Filed Under Architecture

The Luther Moses House

A Cleveland Landmark that did not find its Savior

The house was one of the oldest and most historic residences in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. And that's saying a lot, because Dunham Tavern Museum, just a mile or so away, is located in the same neighborhood.

It is widely believed that the house at 5611 Lexington Avenue was built in 1854 by pioneer Cleveland shipbuilder, Luther Moses. However, the house, which was originally designed in a vernacular style exhibiting elements of Gothic, Greek Revival and Federal architecture, may have been nearly a decade older than that. County tax and deed records suggest that Luther and his wife Arvilla, who in the 1840s had been living in Ohio City near his shipyard, moved in 1848 to East Cleveland Township, onto a 100-acre lot southeast of the intersection of Superior Street (Avenue) and Willson Avenue (East 55th Street). The tax records further suggest that they took possession under a land contract and that, when they arrived, there was already a house on the property, one which was likely built in 1845 by early Cleveland merchant, real estate developer, and renowned house builder, Philo Scovill. Finally, the tax records note that, in 1852, Luther was taxed for an "addition to house"--which was perhaps the one-story addition on the east side of the house observable for many decades--an improvement to the property that Luther may have delayed constructing until he acquired legal title, which occurred in 1851.

So, was the house built in 1845 the same house that until recently sat at 5611 Lexington, or was the house at 5611 Lexington a newer house built on the property in 1854? That mystery may not be easily solved, but it is clear that Luther and Arvilla Moses lived in the house, which originally had a front entrance facing west toward Willson Avenue, until the early 1870s. Before that decade arrived, Luther retired from the shipbuilding business and focused for a time on farming the 30 acres he had retained from his original 1851 land purchase. His farming days came to an end in the 1870s when East Cleveland Village--East Cleveland Township had become a village in 1866--was annexed to its fast-growing neighbor to the west, Cleveland. Anticipating (or perhaps even promoting) this annexation, Luther and Arvilla Moses submitted a plat to East Cleveland village in 1871, proposing to create a residential subdivision with 68 lots, most of them fronting new Moses Avenue. The subdivision was approved in 1872, the same year that East Cleveland was annexed to Cleveland, and also, sadly for Luther, the same year that Arvilla Moses died.

As a result of the development of the new subdivision, the Luther Moses House acquired a street address of 1220 Moses Avenue (and likely also a new front entrance facing the new street). That street address became 1220 Lexington Avenue a few years later, when, in anticipation of the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Moses Avenue was renamed Lexington Avenue. In 1906 the house acquired its current address when Cleveland enacted legislation, among other things, renaming many of the city's north-south streets as numbered streets, and at the same time renumbering houses and other buildings on east-west streets with numbers indicative of their approximate location from a particular numbered street.

Within a month of his wife's death, Luther Moses moved from the house and put it up for sale. It remained unsold for seven years--though it was rented out for several of those years--until it was purchased by Rosetta Scowden, the wife of renowned Cleveland engineer, Theodore Ransom Scowden. In 1852, Scowden, who had designed a water works system for the City of Cincinnati, came to Cleveland and designed this city's first system. Because of the effects of Cleveland's early industrialization and population growth on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, drinking water was becoming dangerously contaminated, leading to cholera and other disease epidemics. To combat this contamination and disease, Scowden designed a waterworks that included an intake pipe that went well out into the Lake where the water was cleaner, an engine house near the shoreline that pumped the clean water uphill from the Lake, and a reservoir that held and distributed this water to Cleveland residents.

The Scowdens had become wealthy as a result of Theodore's engineering work here and elsewhere. They lived in a grand house on Euclid Avenue for years before retiring to their "cottage" in 1879, as Rosetta Scowden referred in her will to the Moses House. The Scowdens unfortunately did not live to enjoy many years of retirement in the house. Theodore died in 1881, just two years after the house was purchased, and Rosetta the following spring in 1882. Upon her death, the house passed to their daughter Josephine, who had married Charles Gaylord, a Civil War veteran whose maternal grandfather was General Erastus Cleaveland, a hero in the War of 1812 and a cousin of Cleveland's legendary founder.

The Gaylords, who owned the house from 1882 until 1910, were the last family to occupy it as a single family residence for an extended period of time. When Josephine Gaylord died in 1910, her husband moved from the house and it was sold to Arnold and Pauline Roth who purchased it with the intention to convert it to a multifamily dwelling. The Roths made extensive changes to the exterior, as well as to the interior of the house, including replacing the front porch which extended along the entire south side of the house with a shortened two-story porch, adding a second floor to the addition on the east side of the house, and constructing an exterior two-story stairwell for tenant access on the north side of the house. In 1913, shortly after the reconstruction was completed, the Roths sold the house to local physician Dr. John H. Belt.

The Belt family owned and managed 5611 Lexington Avenue as absentee landlords for the next thirty years. As housing conditions in the Hough neighborhood declined, the condition of the Luther Moses House slowly did too. The last owners of the house--Steve Matt Skrita, a Croatian immigrant, who owned the house from 1948 to 1963, and the African American Beatrice Landon family, who purchased it from Skrita in 1963--lived on site in one of the suites while renting out the others. However, after the death of Beatrice Landon in 1991, the Landon family struggled unsuccessfully to maintain it, and the condition of the house declined precipitously until the last owner, Herbert Landon, was compelled because of its condition to sell it to the County Land Bank in 2017.

Since at least 1987, when it was landmarked by the City of Cleveland, the Luther Moses House had been recognized in the community as one of the historic jewels of the Hough neighborhood. In recent years, that neighborhood has begun to rebound from its long decline, with new businesses opening up, new housing going up, and the renovation of historic League Park (just down the street from the Luther Moses House). During this period, continuing efforts were made by the City, the County, and even the Landon family, to save the house. It was the subject of well-researched articles, including one that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1995, and three that appeared in Christopher Busta-Peck's locally famous "Cleveland Area History" blog in 2009 and 2011. In 2019, final efforts were made by the Cleveland Restoration Society to save the historic house. It was not an easy task, as efforts to save a similar historic house on the City's west side--the William Burton House on West 41st Street--have demonstrated. The Luther Moses House, just like the William Burton House, needed a savior. Unfortunately, one didn't arrive in time. In September 2020, the 175-year old landmark was razed.

Images

The Luther Moses House The house at 5611 Lexington Avenue was built between 1845 and 1854 as a single-family dwelling, but in 1912 was substantially remodelled and converted into a four-suite apartment. In recent years, the multifamily additions have been removed, revealing a vernacular style house, with Gothic, Greek Revival and Federal architectural elements. This photo, taken in April 2018, shows the original front of the house which faced East 55th Street. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission
Luther Moses (1811-1895) Luther Moses was one of Cleveland's pioneer ship builders and a partner of Thomas Quayle, sometimes referred to as the Father of Cleveland ship builders. Moses built dozens of steam ships that sailed the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s, carrying passengers and cargoes to all of the principal cities along those Lakes. This sketch of Moses accompanied his 1895 obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection.
The Cuyahoga Built at the Cleveland west side ship yard of Luther Moses and Thomas Quayle in 1856, the Cuyahoga was just one of the dozens of early era Lake Erie steamers built by Moses. It steamed across Lake Erie for nearly three decades until it was abandoned due to its age in 1887. This undated photo was taken sometime prior to 1887. Source: C. Patrick Labadie Collection / Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena, MI
The City comes to the Countryside In 1871, as talk mounted of annexing rural East Cleveland Village to fast-growing urban Cleveland, located just to the west of the Village across Willson Avenue (East 55th Street), Luther and Arvilla Moses submitted this proposed residential subdivision plat, involving approximately 13 acres of their farmland to the Village Council. It was approved in 1872, the same year that East Cleveland was officially annexed to Cleveland. The Luther Moses House site, outlined in red, occupied all of sublot 4, and the east half of sublot 2, in the new subdivision. In 1875, according to an article which appeared in the Cleveland Leader on May 12 of that year, Moses Avenue was renamed Lexington Avenue by Cleveland City Council as the result of "Centennial fever." Source: Office of Cuyahoga County Fiscal Officer, Digital Plat Collection
Luther Moses House for Sale In June 1872, just one month following the death of his wife Arvilla, Luther Moses placed this ad in the Cleveland Leader, indicating his house, as well as 34 sublots in his new subdivision, were for sale. The house did not immediately sell, and in fact eventually was rented out for a number of years before it was finally purchased in 1879 by prominent Cleveland engineer, Theodore Scowden, and his wife Rosetta, who lived in it during their altogether too short retirement. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Theodore Ransom Scowden (1815-1881) One of Cleveland's greatest nineteenth century engineers, Scowden was hired by the City in 1852 to design the city's first modern waterworks system, in order to combat periodic cholera and other disease epidemics that were spread by drinking contaminated water. During the period 1853-1856, Scowden designed, and the City built, a complex waterwork system with iron intake pipes extending several hundred feet into Lake Erie that conveyed water to the shoreline, and then by means of pumps in an engine house, up the bluff to the new Kentucky Street Reservoir, located on a six acre site on the southeast corner of Kentucky and Franklin Streets. Upon his retirement, Scowden and his wife Rosetta moved into the Luther Moses House at 1220 (now, 5611) Lexington Avenue, where he lived for the final two years of his life. Source: Maurice Joblin, Cincinnati Past and Present, or its Industrial History as Exhibited in the Life-Labors of its Leading Men (Elm Street Print Co., Cincinnati, 1872)
The Kentucky Street Reservoir Built in 1853-1856 as a vital component of Theodore Scowden's design for Cleveland's new waterworks system, the Reservoir, with its promenade walk 35 feet above street level, soon became one of the most popular places for Cleveland's west side elite to take a stroll. After nearly three decades of use, the Reservoir was abandoned in the 1880s when its capacity became insufficient for Cleveland's growing population. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
A House in Transition These two Ohio Sanborn Fire Insurance map building footprints of the Luther Moses House graphically show the exterior alterations made to convert it from a nineteenth century single family house to a twentieth century multifamily dwelling. The footprint on the left (when the house's street address was 1220 Lexington) is from the 1896 Sanborn map. By this year, the front of the house had been relocated to the south (Lexington Avenue) side of the structure and a porch had been added to the entire new front, but otherwise the exterior of the house remained as originally designed, except for the one-story addition constructed onto its east side by Luther Moses in 1851. The footprint on the right (after the street address had changed in 1906 to 5611 Lexington) is from the 1912-1913 Sanborn map, and shows the exterior changes made to the house by Arnold and Pauline Roth in 1912. A shortened, two-story porch has replaced the longer one-story porch; a second floor has been added to the addition on the east side of the house; and an exterior stairwell has been added to the north side of the house to serve as access for tenants. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
The Luther Moses House in 1959 In 1948, Steve Matt Skrita, an immigrant from Croatia, purchased the Luther Moses house. He lived in one of its suites, and rented out the other three. When Skrita died in 1963, his widow sold the house to African American Beatrice Landon, whose family owned the house for the next 50 plus years. This photo was taken by a Cuyahoga County tax appraiser. Source: Cuyahoga County Archives
Preparing to be Landmarked This photo of the Luther Moses House was taken in 1986 by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission. Cleveland City Council landmarked the house the following year. The photo shows that, by this year, the exterior of the house was already beginning to show signs of wear and tear, and that it was in need of maintenance and repair. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission
A Glimpse into the Past This photo of the interior of the Luther Moses House was taken in 2011, many years after it was vacated by the Landon family. The photo show a boarded up window on the west side of the house, which originally was the front entrance door. Source: Christopher Busta-Peck / Cleveland Area History
Facing an Uncertain Future This photo of the Luther Moses House was taken in April 2018. It shows the front of the house facing Lexington Avenue. The house is boarded up and some of the boards are covered with graffiti. All of the multi-family additions to the house, constructed by Arnold and Pauline Roth in 1912, have been removed, including the two-story porch shown in the 1959 and 1986 photos of this digital array. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The Luther Moses House,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 13, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/849.