Cleveland's "Surrogate Downtown"

It was not the first time Cleveland saw a grand scheme to reorient its downtown toward the lakefront. I. M. Pei’s conception reprised, updated, and extended eastward the early 20th-century Group Plan designed by the “City Beautiful” architect Daniel Burnham of Chicago.

In 1973, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable described "a huge, bleak, near empty plaza with a complete set of non-working fountains and drained pools, focusing on a routine glass tower by New York architects Harrison and Abramovitz, known to Clevelanders as the 'jolly green giant.'" She lamented that the plaza was flanked by "vast, open parking lots." Huxtable was referring to Erieview Plaza and Erieview Tower, together the focus of the Erieview urban renewal project, which she derided as a "monument to everything that was wrong with urban renewal thinking in America in the 1960s." Erieview attracted more than architectural criticism. Some Clevelanders also argued that the project set back the downtown district it was intended to revitalize. Plain Dealer columnist Philip W. Porter called Erieview "the mistake that ruined downtown." Porter wasn't alone. Even in the 1960s, some downtown interests worried that Erieview, which some considered a "surrogate downtown," might siphon energy away from the downtown shopping district. Would Erieview workers continue to walk several blocks to Euclid Avenue to shop on their lunch break, or would they demand amenities in a new, self-contained city-within-a-city?

Erieview was born of the same concerns about downtown stagnation that gripped many U.S. cities by the 1950s. Pittsburgh’s Gateway Center became a national model for downtown renewal, and Cleveland leaders formed the Cleveland Development Foundation (CDF) in 1954 to emulate Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Conference on Community Development. CDF weighed whether to launch its urban renewal effort (with federal dollars matching municipal expenditures in a 2:1 ratio) in downtown in a subsidized version of Pittsburgh's privately financed downtown renewal or start in east-side neighborhoods. Local architect Richard Hawley Cutting even drew a plan, pro bono, that he pitched to CDF. Called Erie View, it featured a geometric assemblage of modernist towers and plazas along the lakefront to the east of East 9th Street. CDF, whose chairman was Republic Steel president Tom Patton, rejected that urban renewal and, in 1956, proceeded instead with another, dumping Republic Steel slag in Kingsbury Run and building the euphemistically named Garden Valley, which offered substandard housing and exacerbated residential segregation.

A succession of failed downtown projects (among them the collapse of a plan for underground parking beneath the Mall, voters' rejections of a convention center expansion, and county commissioners' denial of a downtown subway) led to a series of secret meetings in the spring of 1959. Weary of the slow pace of neighborhoods-first renewal and impatient with the CDF-commissioned $100,000 downtown plan due out later that year, CDF president Upshur Evans, Cleveland Chamber of Commerce president Curtis Lee Smith, and Cleveland Urban Renewal and Housing Director James M. Lister convened to strategize how to catalyze downtown revitalization. They consulted with Chase Manhattan Bank's David Rockefeller in the hope he might invest in Cleveland. He refused but reinforced their belief that only a large, coordinated plan was worthwhile. They turned to Newark-based Prudential Insurance to try to interest the company in a regional headquarters along Lake Erie. They too demurred.  

Undeterred, the trio bypassed the Cleveland Planning Commission and went straight to Mayor Anthony Celebrezze, who saw in their idea a project he could sell. Unveiled in January 1960, the plan, christened Erieview, promised the nation's largest downtown urban renewal project, a reflection of city leaders' desire to make up for lost time. They pronounced the 125-acre renewal area (roughly bounded by the Memorial Shoreway, East 9th Street, Chester Avenue, and East 17th Street) “blighted,” sealing the fate of many small businesses and manufacturers and some single-room-occupancy hotels. The city commissioned prominent modernist architect I. M. Pei to design the Erieview plan, which looked like many other plans of its era – a Tetris board of low-slung, interlocking buildings wrapping around open plazas punctuated by taller towers. The tallest of them was plotted between East 9th and 12th Streets with an open plaza and reflecting pool. It was not the first time Cleveland saw a grand scheme to reorient its downtown toward the lakefront. Pei’s conception reprised, updated, and extended eastward the early 20th-century Group Plan designed by the “City Beautiful” architect Daniel Burnham of Chicago.

Developers John Galbreath and Peter Ruffin planned to build one or more office towers in Erieview, including the focal building at its heart. The 529-foot-tall, 40-story Erieview Tower was designed by the New York firm of Harrison and Abramovitz. Firm partner Wallace Harrison was best known for his work on Rockefeller Center and the United Nations, but the Erieview design more closely resembled the firm's 45-story Socony-Mobil Building (1956) in New York, also developed by Galbreath and Ruffin. Erieview Tower was a simplified version of its predecessor, substituting black and green glass curtain walls for black windows and silver patterned aluminum walls. Yet both buildings were later panned by some as "ugly" designs. True to its nickname, the greenish tower did loom, giant-like, over the wide-open expanse of Erieview Plaza whose fountains and reflecting pool doubled as an ice rink in winter. Widespread clearance left mostly parking lots surrounding Erieview Plaza for years.

Erieview was billed as an antidote for an ailing downtown, on one hand, and as an outlet for downtown's expected office boom, on the other. While these aims may appear contradictory – one intended to reverse decline and another to accommodate anticipated growth – they actually reflected the complex situation facing downtowns in the 1960s. Suburban retail competition was causing downtown shopping to wither, but at the same time many firms were eager for more spacious, modern office space. Erieview initially spurred overdue renovations by several leading downtown department stores. That their efforts ultimately failed to save them owed less to Erieview than to the effects of population decline, suburban retail growth, and the city's failure to cultivate a strong convention trade. Office expansion promised a counterpoint to retail slippage. After Erieview Tower, the 32-story Federal Building (1967), two major hotels (today’s Westin and Doubletree) and a half-dozen major office towers, including headquarters for Diamond Shamrock (1972) and Eaton (1983), opened incrementally over the next two decades.  

No sooner had Erieview been fleshed out than it started to clear out. Downtown employment dropped by one-third in the forty years after 1970, and by the 21st century the main demand was for more living space. Boosters had long predicted a return to the central city. Erieview added three apartment towers (including Reserve Square) between 1967 and 1973, but it would take another four decades before downtown became a true residential magnet, aided by conversions of old office buildings using historic preservation tax credits. In 2010, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance rebranded the Erieview area, nearly one-third vacant, as a "live–work–play" concept dubbed the Nine-Twelve District. As renovators exhausted the supply of historic buildings, midcentury properties were just crossing the fifty-year threshold to qualify as "historic." In 2018, developer James Kassouf bought Erieview Tower, newly listed on the National Register, with plans to convert twelve vacant floors into apartments. Downtown's northeastern quadrant once had hundreds of units of low-rent housing, but these held no place in the vision of Cleveland’s boosters. They yielded to civic aspirations for a new downtown of gleaming office towers. Although Erieview, recast as Nine-Twelve, is reemerging as a neighborhood, its upmarket housing inventory ensures that it can’t rightly be said to have come full circle.


"A One-horse Town" Architect William Morris argues that spreading development into Erieview was the wrong approach for a downtown that needed more attention to Euclid Avenue, its commercial spine. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
"The Darling of Urban Renewal" Architect Peter van Dijk contends that I. M. Pei's Cleveland plan was derivative from his earlier work. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
"Hiroshima Flats" Architect Peter van Dijk recalls the open, desolate feeling of Erieview and laments that I. M. Pei missed an opportunity to create extensions of interior passages such as the Arcade. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection


Erieview Plan Bird's-eye View
Erieview Plan Bird's-eye View I. M. Pei's Erieview plan stands out in bright shades against the darker hue of the traditional downtown district to its south. Like the Group Plan sixty years earlier, Erieview promised to reorient downtown toward the lakefront. The color contrast both highlights the scope and newness of the plan area and unintentionally accentuates it as a separate, incongruous realm that turns its back on the renewal needs in the rest of downtown. Indeed, some local leaders complained privately that Erieview was sidestepping downtown's real problem – physical decay of older buildings and retail decline along Euclid Avenue – by "going out in left field," as one charged, and building a "surrogate" downtown. Source: MIT Libraries Creator: I. M. Pei & Partners Date: 1961
Pittsburgh's Gateway Center
Pittsburgh's Gateway Center This construction photo shows part of the Gateway Center development in downtown Pittsburgh, which drew inspiration from Swiss architect Le Corbusier's unrealized 1922 Ville Contemporaine plan for Paris. Spearheaded by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the organization that inspired the formation of the Cleveland Development Foundation, in the 1950s, Gateway Center was the envy of other cities, none more so than Cleveland, where urban renewal began outside downtown. Source: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Date: ca. 1952
Erie View, an Unbuilt Precursor to Erieview
Erie View, an Unbuilt Precursor to Erieview Cleveland architect Richard Hawley Cutting, who had also been part of the consulting team that worked on some of the unadopted downtown subway plans of the 1940s-50s, offered Cleveland's business establishment a blueprint for a lakeside renewal area he called Erie View. Although the powers that be shunned the idea, they later appropriated the name for a strikingly similar but much more expensive plan by I. M. Pei. Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1953
Erieview Land Use Plan
Erieview Land Use Plan I. M. Pei's site plan clearly shows the reflecting pool (blue) of what would become Erieview Plaza in the center. Clusters of three to four apartment towers appear to the southeast and northeast, generally north of where East 13th runs north of Euclid Avenue. The plan evokes some of the geometrical layout of the area around the Mall, itself a product of an earlier master plan by Daniel Burnham. Source: MIT Libraries Creator: I. M. Pei & Partners Date: 1961
Early Rendering of Erieview Tower Concept
Early Rendering of Erieview Tower Concept The I. M. Pei plan anticipated the scale and setting of the future Erieview Tower very well. Source: MIT Libraries Creator: I. M. Pei & Partners Date: 1961
De-Paree Bar
De-Paree Bar This commercial building on the east side of East 9th Street between Walnut and Chester Avenues housed Jean's Funny House, De-Paree Bar, and Famous Lunch. A man poses behind a sign showing the address and "Erieview." The photo was part of an inventory by the city of structures standing on the footprint of the new urban renewal area. The building survives for several more years until the 17-story Investment Plaza (now Ohio Savings Plaza) replaced it and the adjacent 10-story Intown Hotel, by that time a low-rent single-room-occupancy residential hotel. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Creator: City of Cleveland Date: 1960
National Audio Moving Sale
National Audio Moving Sale This ad depicts one of many businesses in the so-called blighted area that had to close or move to make way for the newest expression of progress. National Audio was located in the northwest corner of the future Erieview Plaza. Its showroom of stereo equipment would give way to a vast concrete slab. Other ads from this general timeframe touted relocation sites in the industrial area beyond Erieview's eastern edge. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: March 23, 1962
Prototype for Erieview?
Prototype for Erieview? Harrison and Abramovitz designed the Socony-Mobil Building in New York in 1956. The building's design shares much in common with Erieview. It is slightly larger and taller and has different exterior cladding, but the general look is similar. Source: Flickr CC BY-SA Creator: Jordan Rockerbie Date: November 1, 2016
Ohio Bell's Newest Address ... Erieview Plaza
Ohio Bell's Newest Address ... Erieview Plaza Ohio Bell Telephone trumpeted its move of offices from the old Ohio Bell building at 750 Huron Road to Erieview Tower, "which symbolizes Cleveland's great new Erieview Development. Erieview is solid evidence of the growth of Cleveland and faith in its future." The ad, of course, did not admit that CDF persuaded Ohio Bell to move five blocks north from its previous location. Although the new tower, one of several planned in Erieview, was supposed to entice out-of-town firms to establish national or regional headquarters in Cleveland, nearly all of its floors would instead be occupied by locally based concerns leaving other downtown addresses. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: August 16, 1964
Partial Diagram of Tower Tenants
Partial Diagram of Tower Tenants CDF worked to drum up out-of-town tenants for what would become Erieview Tower, which should have been easy if Cleveland really did need new office space to meet demand for new headquarters offices, as boosters claimed. Instead, CDF found it hard to interest firms in the tower and resorted to lining mostly Cleveland-based firms already housed elsewhere in downtown. By the time the building was under construction in 1963, the tenant roster included Ohio Bell Telephone, Eaton, M. A. Hanna Co., and a smattering of other companies. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: October 22, 1964
Erieview Tower during Construction
Erieview Tower during Construction In this construction photo, Fenn Tower stands in the distance to the southeast. This was the year that Cleveland State University was chartered and absorbed the older Fenn College that occupied that building. The desolation of Erieview's setting suggests why some critics saw it as being aloof from downtown. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: May 5, 1964
Erieview Tower and Erieview Plaza
Erieview Tower and Erieview Plaza In this photo, facing southwest, it is useful to point out (1) Erieview Tower in relation to some of the other numbered buildings: (3) Union Commerce Bank, formerly Union Trust Building, completed 1924; (6) East Ohio Gas Building, completed 1958; (7) Ohio Bell Telephone Building, completed 1927; (12) Cuyahoga Savings Plaza (under construction), completed 1965 and referenced by its architect Peter van Dijk in the third oral history clip in this story; (16) Cleveland Public Library, completed 1925; (20) Terminal Tower, completed 1930; and (23) Anthony Celebrezze Federal Building, completed 1967. Source: 1963 Cleveland Planning Commission Annual Report (1964), Cleveland Public Library Date: ca. late 1963
Ice Rink in Erieview Plaza
Ice Rink in Erieview Plaza The fountains and reflecting pool of Erieview Plaza doubled as an ice-skating rink in winter. Critics' characterization of Erieview Plaza as a barren, windswept waste in the winter months was a view that became ensconced in the collective memory of the place. But it ignored the wintertime fun of ice skating and summertime concerts and events that enlivened the plaza at least some of the time. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: February 22, 1967
Stouffer's Top of the Town
Stouffer's Top of the Town Erieview Tower may have been seen as an eyesore by some, but on its 38th floor it housed one of Cleveland's most prized restaurants, Stouffer's Top of the Town. The Stouffer company had started four decades earlier just down the street with a simple lunch counter. It expanded to a local chain of restaurants by the mid 1930s and then opened a New York restaurant before launching what became a ubiquitous frozen-food business and signature restaurants in several major cities' downtowns. For Clevelanders, the Top of the Town was a special experience – Duck a l'Orange and nightly live WHK radio broadcasts, all with a "glittering panorama of the city, the lake, and far beyond" – from 1964 until its closing in 1995. Source: Cleveland Magazine Date: May 1975


1301 E 9th St, Cleveland, OH 44114


J. Mark Souther, “Erieview,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 21, 2024,