The Union Gospel Press building—now known as Tremont Place Lofts—looms over Tremont like a holy ghost. It is more than 160 years old and comprises 300,000 square feet, two acres, four stories and 15 linked buildings. Like no other structure in the neighborhood, it is a larger-than-life presence and a constant reminder of Tremont’s elaborate history.
On June 3, 1850, The Herald, a Cleveland newspaper, announced that a national university would be built in Cleveland. Patterned after Brown University in Rhode Island, the new institution would be called Cleveland University (CU): 275 acres stretching northeast from what we now know as Lincoln Park to the lip of Cleveland’s Flats. Accordingly, the name of the area morphed from Cleveland Heights to University Heights, which explains the preponderance of academically oriented street names—College, Professor, University and Literary—all of which are located within the boundaries of the proposed university. CU’s (unimplemented) plans also called for a female seminary, an orphan asylum and a home for the aged. Unfortunately, Thirza Pelton, the prime mover and benefactor of “CU” died in 1853 and the University soon folded, having graduated only 11 students. Only a small number of CU structures were actually built. A few of the buildings that now compose Union Gospel Press (Tremont Place Lofts) are all that remain of Cleveland University.
In 1858, Professor Ransom Humiston opened the Humiston Institute, a co-ed college preparatory school, in several of the CU buildings. During the Civil War, the Institute provided free educational services to disabled soldiers, many of whom trained or mustered out at Camp Cleveland, just a stone’s throw away. Humiston Institute closed in 1869 (in its final year it had an enrollment of 196 pupils) and the site soon became the Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital College, one of many sites that eventually combined to become Huron Road Hospital. When the latter facility opened in East Cleveland in 1880, the Cleveland Homeopathic property was no longer needed.
In 1907, the Herald Publishing House and the Gospel Workers Society relocated its headquarters from Williamsport, PA, to the CU site at Jefferson Avenue and West 7th Street. The organizations were rechristened Union Gospel Press when they merged in 1922. For the next quarter century, the company added buildings, housed workers and missionaries in on-site dormitories, and became the largest producer of religious materials in the world. According to a 2003 oral history, “Many [workers would don] the Gospel Worker Society navy-blue dress uniform to join sidewalk singing and preaching efforts on Public Square.” In 1950, Union Gospel Press left Tremont and took up residence at its present location at Brookpark and Broadview Roads.
After Union Gospel Press’ closing, the buildings were used at various times for offices, light manufacturing, a thermo electrical company, a lithography school, a church, and a rooming house. For a time, books were printed for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. By the mid 1960s, only 10,000 square feet—less than 5 percent of the complex was rented. Squatters often occupied the many vacant spaces.
The building(s) fell further into disrepair for several more decades. In 1987, Joe Scully, a former iron worker, longshoreman, boxer and metal sculptor, bought the complex for $74,000. Scully resided in one of the attached buildings—an 1870s house facing Jefferson Avenue—and worked (for the most part unsuccessfully) to turn the complex into an artists’ colony.
In June, 2003, Scully sold the buildings to Corvallis Development Company for $1.4 million. Corvallis launched a $21 million renovation, with the aid of Sandvick Architects and a $4 million tax credit from the state of Ohio. The end product, completed in 2009, was a high-end 102-apartment community called Tremont Place Lofts.
Six years later, Will Hollingsworth opened a 60-seat bar at the base of Tremont Place Lofts. Hollingsworth named it The Spotted Owl, noting the legend that a spotted owl “is wisely infused with spirits of nuns and poets.” For the bar’s edgy, old-world feel, Hollingsworth channeled the “Dead Rabbit” cocktail bar in New York, where he had once worked. The Dead Rabbits were a notorious 19th Century Irish-American street gang. The floor of The Spotted Owl once lined a barn in central Ohio.
Students. Bibles. Artists. Yuppies. Owls. Rabbits. Clearly, this odd amalgam of buildings epitomizes the strange historical patchwork that is Tremont.