Filed Under Architecture

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.

Images

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
"Industry is the Parent of Fortune" This Walter Crane mural depicts an English proverb that aligned with the bank's conservative exhortations of thrift and industry. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
Brush Arc Lamp Replica On the building's southwest corner is a replica of an arc lamp similar to what Charles F. Brush demonstrated in 1879 to illuminate Public Square. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Date: 1965
Postcard View of Society Building Entrance Source: J. Mark Souther Postcard Collection Creator: Braun Art Publishing Co. Date: ca. 1905
North Side of Public Square Left to right on the north side of the Square were the Lyceum Theater, Old Stone Church, Society for Savings, and Chamber of Commerce. A fountain occupied the northwest quadrant of the Square, shown in the foreground. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division Creator: Detroit Publishing Co. Date: 1908

Location

127 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44114

Metadata

J. Mark Souther and Richard Raponi, “Society for Savings Building,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 5, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/305.