Society for Savings Building
Cleveland's First Skyscraper
"All that heap of lath, plaster, bricks and mortar being cleared away indicates that the old buildings are things of the past. Here will rise a ten story block, finished in the highest style of modern times." –"From a Housetop; A Birdseye View of Cleveland's Improvements," Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 15, 1888
The Society for Savings Building opened in 1890 on the north side of Public Square. Designed by John Wellborn Root of the famed Chicago architectural firm Burnham & Root, The Society for Savings Building combines Gothic and Romanesque styles rendered in red sandstone. The 152-foot-tall, ten-story bank building is generally regarded as Cleveland's first skyscraper, but its construction reflects a time of technological transition. Behind its sandstone edifice of thick load-bearing masonry walls similar to those of Burnham's Monadnock Building in Chicago is an independently constructed steel frame for the center of the building that reflects the modern method of skyscraper building pioneered in the 1880s by William LeBaron Jenney of Chicago.
The building's exterior includes interesting details such as a replica on the building's southwest corner of the arc lamps used in Charles Brush's lighting demonstration on Public Square in 1879. Its interior features a soaring banking hall flanked by arched windows and supported by dark varnished Corinthian columns beneath a coffered stained-glass skylight. Ornate, colorful wallpaper and murals by English illustrator William Crane depicting proverbs encouraging thrift and industry add to the grandeur.
The Society building was Cleveland's tallest until the New England (Guardian) Building on Euclid Avenue eclipsed it in 1896. It was the first of several buildings by the Burnham & Root firm. The Western Reserve Building on Superior Avenue in the Warehouse District, built in 1891, used the same hybrid of masonry walls bolted to an inner steel skeleton. Two years later, the firm added the Cuyahoga Building on the east side of Public Square (demolished in 1982 to build the Sohio/BP Building), which was Cleveland's first completely steel-frame skyscraper. Both buildings incorporated the same Romanesque style used in Chicago's Rookery Building and Cleveland's Society for Savings. Burnham returned a decade later to design the Group Plan, an expression of the City Beautiful movement that he popularized, and again ten years after that to design the May Company's new building on the south side of Public Square.
When Cesar Pelli designed the Society Center (now Key Tower) building adjacent to the original Society building, he carried some of the older building's horizontal lines over into the new tower's design. In 1990, as the tower was rising, the bank cleaned the sandstone exterior and restored the banking lobby but otherwise modernized the upper floors except for the board room on the mezzanine level. The juxtaposition of Cleveland's first skyscraper with its tallest skyscraper makes Key Center a an object lesson in the city's downtown architectural development.