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
, then the turn south onto Chester 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
And a space now filled with sky, where a solid edifice of red-orange brick proudly stood for 110 years. One hundred ten years.
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 —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’ Cleveland on Wolfe Music Building 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
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. Cleveland
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—
pave the way for its demise. Commission member and Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis
Cleveland said, John Marshall High School
“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
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 John Hay High School 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
housing is in high demand in Case Western Reserve University University
Circle. Could it have been converted to
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?
But last night, as I rounded that bend on
I wasn’t so sure.
NOTES1Ken Prendergast, "Cleveland Landmarks Commission Clears Way for John Marshall High School Demolition," Sun News, 19 January 2012: