Tuesday, April 3, 2012


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
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.

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


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Accidentally deleted BBC's comment (Still learning my way around blogosphere.) Reposting it here, slightly edited: "The folks behind the CMSD plans . . . care nothing for community or kids. I posted photos of the "new" prison planned for the site:http://realneo.us/content/crime-progress-demolition-school-arts"

  2. Current state funding mechanisms essentially encourage school districts to neglect the structures, by financially incentivizing the construction of new buildings. We won't see any change in this pattern until funding mechanisms and/or laws are changed.

    If you do decide to chain yourself to a building, be sure to let me know so that I can report on it.

  3. Satindur plans a hunger strike---Christopher--this is not on Columbus--John Marshall was landmarked and CLE council president Martin Sweeney rigged vote to allow demo. This is on Mayor Jackson and Sweeney's watch.

    Satindur Puri plans a hunger strike. He is a true American Hero--his words:
    Your essay is poetic and stirred my soul! City Hall has got away with a lot by destroying our architectural gems. Destruction of any architectural gem is a horrific act.

    Mayor Jackson, who has not responded to three requests made ...in the past ten months – via e-mail and certified mail -- on behalf of petitioners for a meeting to SAVE 80-YEAR OLD JOHN MARSHALL – has been told verbally and in writing – if there is no intervention from his honor’s side to SAVE JOHN MARSHALL HIGH SCHOOL -- as a last resort -- there will be a Hunger Strike to SAVE JOHN MARSHALL.

  4. Your quote of Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland: “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" is absolutely mortifying!

    I've long tried to understand how and why these outrageous demolitions occur. My suspicion has long been that it is willful ignorance and dislike of anything old...that old is bad / new is good.

    I can't make sense of it...this woman is a disgrace. But this attitude and the problems it creates is not due to just one idiot...it's a cadre of idiots and self serving local politicians who have engineered an enormous cluster-fuck on Cleveland. They are so happily ignorant...they know not what they do. They have no idea how uninformed and provincial they truly are. And the local news media is not interested.

    How do you explain to someone who is blind but doesn't know they are blind, that they can't see something important and they need to take the advice of other people who can see what is important?