When Cleveland's Public Auditorium (or Public Hall) was constructed in 1922, it was the largest auditorium in the country. As a result, it put Cleveland at the forefront of American convention centers. Only New York and Chicago had better overall accommodations, but by the time it underwent its most recent round of renovations in 2011, Cleveland and Public Auditorium were barely on the list of second-tier convention cities.
Public Auditorium was constructed as part of the Cleveland Group Plan of 1903. This plan was part of the "City Beautiful" movement that was sweeping the country. The plan emphasized Roman Revival and Beaux Arts architecture that can be found in buildings along Cleveland's Mall including Public Auditorium. While the plan was originally the brainchild of Daniel Burnham, he was not the architect of the Public Auditorium. Instead, the design plans were created by city architects Frederic H. Betz and J. Harold McDowell in conjunction with Frank R. Walker of the architectural firm Walker and Weeks. Construction began in 1920 and was completed in 1922, even though planning and fundraising had commenced in 1916.
This beautifully appointed building housed a 21,780-square-foot registration lobby, 10,000-seat auditorium, 3,000-seat Music Hall, and 600-seat Little Theater and has held many events over the years. Two Republican National Conventions, one in 1924 and another in 1936, filled the halls of Public Auditorium. While political conventions were common fare in Public Auditorium, music took center stage in Music Hall. Artists such as Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Van Halen have headlined as major players at Music Hall over the years. Even jazz legend Django Reinhardt made his American debut opening for Duke Ellington in 1946.
While the building may be part of a grand historical design for Cleveland, interest in the building has undergone fits of excitement and apathy. As previously stated, when the auditorium was built, it put Cleveland on the map as a convention destination. But instead of maintaining Cleveland's position on the convention circuit, city officials let the auditorium languish. Finally, thirty-five years later in 1957, an issue to expand the convention center beneath the Mall made it onto the ballot. The resolution failed but reappeared in 1958 when voters struck it down yet again. In 1959, voters also rejected a 1,000-room Hilton controversially sited on the south end of the Mall. Not until 1963 did Public Auditorium receive the much-needed subterranean addition. Voters passed a resolution to begin construction, restoring Cleveland as a notable destination for conventions.
This time city officials and business leaders should have learned from their previous mistakes and worked toward a long-term strategy to strengthen Cleveland's convention-destination status. But once again those in charge let Public Auditorium slip from their minds. For nearly another fifty years, Public Auditorium remained static and dormant. Not until 2011 was the issue of expansion revisited. After much contention, the new Medical Mart (ultimately named the Global Center for Health Innovation) incorporated Public Auditorium into its existing plans, creating a state of the art convention center under the Cleveland Mall. Time will tell whether Cleveland's updated facilities prove sufficient to support a healthy convention trade.