Public Square

Two Centuries of Transformation

Laid out by Moses Cleaveland's surveying party in 1796 in the tradition of the New England village green, Public Square marked the center of the Connecticut Land Company's plan for Cleveland and, soon, a ceremonial space for the growing city. In 1856, Cleveland's first fountain was constructed on the square. Four years later a statue of Battle of Lake Erie hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was erected in the center of the square, leading City Council to rename Public Square as Monumental Park. In 1865, Clevelanders watched returning Civil War regiments as they mustered on Public Square, and later generations would greet returning veterans from subsequent wars. Public Square also provided a space for viewing the caskets of fallen U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield in 1865 and 1881, respectively. In perhaps its most notable moment in the 19th century, in 1879, Public Square garnered international attention when inventor Charles F. Brush showcased one of the world's first successful demonstrations of electric streetlights there.

Adding to the reputation of Monumental Park, a statue of Moses Cleaveland rose on the northwest quadrant in 1888, and on July 4, 1894, the 125-foot-tall Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated on the square's southeast quadrant in honor of Civil War veterans, at which time Perry's monument was moved, first to Wade Park. Although protests halted an 1895 plan to erect a massive new City Hall across the northern half of Public Square with an arch to permit Ontario Street traffic to pass underneath, in the following year the city marked its centennial with a large arch over Superior Avenue just east of Ontario and a replica of an original log cabin in the northeast quadrant.

In addition to its symbolic value, Public Square has also been a transit hub since the 19th century, first as a point of arrival for stagecoaches, and later as the hub of streetcar and bus lines. Traffic patterns around Public Square were a source of much controversy in the 19th century. In the 1850s, supporters of a fully enclosed square erected a fence around its entire perimeter, preventing traffic from entering. Eventually the transit demands of an expanding city won out, and in 1867 roads once again passed through the center of Public Square.  Since that time, Public Square has labored under often-conflicting demands that it serve simultaneously as symbolic space, transit hub, and park. The opening of the Cleveland Union Terminal in 1930 prompted a sprucing up of Public Square, including the removal of a pavilion and a rustic bridge over an artificial stream that had occupied the square's southwest quadrant for decades. In their place was a large open lawn that provided a tidier "front yard" for the tallest building in the world outside New York. In the years that followed, transit use gradually eclipsed whatever parklike qualities the space had held.

In 1943 a new transit plan called for a new central subway station under Public Square. Ontario Street was to be depressed beneath Superior Avenue, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was to be relocated elsewhere. A Plain Dealer reporter quipped that the statue's removal "alone is almost worth the cost."  The 1940s and 1950s passed with no action on building a subway system. A 1958 plan proposed by architect Howard B. Cain, whose Park Building offices overlooked Public Square, envisioned closing Ontario, depressing Superior below grade, removing the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and creating a Rockefeller Plaza-influenced sunken plaza with an ice-skating rink. Dubbed International Square, Cain's transformation--no doubt inspired by the expanded world trade that boosters claimed the impending opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway would produce-imagined shops and restaurants representing many nations. The next year, a new downtown master plan revived the idea of a subway under Public Square, this time affecting only its southern half. The plan also called for lowering the level of the northern half of the square, moving the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to the northeastern quadrant and building a sunken ice rink in the northwestern quadrant.  Like Cain's plan, this part of the downtown plan languished when county commissioners nixed the subway project. In the wake of the subway defeat, a 1960 plan to close through streets in Public Square and construct a 1,600-car underground garage likewise failed.  

Yet, the dream of remaking Public Square did not disappear. In the 1970s, urban planner Lawrence Halprin brought his imaginative renewal ideas to Cleveland. Halprin recommended turning Euclid Avenue into a pedestrian mall and remaking Public Square into a more parklike space. Iris Vail, wife of Plain Dealer publisher Thomas Vail, and other Garden Club of Cleveland women held a "Beautification Ball" in the Arcade in 1975 to raise $100,000 to finance a specific blueprint for the square. They hired Don M. Hisaka of Cleveland and Sasaki Associates of Massachusetts to design the new Public Square but then decided they did not like his minimalist, modernistic vision for the space. Instead, they spearheaded a more traditional parklike redo of the northeastern quadrant as a demonstration. Over the ensuing decade, Public Square was remade quadrant by quadrant as city, county, state, and federal funds, along with Cleveland Foundation and Garden Club monies--in all $12 million, augmented the original $100,000 raised by the Garden Club.  

Opened with laser-show fanfare just in time for Cleveland's sesquicentennial in 1986, the revamped Public Square sported parklike spaces and, in the southwest quadrant, a brick and granite terraced plaza with an artificial waterfall. In maintaining Superior and Ontario as through streets, the 1980s Public Square remake fell well short of decades of visions for reuniting the four isolated quadrants. In 2002 the New York-based Project for Public Spaces visited Cleveland and urged reunification of the square, calling it one of the world's most dysfunctional public spaces. Mayor Frank Jackson's appointed Group Plan Commission, a blue-ribbon committee inspired by Daniel Burnham's famed "Group Plan" of a century before, set out to make both the Mall and Public Square reach their potential as appealing destinations for locals and visitors. The commission approved a plan by James Corner, known for his innovative High Line project, which transformed an abandoned elevated railroad in New York City into a linear park. With the announcement of Cleveland's selection to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, civic leaders rallied to raise the $32 million needed make the long-awaited reunification of Public Square a reality.


Moses Cleaveland's Public Square Architect Robert Gaede explains the New England origins of the Public Square design Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Prince Phillip Inspires a Renovation Norman Krumholz of Cleveland State University talks about the renovation of Public Square Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Future of Public Square Architect Jerry Payto implores us to come up with a fresh and unique design for Public Square Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection


Postcard View, ca. 1910s
Postcard View, ca. 1910s Pictured at center are the Williamson and Cuyahoga Buildings, which would later be demolished to make way for the Standard Oil Building, later known as the BP Building and today simply as 200 Public Square. Date: ca. 1910s
Grays on Public Square
Grays on Public Square The Cleveland Grays were a private militia organized to serve and protect the young city of Cleveland. Such groups were founded in cities across the nation during the 19th century, serving as de facto police forces and regional military units, as well as strikebreakers for their wealthy benefactors. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1839
Public Square, Looking East Along Superior
Public Square, Looking East Along Superior In the 1850s the city erected a fence around Public Square to keep out carriage traffic. Ten years after this photo was taken, Superior Avenue and Ontario Street were reopened through the square, where they circled around the centrally located Perry Monument. This photo also shows the first fountain constructed in Cleveland, which occupied in the northeast quadrant. Second Presbyterian Church is visible in the distance (located where 200 Public Square now stands), as is Forest City House (located on the western edge of Public Square where the Renaissance Hotel now stands). Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1857
Lincoln's Catafalque, Facing East
Lincoln's Catafalque, Facing East The catafalque, or pavilion, built around President Lincoln's casket stood just east of the center of Public Square. A horse-drawn hearse can be seen in front of the pavilion. In the foreground is the statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, sculpted by William Walcutt and erected in the middle of Public Square five years before Lincoln's assassination. Superior Avenue may be seen in the background to the east. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1865
Perry Monument
Perry Monument This monument to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, of Battle of Lake Erie fame, was originally erected in the center of Public Square in 1860. In this 1878, the monument had been recently moved to the middle of the southeast quadrant of Public Square, where it remained until construction of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1892. Civil War commemoration having forced War of 1812 commemoration out of Public Square, Perry retreated to Wade Park until the Cleveland Museum of Art again displaced it. Today the statue stands inside the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial visitors center at Put-in-Bay. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1878
Proposed City Hall
Proposed City Hall Voters approved this Beaux Arts-style City Hall plan, which would have straddled the two northern quadrants of Public Square with a large archway spanning Ontario Street. Following the groundbreaking ceremony in 1895, protestors who deplored building on public land forced the abandonment of the project. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1895
Cleveland Centennial Arch
Cleveland Centennial Arch Once again using Public Square as a public memory site, the city erected this large arch over Superior Avenue astride the northeast and southeast quadrants as part of the 1896 centennial of Cleveland's founding. The centennial commemoration also included a replica of an original log cabin on the northeast quadrant across from the Society for Savings Building. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1896
Centennial Log Cabin
Centennial Log Cabin This replica log cabin was erected on the northeast quadrant for Cleveland's Centennial celebration in 1896. Old Stone Church and the Society for Savings Building appear behind it. Source: Samuel P. Orth. A History of Cleveland, Ohio. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1910. Date: 1896
Sightseeing Car in Public Square, 1910
Sightseeing Car in Public Square, 1910 By the early 20th century Public Square, which was centrally located and close to the city's main hotels, served as the point of departure for tourist sightseeing cars such as this one. So-called "seeing-the-city cars," as historian Catherine Cocks has argued, were also very popular means of enabling tourists to selectively view cities as collections of attractions. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1910
Southwest Quadrant, ca. 1911
Southwest Quadrant, ca. 1911 This view from the Square's southwest quadrant shows the site of the Terminal Tower nearly 15 years before its construction commenced. For several decades and into the 1920s, Public Square took on a naturalistic appearance that matched the cultivated rambles planned by Frederick Law Olmsted and other like-minded landscape architects in the latter half of the 19th century. The southwest quadrant of Public Square included a rustic bridge traversing an artificial stream flanked by lush plantings. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Braun Post Card Co. Date: ca. 1911
Public Square, ca. 1910s
Public Square, ca. 1910s The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, the May Company Building, and a Humphrey Popcorn stand can be seen in this view of the southeast quadrant of Public Square, taken during the 1910s. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Date: ca. 1910s
Interurban Railcar, 1920
Interurban Railcar, 1920 Passengers board an inter-urban railcar near the southeast quadrant of Public Square in 1920. Public Square was solidly focused on public transportation by this time, with local streetcars and longer-distance interurban lines converging here. Source: Western Reserve Historical Society Date: 1920
Dilapidated Comfort Station, 1926
Dilapidated Comfort Station, 1926 This tile-roofed "comfort station," one of several streetcar and interurban pavilions standing around Public Square, provided shelter and a concession stand for transit riders and visitors. It was in such poor shape by the 1920s that Cleveland club women protested its condition. Renovations would accompany the redesign of the southwest quadrant in tandem with the opening of the Cleveland Union Terminal in 1930. Hotel Cleveland, the large building behind the station, is now the Renaissance Hotel. Today the Healthline transit platform stands immediately to the right of the site of this station. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1926
Redesigned Southwest Quadrant, 1930
Redesigned Southwest Quadrant, 1930 The city removed the rather overgrown naturalistic elements, including a bridge and stream, from the southwest quadrant in time for the opening of the Cleveland Union Terminal, shown here. Mirroring rhetoric about the removal of hundreds of "dilapidated" buildings to erect the Terminal complex and presaging later arguments for the modernization of Public Square to keep pace with the times, civic leaders heralded this new minimalist design, which survived until about 1985. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Date: 1930
Lawrence Halprin Plan, 1975
Lawrence Halprin Plan, 1975 San Francisco landscape architect and designer Lawrence Halprin, known best for his redevelopment of Ghirardelli Square, developed a $275,000 plan for downtown Cleveland funded by the Cleveland Foundation, Greater Cleveland Growth Association, and City of Cleveland. In his trademark style, on exhibit in many public plazas around the U.S., Halprin called for a single, large plaza with geometrical concrete terraces and artificial waterfalls. The plan proved too expensive, leaving backers to try to implement a piecemeal redesign of the square. Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1975
Public Square Redesign Rendering, 2014
Public Square Redesign Rendering, 2014 Inspired by Chicago's Millennium Park, Cleveland's Group Plan Commission sought a dramatic civic space in the heart of Cleveland. The commission retained James Corner in 2009 to reimagine Public Square, resulting in a plan that includes, among other features, a reflecting pool that doubles as a winter ice rink and summer splash pool. After five years of studies and plan preparation and revision in collaboration with Cleveland civic leaders, Corner's plan won approval. With a strong show of civic backing spearheaded by the Cleveland Foundation and Gund Foundation and the looming 2016 RNC, the project moved rapidly from drawing board to implementation. Source: James Corner Field Operations and LAND Studio Date: 2014


Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44113


J. Mark Souther, “Public Square,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 19, 2024,