The Justice Center

A City-County Collaboration more than Fifty Years in the Making

In 1923, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce recommended the creation of a single facility to house both the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas and Cleveland Municipal Courts. Placing the two courts in the same building, it was hoped, would help address problems of corruption in the Municipal Court. In 1976, over fifty years later, the Justice Center finally opened.

In 1921, Harvard University's Dean Roscoe Pound and Professor Felix Frankfurter--a future United States Supreme Court Justice--issued a report containing a scathing indictment on the condition of criminal justice in Cleveland, particularly in Cleveland Municipal Court, which they found to be riddled with corruption.
Two years later, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce responded with its own report, concluding that the problems could be solved by creating more courtroom and jail space in the City, and by placing Cleveland Municipal Court and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court together in a combined facility. Little did anyone know back then that it would take the City and County more than 50 years to build that combined facility.

The Chamber's recommendation slowly began to develop some traction in the community when, in 1926, the criminal division of the Municipal Court moved into the new Central Police Station at East 21st Street and Payne Avenue, and then two years later, in 1928, the County selected a site on East 21st adjacent to the police station for its new Criminal Courthouse and Jail. The County facility was completed in 1931, and for the next several decades, Municipal and Common Pleas criminal court proceedings, while not located in a combined facility, were better coordinated and benefited by being located in adjacent buildings. By the time the 1950s arrived, however, the two Courts and the County Jail were no longer functioning well, caused, at least in part, by a swelling population and the proliferation of new laws and court procedures. The Municipal Court had once again become a public embarrassment. It was rundown and overcrowded, and was once again developing a reputation for corruption. Conditions next door in the County courthouse and jail were not much better.

At first, the City and County, as they had done in the past, decided to go it alone in addressing these court problems. Between 1958-1962, the City submitted four separate bond issues to its voters to fund a new Municipal Court building. All failed. Finally, In 1968, the City and County made their first effort to build a combined facility, belatedly joining forces on separate county and city bond issues. It was too little too late, and the two issues failed. Two years later, however, they met with success at the polls when voters approved a $61 million joint bond issue to build a Justice Center--housing the Common Pleas and Municipal Courts, the Central Police Station, and the County Jail-- on the southwest corner of Lakeside Avenue and Ontario Street.

Success at the polls in 1970 did not, however, end the challenge of finally building a combined City-County court facility in Cleveland. During the Justice Center's early development phase, the design by courthouse architects Prindle, Patrick & Partners became the subject of wide-spread criticism. The Plain Dealer, in a September 23, 1972 editorial, labeled it a "WPA design." The project was rescued only when the architects brought in Pietro Belluschi, a leading Modernist architect, to make design changes. Belluschi proposed adding a three-story Galleria to connect the three buildings for the courts, county jail, and central police station, and eliminating the floor-to-ceiling windows from those buildings and replacing much of it with Spanish pink granite. Problems continued even after the City's Fine Arts Committee approved Belluschi's revised design in June 1973. It soon became obvious that $61 million was woefully insufficient to build the project. Two floors were shaved from the 25 floors of the Courts Tower and three from the 13 floors of the County Jail, but project costs nevertheless ballooned to well over $100 million by 1974, leading the Plain Dealer to call the Justice Center a "boondoggle." When construction was finally completed in 1976, the price tag was slightly more than $133 million, more than twice what the voters had approved six years earlier.

On September 15, 1976, the Justice Center was formally dedicated by U.S. Senator Sam Ervin of Watergate fame, and shortly after that event police, prosecutors, judges, clerks, and prisoners began moving in. Unfortunately, the new Justice Center soon was beset with post-construction problems which overshadowed the success of the City and County in finally building a combined court facility. In January 1977, during an electric power outage, a pump failed causing a large hot water tank to overflow and flood three floors in the Courts Tower. It wouldn't be the last time that water--too much of it in the wrong places--became a problem for the Justice Center. Later in 1977, lightning struck the 23-story Courts Tower, raining down pieces of Spanish granite on pedestrians below. In the following decades, elevator failures, which often stranded passengers for long periods of time, became routine occurrences, nervously talked about by lawyers and clients alike. The County Jail, which had been reduced in size, soon became severely overcrowded, forcing the County to build a $68 million jail annex on the site in 1994. And over the course of all these years, stories of people being knocked off their feet by gusts of lakefront wind hitting them as they traversed the long, open inclined walkway from the main entrance of the Justice Center to Lakeside Avenue became almost legendary.

Perhaps it was the accumulation of all of these problems, as well as a failure to budget sufficient dollars to repair and properly maintain the Justice Center over the years, that led the County in 2014 to order a study to determine whether the thirty-eight year old complex, which had had such a short, but troubled history, should be renovated and repaired, or instead torn down and replaced. When the study was released, some criticized its premises and the financial estimates for the various options presented. Others feared that historic Lakeside County Courthouse might be razed and Huntington Park next door to it bulldozed to make room for a new Justice Center. Even if they get past these criticisms, the City and County will nevertheless still be forced at some point to face the past and decide whether it is likely that they could once again come together and build a combined City-County court facility better than the one they already have on the southwest corner of Lakeside Avenue and Ontario Street.

Images

A Redesign that quelled a Controversy

A Redesign that quelled a Controversy

Even before ground was broken, the Justice Center was mired in controversy when its initial design disappointed many officials and prompted the Plain Dealer to call it a "WPA" design. The redesign in 1973 (shown above) by renowned architect Pietro Belluschi, a leader in the Modern Movement in American architecture, added the Galleria, which connected the three buildings, and changed the external facade from glass to pink granite, satisfying officials and ending the design controversy. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Central Police Station on Champlain  Avenue - 1902

Central Police Station on Champlain Avenue - 1902

When Harvard Dean Roscoe Pound and Professor (and future Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter delivered their devastating indictment of the condition of Cleveland's courts in 1921, they particularly focused on corruption in the Municipal Court's criminal branch which operated out of this building on Champlain Avenue, between West 3rd and West 6th Streets. Responding to Pound and Frankfurter, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce in 1923, recognizing that the Central Police Station on Champlain would soon be razed to make room for the Van Sweringens' Terminal Tower complex, recommended that a shared facility be built in Cleveland for the criminal proceedings of both troubled Cleveland Municipal Court as well as the more respected Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. | Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Gallery View File Details Page

Central Police Station on Payne Avenue - 1937

Central Police Station on Payne Avenue - 1937

In 1926, the City of Cleveland responded to the 1923 court reform recommendations of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce by failing to build a joint court facility with the county and instead building this new Central Police Station on the northwest corner of Payne Avenue and East 21st Street. Criminal cases in Cleveland Municipal Court were held in this central police station, as they had been on Champlain Avenue. Both the Central Police Station and the Municipal Court moved to the Justice Center complex in 1977, where Municipal Court finally shared a courts facility with Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. The building on Payne Avenue afterwards continued to serve as the Third District police headquarters until 2015. | Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Gallery View File Details Page

County Criminal Courthouse and Jail - circa 1935

County Criminal Courthouse and Jail - circa 1935

Although Cleveland and Cuyahoga County did not follow the primary recommendation of the Chamber of Commerce in 1923 that all municipal and Common Pleas criminal cases in Cleveland in the future be held in a single shared building, their respective criminal courts became located close to one another, and they began to work closer together, in 1931 when the Criminal Division of Common Pleas Court moved into this beautiful new nine-story Art Deco courthouse and jail on East 21st Street, right next to the Central Police Station. In 1977, the county court and jail vacated the building, which fell into neglect and was razed in the 1990s. | Source: Ohio History Connection, Ohio Memories, Digital Gallery View File Details Page

A View of Ontario and Lakeside in 1926

A View of Ontario and Lakeside in 1926

Fifty years before the Justice Center was built, this is what the southwest corner of Ontario and Lakeside Avenues looked like. The Lakeside County Courthouse is seen at the top of the photo at the northern terminus of Ontario Avenue. The second building from Lakeside Avenue south, on the west side of Ontario Avenue, was the Ontario Building, occupied by Cleveland-Marshall College of Law from 1946-1972. All of these buildings--except for the Lakeside Courthouse and the Standard Building (seen on the left), and others not visible in this photograph, were torn down in 1972 to make room for the Justice Center. | Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Gallery View File Details Page

Clearing the Site

Clearing the Site

This July 10, 1973 photo taken from an upper floor of the Standard Building on St. Clair Avenue reveals that by this date all of the buildings on the large square-shaped site formed by Lakeside Avenue to the north, Ontario Avenue to the east, St. Clair Avenue to the south, and West 3rd Street to the west, save one, had been razed to make room for the Justice Center complex. That sole remaining building was later torn down in 1994 when the Jail Annex was built on the southwest corner of the site. Another building--the Watson Building, which had served as a Common Pleas Court annex building--was scheduled to be relocated from the east to the west side of West 3rd Street, but collapsed during the move and was razed several months before this photo was taken. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Courts Tower on the Rise

Courts Tower on the Rise

With the Terminal Tower serving as background in February 1975 on this unfinished upper floor of the Courts Tower, Architect Dick Bird discusses a point with a representative from Turner Construction and another person whose affiliation with the project was not identified on the photograph. Turner was the construction manager for the Justice Center project. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Sealing a Time Capsule

Sealing a Time Capsule

Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk watches while Cleveland Police Chief Gerald Rademaker, on June 18, 1975, seals a time capsule into a corner stone at the Justice Center. In 1972, Rademaker had objected to placing the Central Police Station in the Justice Center Complex, but later withdrew his objection when improvements to the plans for nine-story police station were made. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Portal

Portal

Spectators stand by and watch, on August 24, 1976, while Isamu Noguchi's sculpture "Portal" is being assembled on the Ontario Street plaza in front of the Justice Center. Controversial and misunderstood at first by the public, perhaps much like the design of the Justice Center itself, Portal has become a recognized, if not beloved, landmark in downtown Cleveland. For Noguchi, who was a second-generation Japanese-American, Portal represented the torii, a familiar skeletal gate built at the entrance to Shinto temples. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Justice Center Dedicated

Justice Center Dedicated

On September 15, 1976, officials and guests gathered in the three-story Galleria to dedicate the new Cuyahoga County and City of Cleveland Justice Center. Sam Ervin, the United States Senator from North Carolina who rose to national prominence as a result of his chairmanship of the Senate Watergate Committee, was the featured speaker. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Water, Water Everywhere

Water, Water Everywhere

Almost from the start, water problems plagued the Justice Center. In January 1977, just months after it opened, several floors of the Courts Tower were flooded when, as the result of an electrial power outage, a pump for a holding tank failed. That was only the beginning of the water problems. The Galleria's glass roof sprung leaks in the early years. Visitors often found themselves having to maneuver around buckets placed strategically on the floor to catch water dripping down from three stories above. In this photo taken on January 13, 1982, workers were called on to address yet another water problem, a burst sprinkler line. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Best Seats in the House

Best Seats in the House

Young Clevelanders (left) use the Portal for seating in the summer of 1978, while watching a summer concert (right) on the Ontario Street Plaza in front the Justice Center. Over the years, this plaza has become a familiar public gathering place for concerts and other events, as well as for public protests. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

An Early Judicial Start

An Early Judicial Start

Parties and their attorneys appear before Common Pleas Court David Matia in his 17th Floor courtroom in the Courts Tower of the Justice Center on September 17, 1976. Judge Matia held the first hearing in the new Courts Tower, which was not scheduled to officially open until November 1. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

The County Jail

The County Jail

A view of a maximum security area in the County Jail, known as the Detention Center, taken on July 5, 1977. By the 1990s, the Detention Center was severely overcrowded, compelling the County, in 1994, to build a connecting jail annex--called Jail II--on the site. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

The Justice Center

The Justice Center

This photo taken on June 21, 1976, just months before it opened, shows the three main buildings of the Justice Center from a vantage point on Lakeside Avenue. From left to right are: the 9-story Central Police Station, the 23-story Courts Tower, and the 10-story Detention Center. A fourth building, Jail II, was added to the southwest corner of the site in 1994. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jim Dubelko, “The Justice Center,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 25, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/784.
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