Filed Under Architecture

Group Plan

The New City Center That Wasn't

The Group Plan of Public Buildings in 1903 was an ambitious city-planning scheme that—as much as any single initiative—shaped downtown Cleveland. The Plan’s six public buildings are the Federal Building (1910, now the Howard Metzenbaum US Courthouse), the Cuyahoga County Courthouse (1911), City Hall (1916), Public Auditorium (1922), the Cleveland Public Library (1926) and the Board of Education Building (1930). A seventh Group Plan structure—the Cuyahoga County Administration Building (1957)—was demolished in 2014 to make way for a Hilton Hotel.

All six structures are loosely clustered around the key Group Plan component, the Mall, a long, three-segment public park northeast of Public Square. The buildings are of uniform height and style, representing the Roman classicism of the Beaux-Arts school of architecture. The strategy was to create an official gateway, an iconic corridor, leading from a new railroad depot on the lakefront to Public Square.

Responding to proposals made by the American Institute of Architects and the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, the City of Cleveland formed the Group Plan Commission in 1902. Three architects—Arnold W. Brunner, John M. Carrére and Daniel Burnham—served on the commission, which presented its recommendations to Mayor Tom L. Johnson in 1903. The resulting Group Plan was heavily influenced by several sources: One was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Another was the Washington, D.C., Mall then under construction. A third was the City Beautiful movement: a response to concerns that the attractiveness and dignity of American cities were being compromised by poverty, over-population and the perceived deleterious effects of immigration. It was believed that “beautification”—personified by ample park space and grand, dignified buildings—would instill civic and moral virtue in city residents and revitalize urban areas that were increasingly perceived by the wealthy as undesirable places to live and work.

The central aim of the Group Plan was to re-center downtown and provide a model that might inspire harmonious architecture guided by principles other than the dominant commercial mode of urban development. However, the rail station idea, which was essential to such a re-centering, was scrapped because the U.S. Railroad Administration worried that local rail traffic would impede cross-country traffic on the "Water Level Route" along the lakefront, a matter of heightened importance during mobilization for World War I. The federal government looked with favor on a southern railroad approach to downtown by local and regional trains. The Van Sweringen plan for the Cleveland Union Terminal, which opened in 1930, meshed with this broader consideration and shifted the city's focus shifted from the Mall back to its traditional center on Public Square.

Despite the Mall's diminished role, it remains nothing less than “beautiful”—a testament to smart planning and placement, and the enduring aesthetic appeal of classical architecture. The Mall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.


Envisioning a New Downtown Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc., describes how the implementation of the Group Plan represented a new stage in Cleveland's development. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities


The Mall, ca. 1930 Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: ca. 1930
Mall and Group Plan Buildings This view from 1967 shows a number of the original Group Plan buildings as well as a section of the Mall. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1967
Public Auditorium Public Auditorium opened in 1922 and was the site of the 1924 and 1936 Republican National Conventions. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Cuyahoga County Courthouse, 1934 Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1934
Mall Fountains, 1967 Children play in the fountains in the Mall in 1967. The Public Auditorium is in the background. Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1967
Mall Gathering, 1968 Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1968
City Hall, 1943 Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection Date: 1943


The Mall, Downtown Cleveland, OH


Richard Raponi and Michael Rotman, “Group Plan,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 3, 2023,