In 1979, the year that Ian Hunter released “Cleveland Rocks,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed Cleveland the nation’s “Rock and Roll Capital.” The city had earned this reputation through the influence of WJW disc jockey Alan Freed, Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz, jukebox supplier and, later, Agora Theater operator Hank LoConti in breaking emerging talent. It didn’t hurt that downtown Cleveland also housed many of the leading record companies’ warehouses, which supplied a seemingly insatiable demand for rock among Cleveland youth. Despite the city’s strong reputation as a rock and roll town in the 1970s, Cleveland was suffering a dismal decade economically. At a time when Cleveland had become the butt of jokes on national television, few could have imagined the city’s landing one of the world’s most iconic shrines to rock and roll.
The idea for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was conceived by Atlantic Records founder and R&B producer Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun and other music industry luminaries formed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 1983 in hopes of creating a permanent shrine to rock music. The Foundation planned to locate the new facility in Manhattan, close to the heart of the recording industry, and at first few outsiders had any inkling of the plan. In Cleveland, Agora Theater owner Hank LoConti and his friends separately envisioned a museum to honor the city’s seminal role in popularizing rock music, particularly local disc jockey Alan Freed’s coining of the term “rock and roll” and hosting the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, in 1952.
Through Norm N. Nite, a Cleveland native with close ties to New York’s music scene, LoConti learned of the Foundation’s plan for a rock and roll shrine. Nite agreed to present Cleveland to Ertegun as an alternative site for the Rock Hall. Nite opened the door for a contingent of Cleveland boosters to present their case to the Foundation. Armed with letters of support from Cleveland’s leading cultural institutions, the group highlighted Cleveland’s claim as the cradle of rock—including Freed and the Moondog Coronation Ball; the role of LoConti’s Agora and radio station WMMS in breaking new talent (including David Bowie, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen); and longtime music businesses like Record Rendezvous and Record Revolution—as well as the fact that a Rock Hall would be a singular tourist attraction in Cleveland but only one among many competing points of interest in Manhattan.
After a July 1985 visit to Cleveland by Foundation leaders, the Foundation decided to hold a national competition to host the venue. The race to land the Rock Hall was on, with Cleveland, Memphis, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Philadelphia as leading contenders. All cities vying for the Rock Hall pointed to the star power behind their respective bids. San Francisco used (Jefferson) Starship’s hit “We Built This City” as a theme song for its bid. Cleveland claimed support from Michael Jackson, the Kinks, and some 50 other musicians. As the selection process progressed, the choice narrowed to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Spurred by WMMS, 120,000 listeners voted for Cleveland as the Rock Hall site in a USA Today poll. Then Cleveland backers gathered 600,000 signatures on a petition that the Greater Cleveland Growth Association presented to the Foundation in New York. They banked on more than just the city’s preeminent historical stake in the genre—turning to the city and state governments and local Foundations, which collectively raised $26 million to lure the Rock Hall. Thanks largely to these efforts, the Foundation selected Cleveland in May 1986.
Once Cleveland got the nod, attention turned to a site. Early prospective locations for the Rock Hall included the lakefront, Public Square, the Flats, Playhouse Square, the Mall, and a couple of sites along Huron Road behind the Terminal Tower. Ruling out the adaptive reuse of an old building, Rock Hall officials opted for a “signature building” at the urging of architect I. M. Pei, whom the Foundation retained to design the hall despite his public admission that he knew little about rock music. The Foundation selected Tower City as the preferred site. Pei’s original design included an 18-story glass tower overlooking the Cuyahoga River with a concourse connecting to the Tower City Center complex.
Relations between Cleveland and New York soured by 1989, notably when the Foundation announced it would keep induction ceremonies in Manhattan rather than moving them to the Cleveland Rock Hall. In addition, Clevelanders’ tax dollars would be required, thus diverting millions of dollars away from the city’s school system—a stark contrast to what a Plain Dealer editorial called “a rock ’n’ roll industry grown fat on its successes.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s construction cost ballooned to $100 million, four times the original budget. When a record store opened inside Tower City in 1990, Rock Hall officials became angry and began to look at other sites besides Huron Road, which they now claimed was too small to permit construction. After several anxious months, a new site was chosen on city-owned land at North Coast Harbor. With the new location came a reduction in height. Pei’s glass tower was too tall to place so near Burke Lakefront Airport. Instead a shorter tower and glass pyramid design emerged, evoking the slanted glass wall of his Louvre design. The Rock Hall opened in September 1995.
While Cleveland civic leaders rightly lauded the Rock Hall as a coup for the city’s image and economy, many musicians and fans were ambivalent; a few were outright hostile to the very idea of a museum for rock and roll. In contrast to the music industry leaders who saw the Rock Hall as a means to foster mainstream appreciation for rock and roll’s cultural impact, many saw irony in the formal enshrinement of rock and roll, an art form often associated with rebellion and counterculture. As one reporter observed of the first induction ceremony in New York in the 1980s, “Once the sole-soul property of gifted wild men who shocked America with their three-chord songs, rock ’n’ roll is now so middle class it was accorded a most civilized honor…. It was given a dinner.”