“Make no little plans.  They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
—Daniel Burnham

The Cleveland Group Plan of 1903 is a majestic civic space, fronting on Lake Erie, and surrounded by monumental public buildings.  The Plan is a grand gesture made by visionary men.  It was conceived as the fitting centerpiece for a city that was a growing industrial powerhouse at the turn of the twentieth century.  Born within a dynamic historical context, the Group Plan has a clear lineage from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.    The design and construction of the Plan raised interest in the principles behind the City Beautiful Movement, and inspired the development of similar civic centers throughout the country.  The Plan proved to be pivotal in the spread of the City Beautiful, and thus the Cleveland Group Plan holds an important place within the history of urban planning in the United States. The Group Plan, as designed, was largely realized over the years.  This large space holds much promise for a public life that might be found there, but that promise remains unrealized. The Plan, as it exists in the reality of the twenty-first century, is a  place of little life, devoid of activity, in the heart of an aging rustbelt city.  This public space never lived up to the lofty goals of its creators.  The story of the Cleveland Group Plan is a cautionary tale that reveals many lessons about the practice of urban planning.    

At the time of the Group Plan’s inception at the turn of the twentieth century, Cleveland was a city clearly on the rise.  It had grown from a population of only 17,034 in 1850 to a population of 381,768 in 1900.  By growing twenty-fold in the span of just fifty years, the city had become the seventh largest city in the United States (Condon 56).  Cleveland was a major port for the shipping industry on the Great Lakes.  The city was also a center for the manufacture of iron, steel, automobiles, and the other goods of an emerging consumer society.  As a result of the wealth generated by industry, the city became a powerful banking and commercial center in the Midwest.  

Cleveland was also at the forefront of many new technologies.  The first electric street lights in the world were installed on Public Square downtown in 1879.  The traffic light was invented in Cleveland. And the city was a center for the nation’s developing telephone and telecommunications industries.  But by the close of the nineteenth century, Cleveland, like many industrial centers throughout the United States, had become a polluted, congested, and unsanitary place in which to live.  The city had grown quickly and with little regulation, and its factories “threatened to engulf downtown Cleveland” (Rarick 12).  Municipal officials and businessmen, more concerned with prosperity than aesthetics, gave scant attention to quality of life in the city. 

As a result of the city’s rapid growth, however, government officials did see a need for many new public buildings in Cleveland.  The Federal government intended to build a new structure downtown that would house a post office, customs office, and courthouse.  In addition, County courts officials could see that they had outgrown their existing facilities. The city government also wanted administrative offices with modern amenities, and the Cleveland Library Board saw the need for an expanded main library building downtown.  Finally, to accommodate the increased railroad traffic generated by the growing city, city leaders envisioned the construction of a much larger centralized train station downtown.  In the late 1890’s, a consensus emerged among business leaders and government officials that this needed construction was an opportunity to remake and improve the civic character of Cleveland

Many of these business leaders, having traveled abroad with their newfound wealth, had seen Paris, London, Rome, and other great cities of Europe.  They had admired the large civic spaces, monumental buildings, grand avenues, and landscaped gardens of these cities, and they hoped to emulate these urban amenities in their hometown.  These businessmen began to have a nobler vision of their city.  They envisioned a city with a strong focus to its downtown, and a central public gathering space for its citizens. Cleveland’s mayor, Tom L. Johnson, hoped “through public architecture and landscaping, to symbolize and articulate the metropolis’ riches, stimulating Clevelanders to love and enjoy their city and thereby identify with its problems, assets, needs, and goals” (Hines 159).

Cleveland’s leaders, in making their plans, were also inspired by imagery of the World’s Columbian Exposition that had taken place in Chicago in 1893.  The Exposition left a strong impression on all who saw it, either in person, or in widely publicized images of the fair.  Thus it had a profound affect on city planning in communities throughout the United States.  The Exposition’s central Court of Honor, with its orderly ensemble of neoclassical buildings arrayed around a central mall, seemed to many to be an ideal that should be followed in the planning of the nation’s cities (Rarick 14).   Proponents of the City Beautiful Movement believed that by modeling civic centers after the Court of Honor, these public buildings would “give evocative form” to the ideals and the role of government in a democracy (Peterson 157).  The grouping of these edifices would serve as a tangible expression of the importance of government’s presence in the lives of the people. 

In response to the imagery of the Court of Honor, and to the ideals put forth by advocates of the City Beautiful Movement, Cleveland’s civic leaders proposed that all the new public buildings that the city needed should be grouped together in one location.  In August 1899, Herbert B. Briggs wrote in The Inland Architect:

“How would she [Cleveland] be known if she were to so plan her coming public buildings as to present to the traveler a reality, in imperishable material, of the past Court of Honor at the World’s Fair.  She would be known as the only city in the United States, having such an opportunity to grasp its import, to so wisely read the sign of the times, to see the necessity of solving the problem in no other way to meet the progress of the world” (Rarick 15). 

In order to study the proposed grouping of public buildings, the Cleveland architectural community held several informal design competitions.  One early scheme of 1895 proposed that a group of civic buildings be constructed on a site due north of Public Square, which was the commercial center of the city at the time.  Some of the properties on the proposed site were occupied by existing structures, so city leaders rejected this proposal as too costly.  A few of the buildings on this site were owned by members of the Chamber of Commerce themselves.  This circumstance may have contributed to the quick dismissal of the scheme (Fildes 60).  

In 1900, the Chamber of Commerce advanced a new plan for a civic center.  The new proposal utilized a site located northeast of Public Square that was filled with “bars, bordellos, and various unsightly establishments” (Rarick 19).  This area of town was seen as “a miserable and crime-ridden slum” (Hines 163), and as a place “notorious for its criminals, prostitutes, and skid row drifters” (Peterson 157).  By acquiring this land and demolishing its structures, the Chamber of Commerce “hoped to rid downtown Cleveland of one of its seedier districts.”  Whether this area was in as bad a condition as it was portrayed may be open to some debate.  Clearly, this land, on the lakefront and near the heart of the growing downtown, was ripe for development.  The proposed location of the civic center satisfied the desire of Cleveland’s social progressives to clean up a disreputable area of the city.  The decision to develop this site, in lieu of the one directly north of Public Square, had lasting repercussions on the ultimate success of the Group Plan as a civic space.

In 1902, at the urging of the Chamber of Commerce and the Architectural Institute of America, the state of Ohio chartered a commission to advise cities on urban planning issues.  The commission was comprised of Daniel H. Burnham, director of public works for the Columbian Exposition, John M. Carrere, designer of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and Arnold W. Brunner, the architect for the new Federal Building to be built in Cleveland.  “Thus, the city’s business and governmental officials had managed to provide themselves and Cleveland with perhaps the three finest architects/city planners in the nation” (Rarick 16).  Immediately after their appointment by the state, the three commissioners set to work on the Cleveland Group Plan. 

The commissioners took as their precedents for the Plan the grand public spaces of European cities, as well as the Court of Honor at the Columbian Exposition.  According to Hines, many of their ideas “as in much City Beautiful planning, came from abroad and from the past” (166).   Brunner himself stated that the Place de la Concorde in Paris was a strong influence on the design.  This mall, enclosed by structures of consistent architectural style, and with its paired buildings at one end, is a clear influence on the Group Plan.  Tuilleries Gardens in Paris, with its formal plantings lined by stately architecture, was also a precedent.  Other influences include the Champs Elysees in Paris, London’s Hyde Park, and the Boboli Gardens in Florence.  Finally, Versailles, with its gardens, fountains, and extended vistas, was also a clear precedent.  Views of Versailles bear striking resemblance to the long view to the lake that the architects illustrated in their final plans.  As testament to the importance of these precedents in their work, the architects included images of these spaces in their final proposal to the city (Hines 166).  The designers saw the great potential of this site on the lake, and sought to maximize its effect and beauty by studying great civic spaces throughout the world. 

The commission completed its plans and presented them to the city on August 17, 1903, in a document entitled, “The Grouping of Public Buildings at Cleveland.”  Burnham and his colleagues presented a vision for the city that encompassed an open mall fronting the lake, framed by buildings with a uniform cornice line, similar height, massing, and materials, and employing “historical motives of the classic architecture of Rome” (Peterson 157).    This civic space was to be 550 feet wide and 2,100 feet long.  The main axis of the composition was centered halfway between Ontario Street and East Sixth Street, beginning at Superior Avenue and running north/south to the lakefront. 

The public library and the Federal Building would flank this axis at its southern end.  At the northern end, a new train station would terminate the longitudinal axis and serve as a new point of arrival into the city.  The new city hall and the county courthouse would balance the composition on either side of the train station.  The two long sides of the Mall were reserved for civic administration buildings.  The designers proposed that majestic fountains be placed at each end of the mall’s long axis.  

The commissioners wanted the Mall to be a focus of downtown life.  They envisioned a space that would serve as a central park and recreational center for visitors, citizens, and those that worked in the government buildings that would be located there (Hines 163).  According to Condon, “This great complex of classical public buildings gave Cleveland, for the first time, the look of a major city” (56).  No doubt the citizens of Cleveland were struck by the notion that their smoky, factory-clogged city could emulate some of the great capitals of the world.

The commissioners produced a plan that captured the imaginations of architects and city planners throughout the country.  In this way, the Plan put Cleveland at the forefront of city planning in the United States (Rarick 17).  The Plan was praised enthusiastically by the architectural press, including Town Planning Review, The Architectural Record, and Inland Architect.  Support for the Plan was “spirited and enthusiastic”, the architect Carrere said at the time (Hines 169).  According to Peterson, “Cleveland’s project electrified the City Beautiful Movement” (157).  Prior to the publishing of the Group Plan, the cities of Chicago, San Francisco, and New York had developed proposals that followed the principles of the City Beautiful movement, but none had implemented them.  Inspired by Cleveland’s example, however, the leaders of St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Buffalo, among others, developed new civic center proposals for their towns. “Cleveland, Ohio, did more to popularize the grouping idea as a civic aspiration than any other city” (Peterson 159).  In Burnham’s words from his 1909 Plan for Chicago:

“The dream city on Lake Michigan [The World’s Columbian Exposition], people said, should take on enduring form. . . cities throughout the country began to ask why they too should not achieve whatever of beauty and convenience their situation and their civic pride would allow.  Among the first to feel the new impulse was Cleveland, a commercial city where at the time the forces of democracy were having fullest play. . .and high-minded, public-spirited citizens who were behind the movement labored until they brought harmony of action among the political agencies, and so placed the plans beyond the risk of failure” (Rarick 25).

Unfortunately, Burnham’s optimistic words alone were not enough to ensure the success of the Plan once it was implemented.

Construction on this grand plan for Cleveland began in earnest with the groundbreaking for the Federal Building in 1905.  At the groundbreaking ceremony, industrialist William G. Mather proclaimed that “this noble conception of a convenient, practical and beautiful civic center, which we call the Group Plan, if carried out as now designed, will redound more to this community’s reputation for enlightenment, esprit de corps, and civilization in the highest sense of the word, than any accomplishment of the city since its founding over a hundred years ago” (Rarick 35).  Construction on the Federal Building lasted six years, and the structure was completed with much fanfare in 1911.  The county courthouse and the city hall, completed in 1912 and 1916 respectively, anchored the north end of the Group Plan.  The city built a public auditorium on the east side of the Mall in 1922.  The new public library was built across East Third Street from the Federal building, flanking the north-south axis of the mall.  With the construction of the library, the south end of the Mall was completed in 1925.  In the ensuing years, the city erected a music hall and public auditorium at the northeast end of the Mall.  And the Board of Education Headquarters, sited south of the music hall, completed the east side of the Plan (Rarick 28).  Thus, by 1930, the south, east, and north sides of the Plan, less the train station, were essentially complete.      

This progress towards realization of the Group Plan was praised by many at the time as a significant accomplishment.  According to P. Abercrombie in Town Planning Review, the civic center was “one of the first to be projected . . . certainly the finest in design, and . . . the furthest advanced toward completion.”  Herbert Croly, reviewing the Group Plan in The Architectural Record, pronounced the Cleveland Group Plan “an unparalleled success.”  And Burnham himself stated that “many civic center designs have been adopted by American cities, but this Group Plan of Cleveland is the only one so far which has been . . . carried out.  Nowhere else has such actual progress in civic improvement been made.”  (Hines 170).   Soon after these proclamations, however, construction of the Group Plan slowed considerably.

Progress on the Plan was slowed primarily by debate over the siting of the proposed Union Terminal train station.  As early as 1906, the City Council had hired Burnham to design the station on a site at the north end of the Mall, the location proposed in the Group Plan.  However, disputes concerning the property rights of the station site arose, and the city became embroiled in lawsuits with the railroads over these ownership issues.  While these property concerns were being contested, two prominent Cleveland developers, the Van Swerigen brothers, proposed that the station be relocated to the Terminal Tower office complex they were building at the southwest corner of Public Square.  The Van Swerigens saw that a station in the base of their office tower would enable easy transfer between the railroads and the rapid transit lines that served the garden suburb they were developing east of the city. They also recognized that the pedestrian traffic generated by the railroad station would boost the economic viability of their planned office retail complex.

Many in the city argued that the train station should be constructed on the Mall in order to ensure completion of the Group Plan as originally envisioned (Rarick 42).  Others saw the Public Square site as a more pragmatic location for the terminal.  To decide the issue, the city held a referendum, and the voters chose the Terminal Tower site for the station.  This wrangling over the terminal site took place after Burnham’s death, so he did not have a chance to protest this change to the Plan.  Brunner said that the debate might have been resolved differently if Burnham “with his splendid enthusiasm, his force and personality, were here to plead for the execution of the plan on which he had set his heart” (Hines168).  Advocates for the lakefront station site believed that moving the station to Public Square “meant the death knoll for Cleveland’s Group Plan” (Rarick 47).  History has shown that these concerns were well founded. 

The Group Plan, as constructed, is grand in appearance, but it lacks the life and the vitality that marks a place that is truly the heart of the city.  For several reasons, it has not lived up to its potential as a great civic space.  The Group Plan’s first weakness was that it followed Burnham’s adage to “make no little plans” perhaps too closely.  Cleveland’s Group Plan “rivaled the great European centers both in scale and in format” according to Rarick (18).  However, Cleveland at the time was not equal in population or stature to the great cities that it wanted to emulate.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the population of London was 4,536,500.  In Paris, it was 2,714,100.  Vienna had a population at the time of 1,675,000.  Within the United States, the population of New York City was 3,437,200, and in Chicago it was 1,698,600.  In comparison, Cleveland’s population in 1900 was only 381,768 (Lahmeyer).  

While the city had grown a great deal in a short period of time, Cleveland still did not rival these great cities in the size of its population.  Cleveland was an up-and-coming city with aspirations to greatness, but even at its peak in 1950, the city only reached a population of 914,800.  And so Cleveland never really rivaled the size of these great cities of the world.  By aiming so high and making such grand plans, the physical scale of the Group Plan was overly large for a moderately-sized city in the Midwest

A second failing of the Group Plan was its premise of creating a district of singular civic use, without inclusion of complementary land uses that would ensure activity and life around the structures that were built there. In their desire to create a unified civic vision, the designers of the Plan made no accommodation for the retail uses, restaurants, or coffeeshops that serve those who would visit or work on the Mall.  Few residential uses were ever constructed in the vicinity of the Mall either.  So the Group Plan does not encourage inhabitation or lingering.  There is no real reason to be on the Mall unless one has business at one of the governmental buildings found there.  While the grouping of public buildings might seem a pleasant vision conceptually, the compartmentalization of functions within a city can ultimately lead to a lack of vibrancy.  This strict segregation of uses can contribute significantly to the monotonous and unwalkable nature of suburban development.  

The grouping of civic structures, one of the notable characteristics of the City Beautiful Movement, led to the compartmentalization of the city by function.  Thus this tenet of the City Beautiful was one of the first steps towards the suburbanization of the American landscape.  Public officials, business leaders, and the general populace embraced these single use districts by looking at the surface characteristics and alluring imagery of the Columbian Exposition and the City Beautiful Movement, without truly understanding the elements essential to the success of urban environments.  Proponents of these civic centers modeled their visions after an environment intended for amusement and pleasure, a city of dreams, without consideration of the negative consequences that might result from the particularization of the activities within the city.

The Group Plan also falls short as an urban space by failing to address the scale of the pedestrian in its architecture.  In addition, the buildings that surround the Mall fail to capitalize on their siting adjacent to this public space.  Incredibly, few of the buildings on the Mall, despite their civic nature, actually have entrances fronting onto it.  Only the Convention Center, Board of Education Headquarters, and the Society office tower address the Mall with pedestrian entrances.  The remaining buildings on the Mall present impressive facades, but actually turn their backs on this large public space.  For example, neither the Federal Courthouse nor the Public Library can be entered from the Mall.  Each treats their Mall façade as little more than a service entrance, presenting imposing, closed-off ground floors to the Mall. 

The Federal Courthouse, in response to security concerns, has a very unwelcoming below-grade sallyport facing the Mall.  The pedestrian cannot enter this public building from the large civic space on which it fronts.  The main library also misses an opportunity to allow its patrons to have a connection to the expansive lawns and picturesque fountains of the Mall. Many great libraries built in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as the City of Los Angeles Central Library and the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan, addressed their nearby public spaces more successfully.   New York’s library is a particularly strong example.  This library fronts its main entrance onto the busy thoroughfare of Fifth Avenue, and it has a second entrance providing access to the building from Bryant Park.  Thus the library and the park onto which it faces are intrinsically linked in the minds of New Yorkers. The New York library, built fourteen years before Cleveland’s facility, is a precedent that Arnold Brunner, the architect of Cleveland’s library, would have done well to follow.

Other civic buildings on the Mall also fail to reinforce their presence there.  The City Hall and County Courthouse are monumental edifices at the Mall’s north end.  These two buildings serve as bookends that frame a view of Lake Erie, but their main facades do not actually front the Mall.  Instead, they face Lakeside Avenue, which runs along the Mall’s northern edge.  The shorter end facades of the two structures face the Mall, but because their main floors are one story above grade, these side elevations present almost impenetrable faces to the pedestrian.  Finally, the County administration buildings which complete the Plan’s west side present undistinguished elevations without entrances towards the Mall.  With few exceptions, the buildings that make up the “walls” of this outdoor room fail to take advantage of their siting. The occupants of these structures can neither enjoy this space nor activate it with their presence.  They can gaze upon the Mall from their office windows, as if it was still a beautiful rendering from the original 1903 plan, but the architecture itself denies them a physical connection to this public space.

One of the most significant factors that kept the Group Plan from reaching its full potential was the relocation of the Union Terminal train station to the Terminal Tower on Public Square.  If the terminal had been constructed as originally intended, at the Mall’s northern end, the pedestrian traffic generated by the station may have made the Group Plan more viable.  But the relocation of the station to the Van Swerigen Brothers’ office tower complex deprived the Mall “of much of the vitality and centrality its planners had envisioned” (Hines 167).   The Terminal Tower, with its offices, shops, restaurants, rapid transit, and train station, acted as a magnet for pedestrian activity downtown.  With the completion of the tower and train station in 1930, the focus of business and commerce in the city shifted to Public Square, and away from the Group Plan.  This shift, due to the terminal’s construction on the Square, resulted in a lack of pedestrian activity on the Mall, strongly contributing to its lack of activity.

The final factor that challenges the viability of this civic space is the awkward physical relationship that exists between the Group Plan and Public Square.  The Group Plan connects to Public Square between the Society Tower and the Federal Building, at a pinchpoint on the Square’s northeast corner.  This tenuous connection does not encourage a strong visual, physical, or pedestrian connection between these two large public spaces.  The Group Plan suffers from its awkward relationship to the Square, and it has never been able to capitalize on its direct proximity to the commercial activity that is centered there.  The initial grouping scheme of 1895, which proposed a location for the civic center due north of Public Square, would have connected the new government buildings directly to the Square, and also would have opened the Square up to the lakefront.  

But the Chamber of Commerce, in its plan of 1900, recommended a site for the grouping of public buildings northeast of the Square.  The Chamber chose this site in order to save land acquisition costs, and to clean up what was perceived as a disreputable neighborhood near the center of town (Leedy 88).  But had the Group Plan been built directly north of Public Square, following the 1895 scheme, the location of the train station in the base of Terminal Tower might actually have proved to be ideal.  With the station located in the tower, and the grouping of civic buildings constructed to the north, the visitor to Cleveland, upon emerging onto Public Square from the depths of the railroad terminal, would have been greeted with an expansive view:  all the public buildings of the city arrayed along two sides of the Mall, framing a vista to the north of Lake Erie, the body of water to which the city ultimately owed its existence and prosperity.  But the selection of the site northeast of the Square meant that this arrival experience was never to be.

Undeniably, there is a grandeur to this urban gesture that is the Cleveland Group Plan.  It is a formally beautiful Beaux Arts plan, but the vision of this plan is never fully realized in the actual space that was created.  The space has never become the center of civic life that its designers envisioned.  The Group Plan is now simply a collection of neoclassical buildings huddled around an underused public park.  The Plan, as Burnham said, is a “noble diagram” that is physically embedded into the fabric of the City of Cleveland.  Unfortunately, it is also a permanent manifestation of the consequences that result from the making of grand plans without a clear understanding of the successful characteristics of public spaces.  The Plan reveals some of the secrets of making great civic spaces, and also many of the factors that contribute to their failure.  In this way, the Group Plan is indeed a significant artifact in the saga of American town planning practice.


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Hines, Thomas S.  Burnham of Chicago, Architect and Planner.  New YorkOxford University Press, 1974.

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Rarick, Holly M.  Progressive Vision:  The Planning of Downtown Cleveland 1903-1930. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1986.

Scott, Mel.  American City Planning Since 1890.  BerkeleyUniversity of California Press, 1971.

Wilson, William H.  The City Beautiful Movement.  Baltimore and LondonThe Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

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