Public Auditorium

The Rise, Fall, and Revival of a Pathbreaking Convention Center

In the 1920s Cleveland's Public Auditorium was among the largest and most popular meeting venues in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, Cleveland and Public Auditorium were fighting tooth and nail for second-tier convention business. Two decades later Cleveland hosted the 2016 Republican National Convention—leveraging a new convention center connected to a large hotel and a revamped Public Auditorium.

Public Auditorium was one of seven public buildings constructed as part of the Cleveland Group Plan of 1903. Reflecting the goals of the “City Beautiful” movement (attractive public buildings and open spaces), the Group Plan emphasized Roman Revival and Beaux Arts architecture surrounding a large mall. All of the resultant structures survive to this day, except for the Cuyahoga County Administration Building (the least iconic of the group) which was demolished in 2014.

Design plans for Public Auditorium were created by city architects Frederic H. Betz and J. Harold McDowell in conjunction with Frank R. Walker of the architectural firm Walker & Weeks. Planning and fundraising commenced in 1916. Construction began in 1920 and the building was completed in 1922. The result was magnificent in scale and aesthetic allure: A 21,780-square-foot registration lobby, a 10,000-seat auditorium with color frescos lining the balconies, a 3,000-seat Music Hall and a 600-seat Little Theater. Small wonder that the auditorium’s heyday was long and fruitful: Republican National Conventions in 1924 and 1936. Concerts ranging from the Cleveland Orchestra and Duke Ellington to the Beatles and David Bowie.

Unfortunately, Public Hall began to languish by mid century. In 1957, an issue to expand the convention center beneath the Mall was rejected by Cleveland voters. The resolution reappeared in 1958 and again was struck down. In 1959, voters also rejected a 1,000-room Hilton hotel, controversially sited on the south end of the Mall. Not until 1963 did Public Auditorium receive a much-needed subterranean addition. Auditorium business and attendance rebounded but only temporarily. For nearly another half century, Public Auditorium remained static.

A positive new stage for Public Auditorium emerged in 2011. First the Global Center for Health Innovation was conceived (initially as the Medical Mart) and eventually built on the west side of the mall. Voters also approved a 0.25 percent sales tax increase to fund development of the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland—a massive renovation of the convention space beneath the Mall and the adjoining Public Auditorium. Adding to the allure of the new meeting spaces, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown was finally erected on the former site of the County Administration Building. Voila: 390,000 total feet of meeting space and underground access to a 600-room hotel. With the help of some powerful new neighbors, Public Auditorium saw new life.

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