Monday, May 21, 2012


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 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? 

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. 

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

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: 


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.

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