Filed Under Architecture

Key Center

On October 30, 1990, Cleveland’s skyline became the backdrop for a symbolic transfer of power and prestige: the frame of Society Corporation's new headquarters surpassed the Terminal Tower in height. Cleveland was now looking forward instead of backward—no longer defined by the iconic 1930 building. The moment also was a reflection of larger changes: a redefining of downtown's purpose and image. Society Tower spoke to a new future for a struggling city.

The Terminal Tower had been Cleveland’s tallest building since its completion: in fact, the tallest structure in the United States outside of Manhattan until 1967. The architectural landmark represented an era of growth and affluence in Cleveland, the name speaking to its long-time role as the destination of all inbound trains to the city. In 1981, a design for Sohio's headquarters had initially sought to exceed the Terminal Tower's height. But city officials objected to the proposal, citing the Terminal Tower’s historic role in the city’s landscape. Thus the Sohio building (later called the BP building and now 200 Public Square) came up short of the Terminal Tower's peak.

In 1988, Society Corporation (now Key Bank) announced that it would be the major tenant in a new skyscraper and office complex to be built on the northeast corner of Public Square. The new headquarters would display the company's strength and competitiveness as a financial institution, and demonstrate its commitment to Cleveland. The project was headed by Richard and David Jacobs, who had recently opened the Galleria at Erieview Tower. The previous year, Cleveland City Planning Commission changed the height restrictions on the Society site from 250 to 900 feet. The Terminal Tower's era of visual dominance was over.

Plans for Society Center's new tower were enthusiastically received by the press and public. Comparisons were drawn between the influence of the Jacobs brothers and the Van Sweringens in defining a new identity for the city of Cleveland. The New York style skyscraper (the tallest structure between New York City and Chicago) would symbolize the city's recovery. It would change the skyline and bridge the space between Public Square and the Mall. And not only would the project attract workers and businesses to the core of downtown, it would include a first-class hotel—a potential boon to Cleveland’s struggling convention business.

The spire of the 57-story tower reached 948 feet when Society Center was completed in 1991. The complex contains more than 1.5 million square feet of office space as well as a 385-room Marriott Hotel and a massive parking garage underneath the Mall. The century-old Society for Savings building just to the west was also renovated. Upgrades were made to Mall A (the southern-most of the Mall’s three segments) and its War Memorial centerpiece.

While Cleveland would witness a resurgence of downtown construction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was soon a glut of available office space. Construction of new buildings ceased. In the second decade of the 21st century, however, things are looking up (more figuratively than literally): Scores of older office complexes and warehouses are being converted to hotels and residences. Developers can barely keep up with the demand for downtown residential living. The net effect is that, with a great deal of less-desirable office space off the market, there are fewer options and thus more demand. Through it all, Key Center continues to speak to the possibilities of Cleveland's future.


A Serious Sculptural Piece Robert Gaede, architect and historic preservationist, explains why Key Tower is one of his favorite buildings. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection


Key Center Key Tower was designed by architect Cesar Pelli. Renowned for designing some of the world's tallest buildings, the architect is best known for his work on the World Financial Center and Petronas Twin Towers. Pelli also designed the Crile building for the Cleveland Clinic. Cesar Pelli's plans for the Society Tower called for a 1930s style, slim skyscraper. The narrow building harmonizes visually and architecturally with the Terminal Tower, and helps accentuate both Public Square and the Mall as focal points of downtown. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Society For Savings Centennial, 1949 The Society for Savings building, located on Public Square next to Key Tower, was built between 1889-1890 to provide office and business space for the rapidly expanding financial institution. The ten-story red sandstone structure was designed by John Wellborn Root of the prestigious Chicago architectural firm Burnham and Root, and is considered by many to be the first modern skyscraper in Ohio. Blending styles of Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture, the exterior of this historic structure was designed to reflect the strength and security of Society for Savings Bank, which was fifty years old at the time. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Trustee's Room, 1949 Cleveland's ties with Key Corp. can be traced back to the opening of Society for Savings on Superior Street and what is now West 9th Street in 1849. Founded by Samuel H. Mather, the bank would become publicly regarded as a conservative and secure banking institution as it survived the turbulent Civil War years, four depressions, and countless financial panics. By the 1930s, Society for Savings was one of the four largest banks in Cleveland, with more than $100 million in deposits. The bank continued to grow through the mid 20th century. A subsidiary commercial bank, Society National Bank of Cleveland, was formed in 1955. Due to the costs of operating two separate institutions, the subsidiary eventually absorbed Society for Saving in 1958. Adopting a holding structure that same year, only recently allowed by the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, Society Corp. was formed. Society Corp quickly acquired a dozen community banks. The bank continued to expand regionally and overseas, most prominently merging with Centran Corp (1986) and Ameritrust (1992). In 1994, Society Corp. merged with KeyCorp, a bank of similar size, becoming the nation’s 11th largest bank. Because the KeyCorp brand was more recognizable, the merged companies opted to retain that name. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
The Friendly Center, 1949 The magnificent interior of Society for Savings includes a 26-foot-high main banking room covered with a stained glass skylight. Considered one of the most impressive interiors in Cleveland, there was much concern for the structure's future when the Society Center plan was announced. It was quickly clarified that the historic building would be fully renovated and adjoined to the Society complex by the architectural firm Van Dijk, Pace, Westlake & Partners. The interior frame was removed and replaced with new floor plates, and the main banking room - known as "the friendly center" during the mid-century - remained intact. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Society for Savings Mural, 1949 Two large murals by English illustrator Walter Crane depicting the "legend of the goose that laid the golden egg" decorated the bank's interior upon its opening in 1890. Representative of the conservatism that Society for Savings was known for, the fable warned visitors against greed and short sighted paths to accumulating wealth. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Chamber of Commerce Building The facade of the ornate Chamber of Commerce building, which stood next to the Society For Savings, contained eight caryatids. These columns reflect the practice of incorporating decorative sculpture into architectural design. This was a common characteristic of the Beaux Arts style, which was extremely popular at the turn of the century. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Site of Key Tower, c. 1901 The Chamber of Commerce (right) and Society for Savings stood side by side from 1898 to 1955 on the northeast corner of Cleveland's Public Square. The Chamber of Commerce Building was constructed in anticipation of work to group civic buildings into what would be known as the Group Plan. The structure was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns. The Chamber of Commerce would eventually move to the Terminal Tower complex in the 1930s, and the building was purchased by the Cleveland College of Western Reserve University. The structure was demolished in the 1950s by Society for Savings to serve as a parking lot. Source: Library of Congress


127 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44114


Richard Raponi, “Key Center,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 23, 2022,