Filed Under Food

Bertsch Building

Built for Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant

The Hungarian dishes that Rosa Wohl cooked at the Wohl Boarding House on Seneca (West 3rd) Street in the 1880s were so popular with their guests that she and her husband Ludwig were encouraged to open a restaurant of their own. By 1888, they had opened one at the boarding house. It was said to be Cleveland's first Hungarian restaurant. In 1903, the Wohls moved that restaurant, which by then had become one of the city's most popular, across the street into a new three-story building that still stands today at 1280 West 3rd Street.

It is difficult to learn much detail about the early lives in Europe of Ludwig and Rosa Wohl, the founders of Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant. According to Ludwig's petition for U.S. citizenship, he was born on April 8, 1837, in Bator, Hungary. By the late 1860s, when he would have been about 30 years old, he had already married Rosa Friedman, was living in Kassa, Hungary (today, Kosice, Slovakia), and was father to his and Rosa's four young sons, Ferdinand (Fred), Sandor (Alexander), Maximilian (Mike) and Julius. According to his obituary, Ludwig and his family then moved to Vienna, where he became a successful livestock trader and distiller until the Panic of 1873 financially ruined him. In 1878, all of the Wohl family, except for Sandor who remained in Europe to pursue an acting career in German theater, moved to the United States.

Upon arriving in America, the Wohl family traveled to Cleveland where Rosa Wohl appears to have had relatives. Ludwig, now in his forties, became a dry goods peddler for a few years, and the family lived for a time on Water (West 9th) Street before they moved to Seneca (West 3rd) Street where Ludwig leased a two family house and then converted it into a boarding house. Rosa cooked such delicious Hungarian meals for their guests, including goulash, fresh baked bread and Hungarian pastries, that the Wohls were soon encouraged to open a restaurant in the boarding house, which they did in 1888. According to local newspapers, it was Cleveland's first Hungarian restaurant. Eventually, the Wohls closed the boarding house and devoted all of the house to the operations of the restaurant, which included living quarters for both the Wohl family and the restaurant staff. By 1900, according to the federal census, there were eight Hungarian immigrants living with the Wohl family—one listed as a cook, two as waitresses, and the other five as "kitchen help."

Even though the two-family house in which the original Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant was located had no signage that indicated it was a restaurant and was in such a dilapidated condition that it was referred to as "the Shanty," Clevelanders loved the restaurant and patronized it in large numbers. A March 8, 1903, article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to it as the most popular "foreign"restaurant in Cleveland. It was also an important meeting place for Cleveland's Hungarian community. In late March 1894, it had served as the place where leaders of that community gathered to plan a memorial to Hungarian national hero Lajos Kossuth, who had died earlier that month.

In 1902, the Wohl family began making plans to move their restaurant into a new building across Seneca Street from their old restaurant building, and next door to the Cleveland Press building. Designed by Progressive architect Morris Gleichman in a style which local historian Drew Rolik called "Dutch Baroque Domestic (Revival)," the building, which still stands today at 1280 West 3rd Street, is three stories tall with an exterior of vitrified brick. It features two massive arches at its front door which originally led into the restaurant's main dining room. The first two floors of the building were devoted to dining and private meeting rooms, and a kitchen. The third floor, and perhaps outbuildings on the property, housed the residences of the Wohl family as well as the restaurant staff, which, according to the 1910 census, now numbered 19 individuals—all Hungarian immigrants—two employed as bartenders and the other 17 as waitresses. The new restaurant opened on June 6, 1903. The opening was attended by many prominent Clevelanders including Mayor Tom L. Johnson.

At about the time that the new restaurant building was opening, Alexander Sandor Wohl, the son of Ludwig and Rosa, who by this time had become a well-known actor and director of theater in Berlin, Germany, and who had made trips to and from the United States in the late 1880s and 1890s, returned to the United States and became active in the theater life of Cleveland. He also became involved in the family restaurant business, perhaps as the result of the death of his brother Mike in 1902 and the aging of his father Ludwig, who was now well into his 60s. According to Alexander's obituary, he used his theater connections in Cleveland to arrange for members of the Cleveland Opera House orchestra to appear and play pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss at Wohl's Hungarian restaurant, making it, according to Cleveland newspapers, the first restaurant in Cleveland to play music while patrons dined.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant remained one of Cleveland's most popular restaurants. When President Howard Taft visited Cleveland in 1912 during his presidential reelection campaign, he made a point of visiting the restaurant. After the death of Ludwig Wohl in 1910, management of the restaurant was left to his sons, Alexander and Julius. In 1920, the restaurant was dealt a blow from which it never really recovered by the start of Prohibition. Another blow to the restaurant was delivered in 1927 when Rosa Wohl, Ludwig's widow, whose Hungarian cooking had made the restaurant one of Cleveland's best, died.

The final blow to Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant was the Great Depression, which began in 1929. By the time that the 1930 federal census was taken, only Alexander and Julius Wohl were still living in the building at 1280 West 3rd. Three years later, the brothers executed a deed conveying whatever interest in the property that they may have had to the heirs of Frank W. Hubby from whom the Wohl family had leased the new restaurant building since 1903. Two years after this, in May 1935, despondent over their businesses losses, Alexander and Julius Wohl committed suicide in a back room of the restaurant. They both were cremated and their ashes interred with the bodies of their parents and siblings at Mayfield Cemetery in Cleveland Heights.

Following the deaths of Alexander and Julius Wohl, the Wohl family's longtime employee Ernest Mueller attempted to keep the restaurant going, but was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1936, the Hubby family heirs sold the building at 1280 West 3rd street to a union official representing the interests of the Cleveland Building and Trades Council. For approximately the next 50 years, the building was home to several different Cleveland labor organizations and was known for a time as the Cleveland Building and Trades Hall and later as the Painters' Union Building. In 1985, the building was sold to a corporation owned by a law firm headed by Richard Bertsch, after whom the building is now named. The Bertsch law firm, and its successor law firms, owned the building through various corporate entities until 2020, when it was sold to a local real estate developer. Recently, that developer has floated plans to demolish both the Bertsch Building and the next door Marion Building and build a hotel and apartment building on the site. Only time will tell whether the Bertsch Building, home to Cleveland's first Hungarian Restaurant, will be torn down, thereby removing from downtown Cleveland the last vestige of that historic trend setting restaurant owned and operated by the Ludwig and Rosa Wohl family.

Images

Bertsch Building
Bertsch Building A view of the front facade of the Bertsch Building. From 1985 until 2020, it was home to a Cleveland law firm as well as a bail bond company. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission Date: 2005
The Shanty in 1903
The Shanty in 1903 This two family (or double frame) house, which in the nineteenth century stood on the east side of Seneca (West 3rd Street) near Lake (Lakeside) Avenue,—where the Justice Center stands today—was leased in the mid 1880s to Ludwig and Rosa who converted it into a boarding house. By 1903, when the Plain Dealer featured it in an article about Cleveland's most popular "foreign" restaurants, its exterior was in a somewhat dilapidated condition leading it to be known as "the Shanty." It was home to Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant from 1888 until 1903. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Wohl's new Hungarian Restaurant
Wohl's new Hungarian Restaurant This advertisement which appeared in the Plain Dealer on June 4, 1903, announced the opening of the new Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant to be held on Saturday, June 6. The grand opening was attended by prominent Clevelanders, including Mayor Tom L. Johnson. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
A Postcard View
A Postcard View This postcard created between 1903 and 1905 presents exterior and interior views of Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant. The address of 150 Seneca changed to 1280 West 3rd Street when the City of Cleveland implemented its new city-wide address system in 1906. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Memory Project
Ludwig Wohl (1837-1910)
Ludwig Wohl (1837-1910) A Hungarian Jew who lived in Kassa, Hungary, and later Vienna, Austria, Wohl immigrated to America with his wife Rosa and their family in 1878. By 1888, he and Rosa had opened what was reputedly Cleveland's first Hungarian restaurant in a boarding house they operated on the east side of Seneca (West 3rd) Street, near Lake (Lakeside) Avenue. In 1903, the Wohls moved their restaurant into a new building across Seneca Street which still stands today (2024) at 1280 West 3rd Street. This photo of Ludwig Wohl appeared with his obituary in the December 20, 1910, edition of the Plain Dealer. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
West 3rd Street Location
West 3rd Street Location This section of the 1912-1951 Ohio Sanborn Map graphically shows Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant and the buildings near it in that period both on the west side of West 3rd Street and the east side of West 6th. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
An Ad to Overcome Prohibition
An Ad to Overcome Prohibition This full page ad for Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant appeared in the Plain Dealer on December 23, 1922. Prohibition had been in effect for two years and this ad, which stressed the quality of coffee served at the restaurant, as well as the quality of its food and decorations, may have been intended to bring back customers who no longer patronized the restaurant once its Hungarian wines and other alcoholic drinks could no longer be legally served at the restaurant. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
The Brothers Wohl and their Restaurant
The Brothers Wohl and their Restaurant This 1928 illustration shows brothers Alexander and Julius Wohl, owners of Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant, and the exterior of the restaurant at 1280 West 3rd Street. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Memory Project
Garment District Leaders
Garment District Leaders Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant featured private meeting rooms on the second floor of the building at 1280 West 3rd Street. In this 1932 photo, leaders of coat, suit and dress manufacturing companies in Cleveland's Garment District (part of today's Warehouse District) meet to discuss important issues in their industry. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveand Memory Project Date: 1932
It's a Buffet—not a Bar
It's a Buffet—not a Bar In this 1932 photo, long time Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant employee Ernest Mueller appears in an area of the restaurant called "the Buffet," where drinks were prepared for guests. Mueller, a Hungarian immigrant, began working at the Wohl family's restaurant in 1905. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1932
Interior View of Restaurant
Interior View of Restaurant This photo is of the main dining room on the first floor of Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1932
The Gypsy Room
The Gypsy Room Photo of one of the more interestingly named interior rooms in Wohl's Hungarian Restaurant. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1932
A busy West 3rd Street at Midcentury
A busy West 3rd Street at Midcentury This photo show traffic on West 3rd Street heading north toward Lakeside Avenue. To the left of the Marion Building sign, a portion of the Bertsch Building is visible. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: 1950
A view from the Watson Building
A view from the Watson Building Paul Rodriguez of Rodriguez and McGilly Movers watches a crane lifting a skid to an upper floor of the Watson Building, which was scheduled for demolition. In the background, the Bertsch Building, with a sign indicating it was then home to the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: 1972
The Bertsch Building in Recent Years
The Bertsch Building in Recent Years This photo shows the Bertsch building when the ABC Bail Bond Company occupied offices on its first floor and a law firm on its second. Neither occupies the building today (2024) and plans to demolish it have recently appeared in Cleveland news articles. Source: Wikipedia Date: 2019

Location

1280 W 3rd St, Cleveland, OH 44113

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Bertsch Building,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 23, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/1019.