In the summer of 1886, former councilman and real estate broker James M. Curtiss met with acting Cleveland Parks superintendent and Case School of Applied Sciences professor John Eisenmann to express enthusiasm about a novel form of enclosed street called an arcade. After having visited an arcade in Toronto, Canada, Curtiss described to Eisenmann his dream for a grand structure in Cleveland’s downtown. Awed by the grand arcades in Europe, Curtiss spent years traveling around the United States to see other arcades and making plans for his own in Cleveland. Now, more than a decade later, he hoped to persuade Eisenmann to design a building that would “eclipse them all.” This request would produce the Arcade, sometimes called the Superior Arcade and now colloquially known as “The Old Arcade.”
Curtiss approached industrialists across northern Ohio seeking financial backing. Charles Brush, Myron T. Herrick, Louis Henry Severance, and John D. Rockefeller expressed interest in financing the project early on. They were joined shortly thereafter by Standard Oil investor Stephen Harkness and H. J. Herrick. Myron Herrick was essential in securing the land for the structure.
While Curtiss and other stockholders worked to secure funding through the sale of interests of ownership in the newly formed Arcade Company, John Eisenmann was joined by George Horatio Smith and the two went to work designing the Arcade. They designed two office towers connected by a several hundred-foot light court, surrounded by five stories of shops and offices and topped with a glass and steel roof. Eisenmann, an architectural engineer, is generally credited with the design of the Arcade’s esplanade while Smith, the architectural designer, is credited the work on the towers.
In December 1886, Eisenmann and company began the search for a location for the arcade and settled on a tract of land between Euclid and Superior, hoping to provide a commercial passageway between two of the city’s largest thoroughfares. This parcel of land seemed ideal, until he discovered that there was an unfortunate feature. Where Euclid Avenue now sits marks the shoreline of a prehistoric lake named Lake Warren. Retreating ice sheets lowered water levels, resulting in a difference in elevation between Euclid and Superior that forced Eisenmann and Smith were forced to adjust their designs. To combat this problem, they designed two main ground floors with a grand staircase connecting the two floors.
Between the issue of topography and the nature of Eisenmann and Smith’s designs, finding a contractor to build the structure proved difficult. They claimed that the designs the architects brought them were impossible to construct, particularly Eisenmann’s designs for the glass roof. The roof trusses Eisenmann designed were novel for the time and employed a technique that many contractors simply believed would not work. In Eisenmann’s designs the Arcade’s roof trusses were hinged at the base and the apex and lacked cross bracing. This technique allowed the skylight’s support to follow the shape of the skylight without interfering with light. After a series of refusals and rejections, the Arcade Company contacted the Detroit Bridge Company. Known for their experience building bridge trusses, they accepted the job.
After construction began in May 1888, the project faced continuing delays that included striking contractors and unions and continuously rising costs. Initially, the project was expected to cost $500,000. As the Arcade reached completion, journalists speculated that the project must have cost more than a million dollars. Following various delays and unforeseen expenses, the Arcade opened to the public on May 30, 1890, with a final cost of $875,000.
The Arcade and its design demonstrated the changing times with new engineering and architecture techniques. At the time it opened the Arcade was nothing short of a modern marvel. With two nine-story office towers connected by a five-story esplanade, the building was the largest and tallest of its kind attempted in the U.S. The entrance towers on both ends included heavy loadbearing masonry walls. The upper floors of both towers used steel skeletons like one first employed in a Chicago skyscraper a few years earlier. Eisenmann’s design of the glass roof proved particularly innovative, and some visitors remarked that there is “better light inside the building than there is outside in the street, as the light pours through the immense glass covering and is reflected to all parts of the structure.” Beyond its architectural importance, the Arcade also boasted a beautifully decorated interior. Virtually every surface on the interior is decorated with intricate metalwork, marble walls, brass elevator doors, gargoyles, and Roman mosaic floors.
Many Cleveland businesses and professionals raced to occupy the new building, filling the Arcade with top-of-the-line restaurants, retailers, and other services. One of the original retailers was Baxter and Beattie (later H.W. Beattie and Sons). One of Cleveland’s most prominent diamond merchants, H.W. Beattie operated his jewelry store in the Arcade from 1890 to 1977, when it moved to the Statler. The store was well-known for the eye-catching gemstone displays created by Beattie’s youngest son Milton. These displays involved using gemstones to form mosaic-like images, including portraits of presidents, animals, flags, and other themes. His displays literally stopped patrons in their tracks, so much so that there is still a groove worn into the floor outside where the shop was located. Milton Beattie continued creating these displays, rotating them weekly, until his death in 1998.
By the turn of the century, the Arcade was said to have only one rival, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. The Arcade served as an urban amenity to the citizens in Cleveland. It provided a passage between two of the city’s largest thoroughfares, leisure space for the public, and even Sunday band concerts. The Arcade also served as an important shopping district. The construction of the Arcade, and its successors, the Colonial and Euclid and Arcades, responded to the expansion of industry between the Cuyahoga River and Public Square that caused many retailers to move toward Euclid Avenue in the late nineteenth century. The addition of new streetcar lines in Public Square in the late 1880s also turned this area into prime real estate, encouraging more retailers to make the move eastward.
Nicknamed “Cleveland’s Crystal Palace,” the Arcade served as an ideal location to host large-scale events and did so many times throughout its history. Famously, the Arcade became the site for the National Convention of Republican Clubs in June 1895, which included visits from Marcus Hanna and Ohio governor and future president William McKinley. It also hosted a range of functions from the biennial Symphony Ball in 1960 to the annual meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1973.
In 1939, the original Richardsonian Romanesque entry for the Euclid Avenue façade was replaced with a more modern storefront. Designed by Walker & Weeks, these changes incorporated more modernist style, removing the arched front and incorporating Art Deco elements. Constructed by the Sam W. Emerson Co., the renovations included the Euclid façade redesign, reinforcing the loadbearing walls with steel beams, and the addition of two large medallions with the profiles of Harkness and Brush. However, the Superior entrance has retained its original arched design.
In 1975, the Old Arcade became the first building in Cleveland to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Shortly after in 1978, the Arcade was purchased by Harvey Oppmann and two San Francisco investors. Oppmann made some renovations to the structure, including a small food court on the lower level. However, the Arcade's designation as a historic landmark did not guarantee its survival. As downtown employment began to decrease and retailers moved into suburbs to accommodate growing clientele there, the Arcade saw an increase in vacancies. Some retailers in the 1980s also cited rising rent prices for their move. In 2001, following the threat of demolition, the Arcade underwent extensive renovations and redevelopment and has become home to a Hyatt Regency Hotel.