When the city approved the Group Plan of 1903, it was believed that the Mall would become the city’s functional and symbolic center. The long stretch of land northeast of Public Square would turn a former slum into a parklike space, and a half-dozen neoclassical government buildings surrounding the Mall would instill a sense of civic pride and duty. These goals fit the aims of the City Beautiful reform movement, whose proponents worried that the attractiveness and dignity of American cities were being compromised by poverty, overpopulation and the perceived deleterious effects of immigration. Daniel Burnham, who played a leading role in designing Cleveland’s Group Plan, was a major figure in the City Beautiful movement. He may best be remembered for designing Chicago’s White City at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In Cleveland, however, as Walter Leedy wrote, “Instead of a ‘White City’ the Mall turned out to be a ‘White Sepulcher.’”
The Mall’s transformation into a true city center was quashed in the 1920s by the Van Sweringen brothers’ decision to build their Union Terminal train station on Public Square. The 1903 Group Plan specified that the city’s main train station would be built at the north end of the Mall. When that didn’t happen, it became clear that Public Square would remain the city’s center. In retrospect, this was a propitious choice: Public Square was Cleveland’s transportation hub and it was closer to the booming commercial district taking shape along Euclid Avenue. The Mall, meanwhile, became somewhat of an afterthought, used occasionally for concerts and other events but serving mainly as a cut-through for downtown workers.
With a host of recent developments, the Mall is now poised for positive change. Several surrounding buildings have been replaced by attractive new structures such as the Center for Health Innovation and a Hilton Hotel. A new convention center is now situated partially underneath the Mall. The underutilized Board of Education Building on East 6th Street is now a sumptuous Drury Hotel. New sculptures and improved landscaping enliven the Mall.
Will these developments be enough to bring more people to the Mall? Chances are good, given Cleveland’s steady increases in the number of downtown visitors and residents. Stay tuned.