Filed Under Architecture

Terminal Tower

Cleveland's Signature Skyscraper

Although today the first sign of downtown that a motorist is sure to spot from any direction is the Key Tower, prior to its completion in the early 1990s the first sight was the Terminal Tower. Despite its eclipse by a later, taller skyscraper, the 52-story, 708-foot-tall Terminal Tower was an instant icon and has arguably remained Cleveland’s most potent symbol. The Terminal Tower, at least as a plan, didn’t start as a tower at all, but instead as a railway station known as the Cleveland Union Terminal. In the early 20th century, as Cleveland grew as an industrial powerhouse, many Northeast Ohioans used railway lines to get to their destinations. Ohio had one of the most extensive interurban networks, with over 2,000 miles of track. However, it was not commuter railways but rather intercity passenger trains that led to the creation of the Terminal. Steam locomotives produced excessive amounts of pollutants when converging downtown, hampering Cleveland’s goal of becoming a modern, attractive city. In the interest of smoke abatement, the Union Terminal project would rely on switching trains to electric engines at outlying rail yards before passing through the city, including its central rail terminal.

The only problem was where to place this symbol of Cleveland’s progress.  Inspired by Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson and the Group Plan Commission began planning a “civic center” that would run from Superior Avenue all the way to the lakefront. This civic center centered on the Mall and was Cleveland’s dominant expression of the City Beautiful. But the plan to make a new railway along the lakefront as the grand point of entry to the city came to a halt because of unexpected developments. Enter the Van Sweringen brothers, Mantis J. and Oris P., a duo of real estate and railroad tycoons who were keen on connecting their master-planned suburb of Shaker Heights to downtown via a new rapid transit rail line.

While the Van Sweringens originally planned the Shaker Heights line, their ambition expanded. The brothers realized that if the station for Public Square could succeed, they needed to include railways and facilities next to it. After heated debates that lasted a few years, the Terminal cornerstone was set on March 16, 1927, tilting downtown Cleveland’s center of gravity decidedly back to Public Square and ensuring that the Mall concept would work. The project was estimated at around $170 million and the Union Terminal had its grand opening in 1930. Travelers to Cleveland found many shops and services inside the Terminal’s concourses without having to step outside, including the elegant English Oak Room, Fred Harvey Company concessions, Higbee Bros. department store, and the preexisting adjacent Hotel Cleveland. The 42nd floor was used as an observation deck, allowing a bird's-eye view of the city. The Terminal’s concept of a multiuse “city within a city” anticipated New York’s Rockefeller Center. The Van Sweringen brothers, never comfortable in the spotlight, did not attend the 1930 dedication, instead spending the day at Roundwood Manor, their country estate in Hunting Valley.

The Terminal Tower itself was built toward the end of the skyscraper craze of the 1920s. When completed in 1930, it was the tallest tower in the world outside New York City. If the “Vans” wouldn’t toot their own horn, there were plenty of others ready to trumpet the Terminal’s superlative status. Walter Ross, president of the Nickel Plate Railroad, effused that the tower was “the symbol of the city’s progress and the prophecy of its future. … Cleveland may be sixth in the census list of cities, but so far as its Union Station is concerned, if that is any consolation, it may regard itself as on a parity with the leading city.”

However, the completion of taller buildings in other cities periodically whittled down this superlative: to tallest in North America outside New York after 1953 and tallest between New York and Chicago after 1964. When Key Bank Tower was completed in 1991, the Terminal Tower became the second tallest in Cleveland and second tallest between the Big Apple and the Windy City. Nevertheless, the Tower’s architecture is something to behold, with the upper portion closely resembling New York’s Municipal Building. Both were modeled on ancient Roman types called sepulchral monuments, a favorite classical nod associated with the Beaux-Arts architectural movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, by the time Cleveland’s iconic tower was built, even the Beaux-Arts style was antiquated as more architects embraced the emerging Art Deco and other modernist modes.

The choice of an older style of architecture may have reflected a desire to make downtown Cleveland appear more well-established. After all, despite the steady rise of skyscrapers on the skyline since the 1890s, Cleveland’s skyline had fallen further behind a handful of the nation’s other largest cities by the late 1920s. Although it was hardly an original and audacious design apart from its towering height, over the next few decades, the Terminal Tower grew to be a defining status symbol for Cleveland. The self-contained “city within a city” of interconnected buildings—all linked to the same central transit station—made for daily interactions with those who worked there. In 1970, the president of Terminal Management, Homer Guren, mentioned how his employees became “sort of a Tower family.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Terminal Tower became a symbolic place in many other ways as well. To support the Cleveland Indians, twelve baseballs were dropped from the roof to the ground below. Only two of the balls thrown by third baseman Ken Keltner were caught by catchers Hank Helf and Frankie Pytlak. The Indians’ special treatment didn’t stop there, as the team’s flag flew atop the Tower during home games. In 1980, after Mayor George Voinovich’s election amid Cleveland’s long, painful slide in the 1970s, the Terminal Tower was illuminated from base to crown at night to symbolize the city’s comeback. The building adorned the logo for Yellow Cab taxis for many years, frequently found its way into Harvey Pekar's comic books, and was featured in the background of many television shows and movies, most notably the 2012 hit The Avengers

More recently, the Terminal Tower has taken on a modern aesthetic, not just for the look, but to show support for the community. Thanks to the addition of LED lights in 2014, the Tower is lit up every night in a range of different colors: for the Cleveland Cavaliers, wine and gold; for the annual Pride celebration, rainbow; and even colored images like the Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story, which was filmed in Cleveland. During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, the Tower staged a special light show to signal hope for the city. The ever-changing colors of these lights keep Clevelanders’ eyes focused on the skyline, helping reinforce the Terminal Tower as an enduring symbol of the city.

Video

"What an idea!" Architect Peter Van Dijk describes the genius of the Van Sweringen plan to connect Shaker Heights with downtown Cleveland. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities

Audio

It Was Like the Emerald City Author Shawn Hoefler remembers the excitement of approaching the city during family trips to Cleveland Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
An Ornate Skyscraper Shawn Hoefler on Terminal Tower's size and decoration Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Ethnic Influences On The Tower Norman Krumholz of Cleveland State University talks about what he sees as the ethnic influences on the Terminal Tower's architecture and design Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

West Approach to Cleveland Union Terminal The Terminal Tower rises above the C.U.T. electrified rail line. The C.U.T. was more than an iconic downtown rail station topped by one of the world's tallest skyscrapers. It was complex system with electric catenaries above many miles of multiple tracks running from Collinwood Yards in northeastern Cleveland to Linndale Yards near the city's southwestern edge. Trains pulled by steam locomotives were transferred to electric locomotives at each of these rail yards before completing their the last – and importantly smokeless – approach into downtown Cleveland. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: February 14, 1930
Before the Terminal This photo shows how the southwest side of Public Square appeared a few years before construction commenced on the Cleveland Union Terminal. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: November 24, 1922
New York Municipal Building Designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1914, the New York Municipal Building was the first in the city to have a subway station underneath. Both its architecture and transit element provided a template for Cleveland's later Terminal Tower. In fact, the design looks even more similar to the original Terminal rendering, in which the central tower was shorter. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 Creator: Erlend Bjørtvedt Date: 2012
An Early Conception of the Terminal A shorter version of the Terminal Tower is seen in this conceptual postcard, made ahead of a public referendum on funding for the project. Source: J. Mark Souther Postcard Collection Creator: Braun Post Card Co. Date: ca. 1919
Medical Arts Building Construction The unprecedented engineering for the Terminal project included the demolition of more than 1,000 buildings and the construction of many bridges and viaducts for the railroad approaches. In this construction view, the recently completed Terminal Tower looms above the railroad terminal station (center), still construction, with the Medical Arts Building (top center) skeleton rising along West Prospect and Ontario Avenues. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: March 14, 1929
Terminal Tower Under Construction in 1927 The concrete and steel supports for the tower reach nearly 250 feet below ground level. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: August 1, 1927
Train Schedule, 1930 The Union Terminal station, which saw peak use during World War II, was used for inter-city passenger trains until 1977. Today, the infrastructure is used as a hub for the city's rapid transit commuter trains. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1930
Cross-Sectional View of Union Terminal This cutaway shows the subterranean rail station in relation to the Terminal concourses and Terminal Tower above. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Tower at Night In its early years, Terminal Tower had a powerful strobe that helped guide aircraft and ships. This postcard view also points out the original upper illumination and the lighted scaffold sign that once stood over Hotel Cleveland. Source: J. Mark Souther Postcard Collection Creator: Tichnor Bros. Inc. / George Klein News Co. Date: ca. 1930
Public Square Entrance Roman arches framed by Ionic columns provide a dramatic sense of arrival even before pedestrians reach the Terminal's polished brass doors. Source: Library of Congress Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Date: ca. 1930s
Union Terminal Portico The portico, usually referred to today as simply "the lobby," features a barrel-vaulted ceiling and limestone-faced walls. On the portico's north end (shown in distance) was the entrance to Higbee's department store (now JACK Casino) and Cleveland Trust Co. bank (home to Brooks Brothers from the opening of Tower City Center in 1990 until the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020). The south end led to the lobby of Hotel Cleveland (now the Renaissance Hotel). From this space, pedestrians walked down a pair of descending corridors to the concourse, where they could visit shops and services on the way to board either an intercity passenger train or rapid transit line. Source: Library of Congress Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Date: ca. 1930s
Greenbrier Suite World Institute delegates at a press conference in the Greenbrier Suite, once one of the Van Sweringen brothers' personal residences. Located on the 12th through 14th floors of Terminal Tower, it provided the Vans a downtown residential alternative to their Shaker Heights mansion and Hunting Valley estate. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Joseph E. Cole Date: January 10, 1947
Moscow State University The main building of Moscow State University, built in 1953, closely resembles the Terminal Tower, which it surpassed as the world's tallest building outside New York City. Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Creator: Vyacheslav Argenberg Date: January 19, 2006
Terminal Tower Souvenirs Die-cast metal tower replicas were only one of countless Terminal Tower souvenirs that were sold in Cleveland, mostly in the 1930s-50s when the skyscraper was still among the world's tallest. Source: Terminal Tower Souvenir Collection. terminaltowersouvenirs.blogspot.com
Terminal Tower as Comeback City Symbol In 1981, the Terminal Tower was re-lit as a symbol of Cleveland's ballyhooed "Comeback City" status. The illuminated tower graced the cover of a New Cleveland Campaign promotional booklet touting the city's renaissance. Source: Cleveland: Turning Around (Cleveland: New Cleveland Campaign, ca. 1981) Date: ca. 1981
The Avenue at Tower City Center Opened in 1990 by Forest City Enterprises, which acquired the Terminal Tower and Terminal complex in the 1980s, The Avenue at Tower City Center was originally an upscale multilevel shopping mall intended to add to downtown Cleveland's revitalization. In its early days, the mall, like the rail terminal sixty years before, was a novelty and a point of tremendous civic pride. Unfortunately, over the next three decades the mall lost most of its tenants, mirroring similar difficulties faced by downtown malls in other cities. In 2016, Forest City sold the mall portion of Tower City Center to Bedrock Detroit. Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Creator: Onasill ~ Bill Date: ca. 1990
Fisheye Photo from Observation Deck The Terminal Tower Observation Deck on the 42nd floor affords a 360º view of Cleveland. It is reached by taking one elevator from the lobby to the 32nd floor and a second elevator from there to the 42nd floor. The Observation Deck opened in 1930. After a hostage situation that occurred in the Chessie System railroad's offices on the same floor in 1976, the attraction closed for a time. It closed again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and reopened in 2010. The Covid-19 pandemic again forced its temporary closure starting in 2020. Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Creator: Erik Drost Date: April 6, 2019
Wine and Gold in LED Following the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 NBA Championship, the Terminal Tower's LED lights produced the team's signature "wine and gold" color scheme to celebrate the city's end to its long pro sports championship drought. In that same year, Forest City Realty sold Terminal Tower to Cleveland-based K&D, which converted its upper floors into apartments. Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Creator: Erik Drost Date: June 19, 2016

Location

50 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44113 | For information on the Terminal Tower Observation Deck, visit www.terminaltower.com/terminal-tower-observation-deck/.

Metadata

Katherine Gerchak and J. Mark Souther, “Terminal Tower,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 30, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/21.