The Luther Moses House

A Cleveland Landmark Looking for a Savior

The house is one of the oldest and most historic residences in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. And that's saying a lot, because Dunham Tavern Museum, just a mile or so away, is located in the same neighborhood.

It is widely believed that the house at 5611 Lexington Avenue was built in 1854 by pioneer Cleveland ship builder, Luther Moses. However, the house, which was originally designed in a vernacular style exhibiting elements of Gothic, Greek Revival and Federal architecture, may be nearly a decade older than that. County tax and deed records suggest that Luther and his wife Arvilla, who in the 1840s had been living in Ohio City near his shipyard, moved in 1848 to East Cleveland Township, onto a 100-acre lot southeast of the intersection of Superior Street (Avenue) and Willson Avenue (East 55th Street). The tax records further suggest that they took possession under a land contract and that, when they arrived, there was already a house on the property, one which was likely built in 1845 by early Cleveland merchant, real estate developer, and renowned house builder, Philo Scovill. Finally, the tax records note that, in 1852, Luther was taxed for an "addition to house"--which is perhaps the one-story addition on the east side of the house still present today--an improvement to the property that Luther may have delayed constructing until he acquired legal title, which occurred in 1851.

So, was the house built in 1845 the same house that sits today at 5611 Lexington, or is the house at 5611 Lexington a newer house built on the property in 1854? That mystery may not be easily solved, but it is clear that Luther and Arvilla Moses lived in the house, which originally had a front entrance facing west toward Willson Avenue, until the early 1870s. Before that decade arrived, Luther retired from the ship building business and focused for a time on farming the 30 acres he had retained from his original 1851 land purchase. His farming days came to an end in the 1870s when East Cleveland Village--East Cleveland Township had become a village in 1866--was annexed to its fast-growing neighbor to the west, Cleveland. Anticipating (or perhaps even promoting) this annexation, Luther and Arvilla Moses submitted a plat to East Cleveland village in 1871, proposing to create a residential subdivision with 68 lots, most of them fronting new Moses Avenue. The subdivision was approved in 1872, the same year that East Cleveland was annexed to Cleveland, and also, sadly for Luther, the same year that Arvilla Moses died.

As a result of the development of the new subdivision, the Luther Moses House acquired a street address of 1220 Moses Avenue (and likely also a new front entrance facing the new street). That street address became 1220 Lexington Avenue a few years later, when, in anticipation of the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Moses Avenue was renamed Lexington Avenue. In 1906 the house acquired its current address when Cleveland enacted legislation, among other things, renaming many of the city's north-south streets as numbered streets, and at the same time renumbering houses and other buildings on east-west streets with numbers indicative of their approximate location from a particular numbered street.

Within a month of his wife's death, Luther Moses moved from the house and put it up for sale. It remained unsold for seven years--though it was rented out for several of those years--until it was purchased by Rosetta Scowden, the wife of renowned Cleveland engineer, Theodore Ransom Scowden. In 1852, Scowden, who had designed a waterworks for the City of Cincinnati, came to Cleveland and designed this city's first modern system. Because of the effects of Cleveland's early industrialization and population growth on the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, drinking water was becoming dangerously contaminated, leading to cholera and other disease epidemics. To combat this contamination and disease, Scowden designed a waterworks that included an intake pipe that went well out into the Lake where the water was cleaner, an engine house near the shoreline that pumped the clean water uphill from the Lake, and a reservoir that held and distributed this water to Cleveland residents.

The Scowdens had become wealthy as a result of Theodore's engineering work here and elsewhere. They lived in a grand house on Euclid Avenue for years before retiring to their "cottage" in 1879, as Rosetta Scowden referred in her will to the Moses House. The Scowdens unfortunately did not live to enjoy many years of retirement in the house. Theodore died in 1881, just two years after the house was purchased, and Rosetta the following spring in 1882. Upon her death, the house passed to their daughter Josephine, who had married Charles Gaylord, a Civil War veteran whose maternal grandfather was General Erastus Cleaveland, a hero in the War of 1812 and a cousin of Cleveland's legendary founder.

The Gaylords, who owned the house from 1882 until 1910, were the last family to occupy it as a single family residence for an extended period of time. When Josephine Gaylord died in 1910, her husband moved from the house and it was sold to Arnold and Pauline Roth who purchased it with the intention to convert it to a multifamily dwelling. The Roths made extensive changes to the exterior, as well as to the interior of the house, including replacing the front porch which extended along the entire south side of the house with a shortened two-story porch, adding a second floor to the addition on the east side of the house, and constructing an exterior two-story stairwell for tenant access on the north side of the house. In 1913, shortly after the reconstruction was completed, the Roths sold the house to local physician Dr. John H. Belt.

The Belt family owned and managed 5611 Lexington Avenue as absentee landlords for the next thirty years. As housing conditions in the Hough neighborhood declined, the condition of the Luther Moses House slowly did too. The last owners of the house--Steve Matt Skrita, a Croatian immigrant, who owned the house from 1948 to 1963, and the African American Beatrice Landon family, who purchased it from Skrita in 1963--lived on site in one of the suites while renting out the others. However, after the death of Beatrice Landon in 1991, the Landon family struggled unsuccessfully to maintain it, and the condition of the house declined precipitously until the last owner, Herbert Landon, was compelled because of its condition to sell it to the County Land Bank in 2017.

Since at least 1987, when it was landmarked by the City of Cleveland, the Luther Moses House has been recognized in the community as one of the historic jewels of the Hough neighborhood. In recent years, that neighborhood has begun to rebound from its long decline, with new businesses opening up, new housing going up, and the renovation of historic League Park (just down the street from the Luther Moses House). During this period, continuing efforts have been made by the City, the County, and even the Landon family, to save the house. It has been the subject of well-researched articles, including one that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1995, and three that appeared in Christopher Busta-Peck's locally famous "Cleveland Area History" blog in 2009 and 2011. Most recently, according to the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, efforts are now being made by the Cleveland Restoration Society to save the historic house. It is not an easy task, as efforts to save a similar historic house on the City's west side--the William Burton House on West 41st Street--have demonstrated. The Luther Moses House, just like the William Burton House, needs a savior.

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