Filed Under Suburbs

Shaker Heights City Hall

William J. Van Aken (1884-1950) served as Mayor of Shaker Heights from 1915 until his death in 1950, overseeing its transition from rural farmland to one of the nation's wealthiest and most well-regarded suburbs. The opening of a new city hall in 1930 symbolized a turning point in this transition, as the city moved out of a modest structure on the site of the old Shaker religious community's meeting house at the northeast corner of Shaker Boulevard and Lee Road, and into a grand brick building featuring an imposing semi-circular portico framed by six two-story high Corinthian columns. The building at 3400 Lee Road--designated a Shaker Heights Landmark on July 26, 1993--was designed by Charles Schneider (who also designed Shaker Heights's Plymouth Church, Fernway School, Ludlow School, and Lomond School) in Georgian Revival style. The Village of Shaker Heights officially became a city the next year, capping twenty years of tremendous growth.

While the Van Sweringen brothers may be the best known figures in Shaker's history, the "third Van" also deserves credit for the city's rise. William Van Aken grew up being friends with O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. All three worked as paperboys for the same Cleveland newspaper. Van Aken worked the "country" route, beginning near his mother's farmhouse at East 125th Street and Larchmere Boulevard. During the first decade of the 20th-century, both Van Aken and the Van Sweringens were working separately to develop farmland on Cleveland's east side. Speaking to a reporter, Van Aken remembered this as "a rugged job, but I loved it. Carving a city out of wilderness is the most satisfying of experiences."

Van Aken rekindled his friendship with the Van Sweringens during this time, using their help to win a seat on the Cleveland Heights Village Council. The three men then worked together to successfully have the old North Union Shaker lands (owned by the Van Sweringens) detached from Cleveland Heights, giving O.P. and M.J. firm control over their investment. Indeed, the first three councilmen for Shaker Township (incorporated in July 1911 after approval by Cleveland Heights) were Van Aken, O.P. Van Sweringen, and the Van Sweringens' attorney. The Van Sweringens could now feel confident that their vision of a highly-planned, "Garden City" suburb would take shape.

William Van Aken became mayor of Shaker in 1915 and soon after started his own real estate firm. During his tenure as Mayor, he oversaw the construction of the Rapid Transit line to Downtown in the 1920s, and helped the city through the potentially catastrophic bankruptcy of the Van Sweringen Company in 1936, all while Shaker's population and land values continued to rise. From 200 in 1911, Shaker grew to over 28,200 residents by 1950. Van Aken also created one of the nation's first municipal architectural review boards and stringently enforced the city's zoning regulations, actions which surely pleased the Van Sweringens, who viewed high design standards and careful planning as the best ways to maintain Shaker Heights's upper-class appeal, differentiating it from the crowded, smoky big city to its west.

It was therefore quite fortuitous that the three former paperboys renewed their friendship in adulthood: the Van Sweringens saw their investment blossom, Van Aken became an influential and respected community leader, and out of sparsely populated farmland grew a city that today continues to retain its original charm and beauty.

Audio

Moving Property Lines Mary Scibana explains the reason that the Larchmere neighborhood is part of Shaker Heights. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Symmetrical Design The Georgian Colonial design of Shaker Heights City Hall is seen in its gabled roof, symmetrical facade, dormer windows, and portico doorway. Architect Charles Schneider designed a number of residences in the city in this style, as well as Plymouth Church, Ludlow School, and Fernway School. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Division of Special Collections. Cleveland Press Collection.
Construction, 1930 The Cleveland Press caption for this 1930 photograph explains the significance of the word 'City' etched onto the portico of City Hall: 'So confident were Shaker Heights Village officials that the 1930 census would place the suburb in the city class, that when construction was begun on the new civic center at Lee road and Clayton boulevard in October, they instructed contractors to carve in the stone facade the inscription, City Hall of Shaker Heights, pictured above.' Shaker Heights officially became a city in 1931. In Ohio, a village becomes a city when it has 5,000 residents. At the time of the 1920 census, Shaker only had a population of around 1,700. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Division of Special Collections. Cleveland Press Collection.
Under Construction, 1930 Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Public Library Local History Collection
William Van Aken, ca. 1911 William Van Aken (left) and two friends are seen with the paving bricks soon to be laid on North Woodland (now Larchmere) Avenue, the dirt road which runs in the background. The men are standing in front of the house at 2484 East 128th Street in which Van Aken, his widowed mother, and two step-sisters then lived. The boundary separating Shaker Heights from Cleveland sat at the west lot lines of the houses on East 128th Street, putting the Van Aken house right at the edge of Shaker. Earlier plans had this boundary at East 130th Street, which would have placed Van Aken (then a member of the Shaker VIllage Council) in Cleveland. The Van Sweringens ensured that this did not come to pass, and their loyal ally Van Aken remained a resident of Shaker, while in 1915 the area to the west of East 128th Street was annexed by Cleveland. Image courtesy of the Shaker Historical Society
Van Aken and Wife, ca. 1911 William Van Aken and his wife Florence Swallow (left) pose with two other couples on the side of North Woodland (now Larchmere) Avenue, near East 130th Street. Image courtesy of the Shaker Historical Society
Van Aken Boulevard South Moreland Boulevard officially became Van Aken Boulevard in April 1951, less than four months after the death of Mayor Van Aken. Julie Krausslich, secretary to the Mayor, poses with one of the new street signs in this photograph. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Division of Special Collections. Cleveland Press Collection.
Police Station Bombing, 1970 On February 2, 1970, 21 year-old Shaker Heights resident Martin Berns walked into the Shaker Heights Police Station on Lee Road, just north of City Hall, carrying a bomb concealed in a package. Without warning, the bomb went off, killing Berns, injuring over a dozen people, and completely leveling the building, which also contained the area's Municipal Court. Minutes earlier, Berns had shot and wounded his former psychiatrist at the man's home on Fernway Road. The psychiatrist had had Berns institutionalized five years earlier. The Shaker Heights police had escorted Berns to the psychiatric hospital then, leading some to speculate that this was the reason for the bombing. The city eventually built a new police station and Municipal Court across the street, on the east side of Lee Road. Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Public Library Local History Collection
Shaker Firemen Dine, 1931 Members of the Shaker Heights Fire Department enjoy a meal at their headquarters in the rear of City Hall. The fire department formed in October 1917 with eight men, and moved their station to the new City Hall in 1930. In 1952, a second fire station opened on Warrensville Center Road near Shaker Boulevard. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Division of Special Collections.
William Van Aken Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Public Library Local History Collection

Location

3400 Lee Rd, Shaker Heights, OH 44120

Metadata

Michael Rotman, “Shaker Heights City Hall,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 15, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/362.