by David H. Ellison, AIA (This article originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of the Façade Newsletter of the Cleveland Restoration Society)
As the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the Cleveland Group Plan of 1903 approaches and as new plans arise for the further development of sites around the Mall, a public summary and evaluation of their impact and the future of the Group Plan is appropriate.
Over 100 years ago Clevelanders began to discuss an overall plan for a group of new public buildings. By 1903, a Group Plan Commission of three prominent architects had been formed and submitted a report.
The Group Plan designed by Daniel Burnham, Arnold Brunner and John Carrere was largely implemented by the City of Cleveland and gave Cleveland what in 1911 was expected to be,
"…the most spacious and most beautiful public square, or rather mall, in the United States…a spacious mall, enclosed by handsome buildings representing every phase of Cleveland's public life." (Arch'l Record, Vol. 29, Mar. 1911, pp 193-213)
In 1904, Harper's Weekly claimed,
"Probably no city in the country, outside the capital, has undertaken the systematic development of public architecture and parkage on so splendid a scale as has the city of Cleveland…[The creation of the Group Plan Commission is] the most significant forward step in the matter of municipal art taken in America."
A decade before the Cleveland Group Plan was adopted, Burnham had successfully organized the design of a grouping of buildings for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The resulting composition demonstrated the value of a cohesive plan and complementary stylistic decisions to the American public. People were enamored with the "white city" of the 1893 Exposition. The "City Beautiful Movement" swept the country and caused the construction of new public buildings in the Beaux Arts style across the United States. Apart from the failure of these early planning efforts to address the social problems of poverty and lack of opportunity, the development of American city planning was off to an enthusiastic start.
Despite Clevelanders' decision not to complete the original plan's Union Station at the northern end of the Mall, the Cleveland Group Plan is the most completely implemented of any of the great city plans devised by Burnham and his colleagues after the World's Fair. Taking the Commission's lead, many buildings were built outside the boundaries of the original plan that respected the general aesthetic premises of the Plan and served to increase its overall effect and value. As such, the Cleveland Group Plan is a large and coordinated grouping of public and private buildings in the Beaux Arts and classical style. It was eventually recognized by City Council in an ordinance passed in 1987. "The people of the City have invested large sums of money in the development and maintenance of the Mall…which investment has in itself enhanced the value of adjoining and neighboring lands".
The Group Plan Commission's report included the following passage:
"The development of the buildings on each side of [the Mall] may be very difficult, if not impossible, to control. We have, however, every reason to hope that by city ordinances, by public spirit and general interest in the matter, these buildings can be developed on coordinate and harmonious lines, so as to form a great vista, and an imposing and monumental architectural background. One or two mistakes on the part of selfish interests, which it may be difficult to control, would destroy much of the effect.
It would seem, however, of the greatest importance that the city should, if possible, acquire all the land facing on the Mall, when purchasing the rest of the property needed for this improvement, and that it then should dispose of it under well-defined restriction, so as to obtain perfect harmony in the development of the architecture."
In 1935, the last of the Beaux Arts-style buildings was completed as the Board of Education Building, and the remaining 19th century buildings in the midst of the Mall were finally removed, opening the vista and park space promised over thirty years earlier.
Since 1935, several important events and trends have occurred and certain ordinances have been passed affecting what is now known as the "Mall Historic District" and the larger "Public Land Protective District". The most significant change has been in public and professional opinion against the practice of neo-classical or Beaux Arts style architecture. City Council denied the Planning Commission in 1958 the ability to "prescribe the style of architecture" around the Mall by Ordinance #341.05 codifying this shift in attitude. In 1991, Council gave the Planning Commission the authority to limit the demolition of buildings within the district for up to two six-month periods while alternatives are sought.
The Planning Commission is required to review all proposed developments within the Protective District including those within the Mall Historic District. The Landmarks Commission is required to review only those proposed within the Historic District. It is expected, though not required, that the Landmarks Commission will review any proposed developments around the Mall, including those outside the boundaries of the Historic District. Unfortunately, and despite the wording of the 1987 ordinance establishing the Protective District, neither commission has been empowered to overcome the "selfish interests" mentioned in the original Group Plan Commission Report, or to insure that earlier investments by the citizens of Cleveland are protected.
Given the examples of post WWII public buildings and particularly post-1987 developments around the Mall, Clevelanders might choose to improve the protections and impose "well-defined restrictions" as suggested in the original 1903 Report.
The western edge of the Mall Historic District, north of the Society Building and Marriott Hotel, where two new hotels have been suggested in the new Civic Vision plan is zoned for general retail business with a 250' height limit. For comparison, the existing pre-WWII buildings around the Mall have a cornice height of approximately 80'; the Federal Reserve Building and new Library are each about 150' high, the Standard Building, the CEI Building, and the Marriott Hotel are each closer to 250'. On the eastern side of the Mall, the Board of Education site has the same 250' height limit, and a potential first floor area substantially more than the current building occupies. The Board of Education Building's small footprint, relatively low height, and political vulnerability make it a possible target for "development". It is significant that the building directly to the east of the Board of Education, soon to be vacated by Channel 3, complies with the overall pre-WWII aesthetic and cornice height but is not protected as part of the Historic District.
The northern edge falls outside the Historic District and is generally restricted to a 115' height limit. It would require the acquisition of air rights from the railroad and is designated for a convention center in the new Civic Vision Plan. The area north of the Shoreway and west of North Coast Harbor is currently zoned for general industry with a 115' height limit. The areas to the east of North Coast Harbor are zoned for general retail business. Buildings on Voinovich Park are limited to 60' in height, while the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site is limited to 250' in height.
It is worthy of note that Clevelanders were promised in the 1903 report, a
"…view of the lake from the northerly end of the waiting room of the railroad station and from the Park on the lakefront…wholly unobstructed by any objectionable foreground… Extending along the lake front a beautiful quay with trees and parkings… thus preserving unto the City of Cleveland… a waterfront park of sufficient dimensions for all practical purposes of recreation and of public service…"
Potential developments in Cleveland's Mall District demand that we critically evaluate the current set of processes, restrictions and protections affecting this area, and improve them if necessary. Two important efforts should be undertaken; one to look at the decisions which led the architectural profession and the public to abandon the commitment to harmony and uniformity which was central to the City Beautiful Movement, the Group Plan of 1903, and even to I. M. Pei's Erieview Plan of 1960; the other is to legislatively limit new "signature" buildings within this area, encouraging instead the development of harmonious "background" buildings for the completion of the composition. Doing less would be to waste a legacy of civic achievement and fail to fulfill the optimistic expectations held 100 years ago.