailing that cannot be replicated in a new building.  Overall, the structure is in very good physical condition, especially for a building that is 80 years old.  The brick is not spalling.  The foundations are not moving.  It has many pleasant, light-filled classrooms.  This solid and proud building has stood for many years as a true landmark in the neighborhood.  It is a part of the community, and it is an enduring symbol of our forbearers’ commitment to the ideals of a quality public education for all.


We all can agree that our students deserve top-notch facilities in which to learn and succeed.  The building as it stands may not meet all the needs of modern educational facilities.  But surely at least part of John Marshall, in particular the original core of the building that fronts on West 140th Street, could be saved and renovated for use as general purpose classrooms.  The City of Cleveland has stated that it wants to be a leader in the field of sustainability.  Saving and renovating historic structures is the most ‘green’ type of architecture that can be done, earning numerous credits under the LEED certification system.  Just as John Hay High School was renovated and is now a gem of the East side, John Marshall has the potential to be the pride of the West side. 

If you take action to stop this senseless demolition, I am fairly confident that at least 216 members of the Save John Marshall Facebook group, as well as the 2,000 signers of a petition to renovate, would change their votes from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ on Issue 107.  Because you will have done the right thing.  And you will have demonstrated to us that the School Board is taking Cleveland’s school system in a positive new direction.

Attached for your review, please find my Elegy for the School of the Arts, about another community treasure that was recently lost to demolition.  The location and particulars of the buildings are different, but both structures are architectural gems, built in a time when civic institutions were constructed with pride and intended to endure for many years.  It is too late for the School of the Arts.


But it is not too late for John Marshall.  I understand that the OSFC funding system makes it more challenging to renovate rather than build new.  But sometimes the more arduous path is the more rewarding path.  And it’s never too late to do the right thing.  Until it is, of course.  Until the first day that the backhoes start ripping into the hallowed brick and stone of John Marshall High School.  Then, it will be too late. 

As CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, you have the power to save this civic treasure.  I ask you to do so now. 

Respectfully,
Daniel DeAngelo
Architect/Town Planner


Here is his response:


The City of Cleveland continues to head in the wrong direction by recklessly destroying its precious architectural legacy.  One day, we will wake up and look around, and we may find that there is nothing left of value in our city to save.  

R.I.P. John Marshall High School


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

PROPOSED DUNHAM GREEN: GOOD OR BAD FOR THE URBAN FABRIC?


6611 Euclid Avenue Building with Dunham Tavern to its right. (Google Earth.)

A Cleveland developer has dropped his plans to convert a former warehouse building at 6611 Euclid Avenue into a tech incubator.1 The folks who run the Dunham Tavern Museum next door, a historic stagecoach stop and accompanying urban garden, have purchased the warehouse and plan to demolish it.  While the Dunham Tavern won’t have to live in the shadow of this structure any longer, it remains to be seen whether the loss of the building will be beneficial for the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

BENEFITS OF REHABBING AN EXISTING STRUCTURE
When the rehab project for 6611 was announced last December, it seemed to be a good idea.2  It would have made use of an existing vacant structure, and the proposed tech incubator would have generated additional activity along the Healthline transit corridor.

West Fa├žade of 6611 Euclid Avenue Building. (Google Earth.)
The 6611 building has an expressive character and a muscular exposed concrete structure.  This aesthetic would have fit well with the edgy, forward thinking world of tech startups. Rehabbing the building would be an environmentally sustainable course of action, which also has appeal to these types of companies. 

Reusing the building would also preserve a memory of Cleveland’s industrial legacy.  The layering of history in a city helps make a place more interesting and unique.  Christopher Busta-Peck gives an insightful take on this idea at his  Cleveland Area History blog.  Busta-Peck says, "6611 Euclid . . . provides real context for the museum.  It illustrates how the city grew up around this tavern, and the level of development threats faced by it.  It hints at how close the tavern might have come to being demolished itself."3 He adds in another post, "The Dunham Tavern will be much less impressive as a survivor when we lose the physical manifestation of the changes that it lived through."4

PROPOSED DUNHAM GREEN
On the other hand, a green square park surrounding the Dunham Museum does have some appeal.  This green space could become an amenity that adds value to the surrounding properties, and to the buildings that eventually may cluster around it.  Think of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.   Rittenhouse Square and the proposed Dunham Green would be about the same size—approximately 650 feet by 650 feet.  If this new ‘town green’ in Midtown could become the center of a dense, mixed use neighborhood fabric, it would be a good thing. 

But that’s a big ‘If.’

 Aerial photo of Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.  (Google Earth.)

Compare the area surrounding Rittenhouse Square with the current density surrounding the 6611 Euclid property in the accompanying aerial photos.  Rittenhouse Square has been an elite address and the center of its Philadelphia neighborhood since the early 1800’s, and much of the surrounding historic urban fabric is still intact.  Also, Rittenhouse Square is only 4 blocks/¼ mile/a 5 min. walk from Market StreetPhiladelphia’s main commercial street—and about ½ mile from their City Hall.
 
Aerial photo of Dunham Tavern  and 6611 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland.  (Google Earth.) 

In Cleveland, much of the fabric around the Dunham Tavern has been demolished, or is light industrial in use.  The proposed Dunham Green doesn’t have the same proximity to a thriving commercial center as Rittenhouse Square does.  However, the Tavern’s location right on the Healthline does shorten travel distances. Dunham is 1 mile/20 min. walk/6 min. on the Healthline from Cleveland Clinic, and 1.5 miles/30 min. walking/10 min. by bus from CSU.  It is 2 miles from University Circle, 3 miles from Public Square.  So there is potential for redevelopment around this site. 

DAYDREAM INTO REALITY
One can envision Dunham Green as an oasis in the middle of a dense city fabric that stretches from Downtown to University Circle

It’s a nice urban daydream.  But it’s a long haul from today’s existing conditions to get there. 

If the city wants this dream to become a reality, it should create a master plan for the blocks directly adjacent to the new Green, including a form-based code to ensure that future development on these properties is in alignment with this urban vision.  
 
CONCLUSION
Still hate to see these great warehouse buildings being torn down.  There’s a lot of embedded energy in that concrete structure.  More importantly, buildings of character are vanishing literally each day from our city.  And the unique perspective that these structures lend to understanding our history—where we have been and where we are now—is disappearing along with them.


NOTES
1 Michelle Jarboe McFee, “Developer drops plan to remake Euclid Ave. building; nearby museum wants to knock it down,” The Plain Dealer, 3 February 2012:
2 Michelle Jarboe McFee, “Regional Transit Authority to sell blighted building that mars Cleveland's Health-Tech Corridor,” The Plain Dealer, 23 December 2011:
3 Christopher Busta-Peck, Euclid Avenue: What We've Lost and What We Will Probably Lose,” Cleveland Area History, 27 September 2010.  Web.  12 June 2012:
4 Christopher Busta-Peck, Cincinnati and Cleveland,” Cleveland Area History, 1 March 2011.  Web.  12 June 2012:

Monday, May 21, 2012

SELLING THE BOARD OF EDUCATION BUILDING—SELLING OUR SOUL?


Cleveland Board of Education Headquarters, but not for long.

Is it acceptable for government entities to sell public assets to raise money? 

The Cleveland Board of Education is planning to vote tomorrow, May 22, on whether to try to sell its historic headquarters building to a developer, presumably for conversion into a boutique hotel. 

The school district estimates that it can save $13 million over the next 10 years by selling its headquarters and leasing office space elsewhere downtown.1 The district faces a projected deficit of $55 million to $65 million next year alone, so cutting overhead costs holds obvious appeal for the board. 

But what is the true cost to the city and to its citizens of selling such a landmark building?

The Cleveland Group Plan of 1903, looking south. 
The Board of Education Building is at the far southeast (upper left) corner.

THE GROUP PLAN OF 1903
The Board of Education building is part of Daniel Burnham’s historic Group Plan of 1903, which was intended to be a public space in the heart of the city, with all of the civic institutions of Cleveland gathered around it.  Constructed over the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Group Plan was to be a manifestation of the greatness and civic pride of Cleveland, then the fifth largest city in the country.2  The Group Plan was one of the first such civic centers built in the country, and it is considered to be a significant example of the City Beautiful Movement.3

Repurposing the school headquarters building for use as a privately run hotel would be a move away from the original intentions of the Group Plan.  It can be argued that two existing buildings on the Mall, and a third under construction, already dilute the purity of the historic Plan.  The Keybank Office Tower and a Marriott hotel were built at the Mall’s southwest corner in 1991. In addition, the Medical Mart building, a medical device and equipment showroom scheduled for completion in 2013, adds a commercial use to the west side of the Mall.  Thus, Burnham’s original concept was compromised long before the school district’s hotel conversion proposal.  

And while the idea of a center exclusively for governmental uses is fine in theory, the reality is that the Mall has never really achieved the lofty aspirations of its planners.  It is a grand, but often-deserted space, especially after 5 p.m. and on weekends.  A district of single use such as the Group Plan lacks the diversity of activity that residential, retail, and restaurant uses provide by bringing people out onto the sidewalks.  With the opening of the new Convention Center and Medical Mart next year, another hotel on the Mall has the potential to inject additional life into this public space.  But is it acceptable to allow the proposed hotel conversion to move the Group Plan even further away from its historic intentions?  Would the benefits outweigh this loss? 

THE QUESTION OF PUBLIC ACCESS
Conversion of the headquarters building into a hotel has the potential to cause other unintended consequences.  Continued public access to the park that fronts the building would come into question under private ownership.  This very pleasant green lawn facing East Sixth Street is a great place for eating lunch or for just relaxing under shade trees in the heart of the city.  It is doubtful that the future hotel management would want just anyone lounging around in their front yard.

Public access to our governmental bodies is an even more troubling concern.  As citizens of Cleveland, we currently have the right to stand on that lawn and air our grievances or hold up a sign in protest.  Where does one go to publicly express his ideas on a school district policy when its offices are housed on floors 5-10 of some privately-owned office tower?  With leased office space, a building owner could conceivably bar entry to the building lobby or to the property as a whole.  This would undermine our ability to exercise our fundamental right to free speech and expression. 

THE ROLE OF ARCHITECTURE
What this really comes down to is a discussion on the place and the value of architecture in our present-day society.
§     What does it say about our culture that we are willing to sell a civic building to be converted to a leisure and hospitality use?  That business is more important than our city government?
§   What does it say about the public funding of our civic institutions that the school district cannot afford to properly maintain its headquarters facility?
§   What does it say about our view of government that we don’t care to maintain these grand edifices, these once important symbols of our community?
§      What does it say about where our priorities lie? 
Surely, we are wealthier as a people, with a higher standard of living than the Clevelanders of 1931, when this building was completed.  But we are unwilling and uninterested in creating symbols of civic pride anymore.  Instead we build stadiums and casinos.  

 Board of Education Building, West elevation facing the Mall

CIVIC ASPIRATIONS
Cleveland’s leaders in the early twentieth century sought to legitimize their growing city by erecting buildings of the Group Plan in the Neoclassical style, borrowing from the prestige and stability of the great capitals of Europe.  They also sought to create enduring symbols of the strength and sophistication for the city.4 In 1922, a few years before construction of the school headquarters, the people of Cleveland felt so moved by the imagery and ideals embodied in the Group Plan that they engraved the following words into the stone frieze of Public Hall: 

“A MONUMENT CONCEIVED AS A TRIBUTE TO THE IDEALS OF CLEVELAND BUILDED BY HER CITIZENS AND DEDICATED TO SOCIAL PROGRESS INDUSTRIAL ACHIEVEMENT AND CIVIC INTEREST
PATRIOTISM PROGRESS CULTURE”

These were lofty aspirations. 

 Detail of Public Hall Frieze
 

Cuyahoga County Courthouse

Even today, when approaching the grand facades of the County Courthouse, the Main Library, or the Board of Education buildings, when entering the expansive lobbies with their monumental stairs and ornate ironwork, one experiences feelings of awe, reverence, wonder, respect.  These structures imbue a sense of decorum, of solemnity, of permanence.  And they also speak of a connection to the long history of the city, to those that helped build it, and to those, not that different from ourselves, who walked up those steps and traversed those lobby floors before us. 

The lobbies of City Hall (left) and the County Courthouse.

These buildings are the face of our city government.  They represent our ideals and our values. 
§   What does it say about our values when we are content to house the offices of our civic institutions in nondescript office towers? 
§       What does this say about the importance that we place on public institutions in our city? 
§     What does this say about our aspirations as a community in the early twenty-first century? 
§      What is the symbolism of a decision to sell a significant part of our heritage?

Apparently, the school board has already answered these questions for itself. The cold and legalistic wording of the resolution to sell the facility on the May 22 meeting agenda is revealing:
“Item 8.12:  Determining That The Board Of Education Administration Building Is Not Needed For School District Purposes And Authorizing Disposal Of Said Real Property As Provided By Ohio Revised Code.”  

Selling the Board of Education building might make pragmatic financial sense for the school district.  But abandoning this structure would result in the loss of a significant public symbol in the city.  Selling this building to a private developer says something very sad and disturbing about the value we place on our civic assets. 

Can a financial value really be placed on the qualities embodied in these irreplaceable structures? 

This is the larger question we should be asking as a community.


NOTES
1 Steven Litt,School board’s historic building deserves new life,” The Plain Dealer, 6 May 2012:
2 For further reading on the Group Plan, see my paper on the topic:
3 Holly M. Rarick, Progressive Vision: The Planning of Downtown Cleveland 1903-1930 (Cleveland:  The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1986) p.26
4 Thomas S. Hines, Burnham of Chicago, Architect and Planner (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 166


Monday, April 16, 2012

UPTOWN: URBANISM = A-, ARCHITECTURE = C+

At Uptown, a pair of mixed-use apartment and retail buildings under construction in University Circle, developer MRN and architect Stanley Saitowitz get the urbanism mostly right, and deserve credit for their efforts.  The project is being built at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 115th Street (just north of Mayfield Road) in collaboration with several institutions and non-profits, including University Circle, Inc., Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.


 Uptown North Building, looking south on Euclid Avenue.

The developer and the architect made two important decisions that contribute to the project’s success from an urban design standpoint. 
§     First, MRN chose to make the project mixed-use.  This is significant because, by including both retail and housing, the development will invigorate the neighborhood with both commerce and new inhabitants on the streets.  MRN went further to ensure success by pursuing leases with a good variety of retailers. These include magnet tenants like Barnes & Noble books and Constantino’s market.  MRN also made sure that there will be a mix of price points for the eateries that are going into the project.  Diversity enables success.

 


§     Second, MRN and Saitowitz decided to bring the building facades right up to the sidewalk and to place parking behind the north structure.  These moves give the street a sense of enclosure and definition, making it more comfortable and welcoming to pedestrians.  The buildings also frame a new gateway into the east side culture and arts district, strengthening the sense of arrival and lending identity to this stretch of Euclid Avenue.

Uptown gateway looking southwest on Euclid Avenue. 

The principle of building close to the street and considering the pedestrian experience seems to be lost on many Cleveland designers and city officials.  (As evidenced by much of what the Cleveland Clinic has built lately, as well as University Hospital’s recently completed Seidman Cancer Center—two blocks further south on Euclid—that is decidedly non-pedestrian friendly.)

Some of the credit for the positive urban design decisions made at Uptown also goes to CWRU and the Boston firm Chan Krieger, who created the original 2004 project master plan for the university.  These two significant urban design decisions—mixed use and building to sidewalk—are already contributing more to the street life of Cleveland than any other recent construction in the city.

CRITIQUE
I have been watching the progress of Uptown for some time, and had been planning to write a post about it when both buildings are complete in late fall.  But architecture critic Steven Litt wrote an article about the development in the Plain Dealer last week.  And while many of Litt’s comments are well-observed, he didn’t seem to go deeply enough in his analysis to look at the project with a truly critical eye.1

SO WHY THE A MINUS ON URBANISM?
Two issues raise concern regarding the urban design of Uptown: 

Disposition of buildings at Uptown (Image: The Plain Dealer) 

§   First, the developers have included in the plan a pedestrian-only alley on the south side of the south building, an apparent effort to recreate the magic of their successful development on East 4th Street downtown.  The storefronts in Uptown’s south building will effectively have two faces, one on Euclid Avenue and the other on the pedestrian alley.  

    The concern arises over whether the activity of the shops and sidewalk cafes on the alley side will draw life away from Euclid.  Sometimes in dual-frontage shops, the street side ends up being a glorified service entry, leaving sidewalks there mostly deserted.  MRN is a savvy developer, so hopefully this concern is unfounded.  The verdict on the experiment will have to wait until Uptown is complete in October. 

Narrow sidewalk with inappropriate planting bed.

§   The other concern is that the sidewalks in front of the buildings on Euclid are only seven feet wide.  If the project is as successful as everyone hopes it will be, the sidewalks will be too narrow to handle the expected amount of foot traffic. Inappropriately designed shop entrances and planting beds will exacerbate the problem.  This concern merits its own discussion as a case study in sidewalk and storefront design, so it will be examined in a forthcoming post.

GENERIC MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE

Uptown North Building, looking northeast on Euclid Avenue.

While Uptown gets most of the urbanism right, Saitowitz' chosen mode of architectural expression is more questionable.  His buildings are pleasant enough examples of Modernism.  But they are a generic Modernism.  Their visual language doesn’t have much to do with Cleveland or Northeast Ohio.  These buildings could be anywhere in the country—New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles.  No cues within Uptown’s imagery tell us that we are in Cleveland, Ohio. Generic buildings lead to the homogeneity of our cities, a sense of disorientation, and a loss of the uniqueness that makes each city the special place that it is.

  Modernism makes for dramatic pictures though.

Modernism can be a fine and dynamic language. But Saitowitz’s Modernist interpretation misses the opportunity to draw upon the architectural legacy that exists here.  A richer kind of architecture responds to the specific climate, history, and building practices of a region. It can express this response through its form, materials, construction methods, and details.

Good architecture takes at least some of its cues from the local precedents.  In this way it can “resonate with the landscape and the cultural context” of its setting, as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa puts it.2 This approach embeds a building more fully within a place.

For example, Saitowitz expresses the rhythm of Uptown's structural bays by leaving their gray concrete columns exposed—a standard, anywhere expression of the Modernist idiom.  Imagine if the designer had chosen instead to sheath the columns with a sleek roman brick and a simple buff sandstone base.  Still tastefully modern, but a respectful acknowledgement of Uptown’s neighbors one block south, at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield. If cost was an issue, or more subtlety desired, the designer could simply have mixed bit of Ohio clay into the concrete for color.  Small, thoughtful gestures could have made the new buildings feel more like they belong in Northeast Ohio 

Mixed-use building at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield.

DURABILITY
The appropriateness of the designer’s material selections for Ohio’s harsh climate also causes concern.  One assumes that the aluminum siding material and the projecting sunshades have been engineered to withstand our weather.  But when looking at these materials and their detailing, one wonders about their durability.  How will they look fifty years from now, seventy-five years from now?




Will the siding details and the underlying polypropylene membrane keep out the moisture of fifty rainy springs?  Will the sunshades remain straight and unbent under the burden of heavy snow and icicles that seventy-five winters bring?


The architect demonstrates his Modernist virtuosity by punching crisp window openings through the aluminum siding material on his buildings.  No question the lack of window trim gives the structures a streamlined appearance.  But window trim and sills are not just decorative affectations.  The window casings serve a very real and functional purpose:  They keep water away from the building face, protecting it from deterioration and infiltration at a vulnerable location. 

 

Some architects rely on technology—a polypropylene membrane, heavy sealants around windows—to keep weather and water out of the building. But more durable design solutions can often be found in local building practices that have been tested over time. 

FUNCTIONALITY VS. DECORATION

Shadowlines don't lie.
Finally, the shading devices above the window openings are problematic for another reason:  they will not really be effective at keeping the sun off of the glass.  Saitowitz chose to make all of the sunshades the same depth, regardless of whether the windows are three feet tall and horizontal or eight feet tall and vertical. It is clear that these metal projections will not accomplish the goal of shading the tall windows.  Apparently, the architect was not really serious about reducing heat gain and increasing energy efficiency. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that these eyebrows are mere aesthetic flourishes.

CONCLUSION
Time will reveal whether the material choices and detailing decisions made by the architect will endure.  And despite Uptown’s shortcomings, MRN, Saitowitz, and their institutional partners earn high praise for setting a good urban design precedent. If the project proves to be economically successful, Cleveland developers may take notice and follow Uptown’s urbanistic lead.  And, hopefully, government leaders will push them to do just that.  If so, Uptown will serve as a positive step forward towards better urbanism for the city and its people.


NOTES
1 Steven Litt,Modern-style buildings by architect Stanley Saitowitz give University Circle's Uptown development new sense of place,” The Plain Dealer, 8 April  2012:
2 Juhani Pallasmaa, “Place and Image,” from An Architecture of the Ozarks, The Works of Marlon Blackwell, by Marlon Blackwell (New York:  Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), p.30.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

SCHOOL OF THE ARTS R.I.P.

They’ve finally gone and done it.

For weeks now, I’ve been reluctant to drive over to the East side of Cleveland, in the vicinity of  University Circle

I have been dreading the drive east on Chester, then the turn south onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Because at a certain point along MLK, just past the Parkside Dwellings apartment building, I knew that someday soon I would round this bend, and in place of the beautiful and noble Cleveland School of the Arts Building,


I would find


A big
pile
of rubble.


And a space now filled with sky, where a solid edifice of red-orange brick proudly stood for 110 years.  One hundred ten years.

Last night,
that nightmare came true.



Even though I was prepared for the eventual blow, it still, literally, made me feel sick to my stomach to see the building gone.  Forever.  



Contractors had been dismantling the school building for months, doing asbestos abatement, and jackhammering loose some of the ornate glazed terra cotta tile trim pieces around the entranceways for “preservation” and “future re-use.”  Some fools’ cold comfort that is.

I had been hoping against hope.

  
That someone—a School Board member, a Councilperson, the Mayor—would see the facades of roman brick, still straight and true after over a century of use.  They would see the real jack arches spanning all of the window openings. 


They would see the exquisite buff-colored, glazed terra cotta cornices and that ornate detailing around the entries.  Really see them.  And, somehow, they would realize the gravity of what we were losing.  They would see that we can’t build structures of such quality and craftsmanship anymore.  And they would see the foolishness of allowing the destruction of this handsome building.

  
I was wrong.  No one came to this building’s rescue.  Not even me. 

It’s kind of silly to say, but I feel a bit like Charlton Heston at the end of the film Planet of the Apes, when he cries out:  

“Oh my God. . . .We finally really did it. You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! . . . damn you all to Hell!”


I feel powerless. 
For they just keep tearing down my beautiful city, brick by brick, and building by building.  Until some day, not far in the future, there will be nothing of worth left. 

Demolition of important historical works of architecture is happening in this City at an alarming rate.  These treasures are disappearing from existence on an almost weekly basis. 

It’s hard to keep up:  The Columbia Building, The Alhambra Apartments. The 1874 Stanley Building—one of the last remaining late nineteenth century structures in downtown Cleveland—has been condemned by the Building Department and is threatened with demolition.  CSU has recently won approval from the Landmarks Commission to tear down Walker & Weeks’ Wolfe Music Building on Euclid Avenue.  Next on the chopping block:  John Marshall High School

And on it goes.

At the School of the Arts, I mused on the idea of somehow chaining myself to the building to prevent its demolition and bring attention to this travesty.  But I told myself I couldn’t figure out the practicalities of it— Would I set up a tent and have my wife resupply me with food and other necessities?  Would I end up going to jail?  How does one go to the bathroom while chained to a building? If anyone even paid attention and asked me why I was doing it, could I speak eloquently enough about the issue?



I guess this wasn’t my moment yet, because I didn’t have the nerve. 

I do feel passionately about the issue of Preservation.  For two reasons:

First, reusing older buildings is more sustainable than building new (even if the replacement buildings are “green” and LEED certified).  Renovation conserves raw materials like wood, brick, steel, glass, and stone.  It also conserves the energy used to build these historic structures in the first place.  And it saves the energy used to extract and fabricate new construction materials.  These strategies reduce the impact of building construction on climate change.  If Cleveland wants to live up to its stated goal of being a sustainable city, then it must stop demolishing historic buildings, and start preserving and reusing them.

Second, older buildings are a legacy from our ancestors.  These buildings are our history.  They are valuable artifacts of our culture.  They speak of the values of the time in which they were constructed: craftsmanship, beauty, civic pride.  They are the sweat and the treasure and the hopes of those that came before us.  We toss them aside as if they no longer have any value.  Would we throw away old family photographs, the family silver, our grandmother’s quilt, because they are seen as out of fashion, or not the latest materials or technology?  Some would.  Those on the Cleveland School Board, some members of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, and many others in this city would.

At a January 12 meeting, the Landmarks Commission was discussing whether to remove the existing Historic Landmark designation from another school building—John Marshall High School—and pave the way for its demise. Commission member and Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland said, 

“I don’t really know a lot about preservation or architecture, but I do like new things.  I am not a preservationist. . . . I vote demolition.”1

We elect public officials to represent our interests and to be good caretakers of our public assets.  These solid, historic school buildings are the collective assets of the community.  We, the people, own them.  The first responsibility of our representatives in every case should be to determine the best and highest use of these pieces of our architectural heritage.  And then, with all the facts at their disposal, they should carefully decide whether to renovate, re-purpose, sell, or as an absolute last resort, demolish.  Our public officials have not been doing this job very well. 

The School of the Arts was in sound condition.  The brick was not spalling.  The cornices were not in disrepair.  In fact, the windows were recently replaced.  And a new roof had been installed ten years ago and was in “excellent” condition, according to the OSFC assessment.  Perhaps the needs of the SOA for performance space, specialized practice rooms, art studios, etc. could not be accommodated within the existing facility.   If renovation was truly not cost effective, as the School Board claims, then City officials should have exhausted all of the following possibilities before arriving at the decision to demolish:
§    Could a new SOA building have been built elsewhere on the campus shared with John Hay High School, while preserving the original SOA building for some other use?  There is a lot of open land on the eleven-acre campus, including expansive parking lots facing Carnegie Avenue.
§      Could an alternate site have been found for a new SOA facility, and the existing building put to some other useful purpose?  Surely, with the amount of disinvestment and foreclosure that has taken place in the city over the past few years, there must be nearby empty land that could have been used as a SOA campus. 
§   Could the SOA building have been saved and sold to another owner?  The building is directly across the street from the Case Western Reserve University campus.  Student housing is in high demand in University Circle.  Could it have been converted to student apartments?    

Is demolition really the best solution that we could come up with? 

The needless demolition of the School of the Arts shows a lack of vision, a lack of creative thinking, and a lack of good stewardship on the part of our elected officials.  Surely, we deserve better. Surely, we as a community can do better.   


Our ancestors built these magnificent structures.  We were given the responsibility of caring for these buildings.  We are foolhardy to demolish this legacy.  Our children will question our recklessness and wonder at what we were thinking.

Are we doomed as a society, as a city, because of the demolition of a single historic school building?
Perhaps not.  


But last night, as I rounded that bend on MLK Drive,
I wasn’t so sure.


NOTES
1Ken Prendergast, "Cleveland Landmarks Commission Clears Way for John Marshall High School Demolition," Sun News, 19 January 2012: