Imagine leaving work in downtown Cleveland on a cold, early winter evening in 1887. Though that winter would go on record as one of the warmest in Cleveland’s history, and it was in the upper 60’s just days before, November 29th was a bitterly cold night with temperatures in the single digits and a coating of ice was beginning to form over the muddy streets. The nights come early at that time of year, and it was already nearly dark as people rushed to the streetcars in the frigid conditions, but a strange orange glow just to the east caught the commuters’ attention, and many drifted in that direction to investigate. Billings-Taylor, the illustrious paint manufacturer chock full of flammable and explosive materials, was spectacularly burning two miles away at the foot of what was then Case Avenue (now East 40th Street) along the Lakeshore Train line.
The horse drawn fire trucks had broken through the thin crust of ice on the unpaved road and were mired in axle deep mud several blocks from the fire, waiting for additional horses to drag the equipment to the blaze. Upon reaching the building, the firemen were dismayed to see only feeble streams of water dribbling no further than a few yards out of their hoses, due to the overburdened and inadequate supply pipes of the area. After hours of confronting frustrating problems like these and the dangerous conditions, the conflagration was finally under control, but the building was a charred shell, and the once thriving business seemed to be in ruins. A rash of horrific fires like these, soon led to the introduction of fire alarms and sprinkler systems in industrial buildings throughout the country. But this hulking brick structure with the iconic water tower would rise phoenix-like from the ashes to continue as an incubator for businesses headed by enthusiastic recent immigrants in search of the American Dream.
Steven Taylor emigrated from England in 1852 and soon established himself in Cleveland as the premier innovator in dry pigment, and paint manufacturing. Together with Frank Billings he formed Billings-Taylor and Company in 1879 and the firm quickly earned a reputation for quality paint and varnish products used throughout the world on high-end residences, luxury hotels, and various industrial applications. Viewing the fire as an opportunity rather than a calamity, the company quickly expanded using the insurance money. In 1899 the aging Taylor stepped aside to make way for the younger Nathaniel D. Chapin, and it was reorganized as the Billings-Chapin Company. It competed with other local firms to make Cleveland one of the preeminent producers of paint, varnish and dry pigment in the world. The deaths of the founders and indifferent leadership from their heirs, caused the company to eventually lose its focus and the once dominant paint manufacturer was purchased by Glidden in the 1920s, leaving the building at the edge of East 40th Street momentarily vacant.
In 1939 the Canadian Elwood Dyment arrived from Canada and settled in the building with myriad plans for a diverse range of products that he would soon obtain patents for and produce at the Dyment Company, a mounter and finisher of printed material started by his brother in Toronto. The Dyments were one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Canada, and Elwood strove to stand out from his illustrious and successful band of brothers and cousins, by moving to Cleveland and making a name for himself. From collapsible garbage bins, and ‘noiseless’ poker chips, to various advertising display stands, Dyment seemed to have a limitless capacity to imagine and produce unique products for a wide range of possible uses. Although his products were moderately successful, none became the blockbuster hit he hoped for, and eventually he, too, moved from the large building on the edge of downtown, allowing in the next tenant who was already on the brink of enormous success.
The H. Leff Electric Company moved in by the summer of 1965 after several successful decades in smaller buildings throughout Cleveland. Ironically, it was another disastrous winter fire on another frigid Cleveland evening on February 2, 1961, that caused over $1 million damage to the company’s headquarters on Payne Avenue that eventually prompted Leff’s move to East 40th Street. Leff Electric was founded by Harry Leff, yet another immigrant to Cleveland, who arrived from Russia in 1904, and he and his sons Philip and Sanford grew the company into a hugely successful world-wide distributor of electronics. Among many successful endeavors, Leff supplied Cedar Point with electronic components for its rides and buildings in the 1960s, and, more recently, Cleveland with equipment for its LED streetlight program in 2013. Leff remained at the East 40th Street location until their 2007 move opened the way for the current incarnation of the building.
In 2010 Radhika Reddy, this time an immigrant from India who had originally come to Cleveland on a scholarship to Case Western Reserve University, purchased the building and has transformed it into a modern, dual-use facility that takes full advantage of its location near the lake. Continuing the legacy of what the building has always been, she leases office space to a variety of international businesses seeking to establish a foothold in the United States, while the upper floors of the building utilize dramatic views of the lake and serve as a much sought after venue for events such as weddings, parties and corporate meetings.
Throughout its history at the bottom of East 40th Street, this building has been the home of businesses formed by new immigrants to Cleveland from a variety of nationalities seeking out the American Dream. It is a glistening phoenix on an industrial edge of the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood that demonstrates the work ethic, ingenuity and diversity of the area, and hopes to serve as a cornerstone to an area posed for a rebirth.