Filed Under Architecture

Spitzer-Dempsey House

A fit residence for a nineteenth century banker

There is a myth circulating in Cleveland that the house at 2830 Franklin Boulevard was built in 1872 for Frederick W. Pelton, Cleveland's 22nd mayor. Like many myths, it is not true. The house was neither built in 1872, nor was it built for Mayor Pelton. When it was built, who it was built for, and what prominent family first resided in it is the subject of this story.

In the mid-afternoon hours of July 28, 1880, Col. John Dempsey, a banker from Shelby, Ohio, a small town in Richland County located about 80 miles southwest of Cleveland, appeared at a sheriff's sale being held on the south steps of the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, in downtown Cleveland. There, he made a successful bid to purchase an elegant house that was designed by a reputable Cleveland architectural firm and located on the west side's grand Franklin Avenue. The house had been built in 1879 for Ceilan Milo Spitzer, who, like Dempsey, was a banker. However, before Spitzer could even move into his new house in early 1880, creditors of his German-American Bank, which had recently failed, forced its sale.

How and why John Dempsey came to Cleveland on July 28, 1880, to purchase the house that today has the address of 2830 Franklin Boulevard is lost to history. However, the long path which eventually brought him to Cleveland is more easily discernible. Dempsey was born on May 27, 1829, in Mountrath, Queens County, Ireland to James and Catherine Key Dempsey. In 1848, during the Great Famine in Ireland, his family immigrated to the United States, settling first in Sandusky, Ohio, where five members of the family, including his father and four of his siblings, died during a cholera outbreak. By 1860, he had married Martha Davis and had moved to Richland County, where he was a merchant and Martha was raising their first child, one-year old son James. Dempsey's business career was interrupted by the Civil War which broke out that year. He joined a militia and gained military fame as one of the "Squirrel Hunters" who defended Cincinnati from a threatened invasion by Southern troops in 1862. Later, he served in the 48th Ohio Infantry and 163rd Ohio Voluntary Infantry, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. After the war's conclusion, Col. Dempsey returned to Richland County where in a short time he amassed a fortune in the wholesale grocer and banking businesses and was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the county. By 1871, he was semi-retired and breeding race horses on his farm called "Mohican" in nearby Plymouth Township. Retirement--even semi-retirement--may not have suited John Dempsey and that may well have been why he decided in 1880 to move to Cleveland, then the second largest city in Ohio, to find new opportunities and to grow his commercial empire. In addition to purchasing the mansion on Franklin Avenue in July of that year, the following spring he erected a new commercial building on Bank (West 6th) Street and also became active in Cleveland's banking circles. In 1886, Dempsey became president of the newly chartered Euclid Avenue National Bank.

The house which John Dempsey purchased on Franklin Boulevard in 1880 had been designed by the architectural firm of Coburn and Barnum. Two and one-half stories tall and with nearly 4,000 square feet of living space, its design mirrored almost exactly that of another house on Case Avenue (East 40th Street), south of Cedar Avenue, that Frank Barnum had designed just three years earlier. The late 1870s was a period of transition for residential architecture in the United States, with interest in the Italianate style waning and enthusiasm for the new Queen Anne style not yet fully developed. Barnum's design for the house at 2830 Franklin may therefore be called "eclectic," according to Cleveland architectural historian Craig Bobby, its elements drawing inspiration from several different architectural styles. Its general massing, with its tower tucked into the "L" of the house, is borrowed from the Italian Villa style, as is the shallow bay on the first floor, right side of the house. The bracketing of the eves of the tower also suggests the Italianate style, but the tower's flat-topped cap reflects a Second Empire influence, and the house's gabled roof is not typical of Italianate houses. The house's design also borrows from the Gothic Revival style, particularly the quatrefoils on the projection from the left side of the roof and the barge boards along the eves of the gabled roof on the right side of the house. The current porch is not part of the original design.

Moving into the grand house on Franklin Avenue with John Dempsey and his wife Martha in 1880 were their daughters Mary Katherine (19), Nellie (12) and Florence (3). Their son James, then a 21 year old college student, was living in Gambier, Ohio, where he was attending classes at Kenyon College. During school breaks at Kenyon, and later during breaks at Columbia University where he attended law school, James resided with his parents in their house on Franklin Avenue. According to biographers, the first legal employment he found in Cleveland was in 1883 with the downtown law firm of Estep, Dickey and Squire. Two of the named partners, Moses Dickey and Andrew Squire were, like John Dempsey, Franklin Avenue residents. Andrew Squire lived in a house--since razed--that sat on the lot of what today is the Lutheran Family Services building at 4100 Franklin Boulevard, and Moses Dickey lived just a stone's throw away up the street at what is today 4211 Franklin Boulevard. It is no stretch of imagination to believe that law student James H. Dempsey was first introduced by his father to neighbors Moses Dickey and Andrew Squire, and that John Dempsey's business reputation and his residency on Franklin Avenue were important factors in the law firm's decision to hire James. In 1884, James H. Dempsey became a licensed attorney in Ohio, and, just six years later, he and Andrew Squire, along with Judge William B. Sanders, formed a new firm they called Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, which in the twentieth century became one of Cleveland's most prestigious law firms, specializing in corporate and municipal bond law. Today, the firm is known as Squire Patton Boggs, and it has become an international law firm that employs thousands of lawyers and has offices in twenty different countries around the world.

In 1892, just two years after his son co-founded Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, Col. John Dempsey again retired from business, this time for good. In retirement, he spent winters living in the house on Franklin Avenue in Cleveland and summers at his beloved Mohican Farm down in Richland County, where he died in August 1904. During this period, the Spitzer-Dempsey House became the year round residence of John Dempsey's oldest daughter, Mary Katherine, and her husband Ernest Cook, a prominent Cleveland lawyer and a close friend of James H. Dempsey. After Mary Katherine's untimely death in 1898, Ernest and the couple's four children remained in the house on Franklin Avenue, which later was bequeathed to them out of the estate of John Dempsey. Even after his children grew up and moved out, Ernest continued to live in the house until his death in 1929.

By the time Ernest Cook died in 1929, Franklin Avenue, which had been renamed Franklin Boulevard in 1921, was well into its transformation from a grand avenue lined with the beautiful single family houses of Cleveland's west side elite to a much less grand avenue with many of its beautiful houses razed and others converted into retail establishments, apartments or crowded rooming houses. After Cook's death, the Spitzer-Dempsey House too transformed. The 1930 federal census identified four families living at 2830 Franklin Boulevard in that year. Ten years later, according to the 1940 census, nine families were now living in the house. By 1945, according to an ad in the Plain Dealer, the house had 11 furnished suites. Following its conversion into a multi-family dwelling, the the house slowly deteriorated over the years, especially during the second half of the twentieth century, reflecting the general decline in the condition of Cleveland's housing stock and the rapid decline of the city's population during this period. By the 1980s, the Spitzer-Dempsey house was, like many other older houses on the near west side of Cleveland, vacant and in disrepair. In 1981, it acquired local notoriety when the body of a murdered west side teenage girl was discovered in one of its upstairs rooms. In the mid-1990s, the house experienced renewal, as many houses in Ohio City did, when it was rehabilitated by two lawyers who converted it into their law office. One of the lawyers later also made it her residence. Today, the Spitzer-Dempsey House is once again one of the grand and desirable residences on Franklin Boulevard in Ohio City.

Images

The Spitzer-Dempsey House The house at 2830 Franklin Boulevard was built not in 1872 for Cleveland Mayor Frederick W. Pelton, but instead in 1879 for C. M. Spitzer, a Cleveland banker. The evidence that supports the build date and initial ownership of the house is overwhelming and includes: (1) a significant increase, per local architectural historian Craig Bobby, in the tax valuation records for the property in the year 1880; C. M. Spitzer's interview with a Cleveland Leader reporter appearing in the January 29, 1880 edition of the paper, in which he describes the house as one just recently built for him; the 1880 Cleveland directory which treated the house as a new, yet unnumbered address on Franklin Avenue; and the 1877 American Architect sketch of the nearly identical R. J. Cattrall house designed by Frank S. Barnum.) Before Spitzer could occupy his new house, creditors forced its sale and it was purchased by Col. John Dempsey at a sheriff's sale in the summer of 1880. The Spitzer-Dempsey House remained in the Dempsey family for nearly five decades. This photo of the house was taken in 1995. Source: Craig Bobby
Ceilan Milo Spitzer (1849-1919) Considered to be a banking genius, C. M. Spitzer and his father opened the German-American Bank in Cleveland in 1877. It failed in 1880, following an "almost" panic in the United States on November 21, 1879. In an effort to pay all the bank's creditors, Spitzer liquidated his personal assets, including, according to the Cleveland Leader edition of January 29, 1880, the "beautiful residence, just west of [Franklin] Circle" that he had recently built. Spitzer went on to have a brilliant banking and business career in Boston, and in Medina and Toledo, Ohio. Source: Winter, Nevin Otto, A History of Northwest Ohio, Vol. 2.  Chicago and New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1917.
A Nearly Identical House In 1877, before he formed his partnership with Forrest Coburn, Frank S. Barnum designed a house on Case Avenue (East 40th Street) for Cleveland businessman R. P. Cattrall. A sketch of his design appeared in an 1877 issue of The American Architect and Building News. Many years later, the sketch was discovered by Cleveland architectural historian, Craig Bobby, who recognized it to be the same design as of the house at 2830 Franklin Boulevard. This led him to conclude that the house had been designed by the architectural firm of Coburn and Barnum which Frank Barnum and Forrest Coburn had formed in 1878. Source: The American Architect and Building News, Vol. 2, page 91. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877.
John Dempsey (1829-1904) An Irish immigrant, Col. John Dempsey amassed a fortune as a grocer and banker in Shelby, Ohio, before moving to Cleveland in 1880. His only son, James H. Dempsey, co-founded the city's premier law firm, Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, in 1890. This photo was taken in Shelby, Ohio, in circa 1880. Source: Jim Dempsey (a great-great grandson of John Dempsey)
Martha Davis Dempsey (1837-1901) John Dempsey's wife was a second generation Irish-American. They met in Sandusky, Ohio, and married in Richland County in 1856. They were the parents of four children that survived to adulthood, the oldest James H. Dempsey born in 1859. Martha sadly witnessed the death of her oldest daughter, Mary Katherine, in 1898. She herself died in Richland County in 1901, three years after the death of her daughter and three years before the death of her husband. Source: Jim Dempsey (a great-great grandson of Martha Davis Dempsey)
A prestigious address In mid to late nineteenth century, the most prestigious addresses on grand Franklin Avenue were those located closest to Franklin Circle. As the above section of the 1881 Cleveland Atlas reveals, John Dempsey lived very close to the Circle and his neighbors included, immediately to the east, historian James Ford Rhodes, after whom Cleveland Rhodes high school was named. Across the street, just a few doors down, was Robert Russell Rhode's grand house, which in recent years was the site of the Cuyahoga County Archives. Robert Russell Rhodes was a brother of James Ford Rhodes. A little further up the street and visible on this map was the home of Judge James Coffinberry, one of Cleveland early great jurists. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Investing in Cleveland In 1881, according to county tax records, a new building was erected for John Dempsey on a commercial lot on the east side of Bank (West 6th) Street between St. Clair and Frankfort Streets (Avenues). From 1888 to 1897, the building was leased to the Union Carriage & Toy Co., as the above photo taken during that period shows. This building, which was known as the Dempsey Block and had an address of 189-191 Bank (1391 W. 6th) Street, remained in the Dempsey family until 1940. It was razed in the 1970s. Source: Jim Dempsey (a great-great grandson of John Dempsey)
Founder of Squire, Sanders and Dempsey James H. Dempsey (1859-1920) was the only son of John and Martha Dempsey. He lived in the house at 2830 Franklin, on and off, in the 1880s, and likely as a result was introduced to lawyers Moses Dickey and Andrew Squire who lived up the street from him. Their firm of Estep, Dickey and Squire hired him as a law clerk in 1883. After becoming licensed as an attorney by the State of Ohio in 1884, Dempsey continued to work for the firm. In 1890, Andrew Squire and James H. Dempsey left Estep, Dickey and Squire and, with Judge William Sanders, formed a new firm which they called Squire, Sanders and Dempsey. It has grown over the years to become one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Ernest S. Cook (1860-1929) A close friend of James H. Dempsey whom he met in college, Cook graduated as valedictorian of Kenyon College's class of 1882. He married Dempsey's sister Mary Katherine in 1883. Like James H. Dempsey, Cook studied law becoming a prominent Cleveland attorney, and heading the firm of Cook, McGowan and Foote, which represented large corporations, including railroads. Cook and his wife moved into the Spitzer-Dempsey House in 1888, where they raised their four children. After Mary Katherine's death in 1898, Cook and the couple's children continued to live in the house, and the title to the house was eventually conveyed to Ernest Cook out of the estate of his father-in-law John Dempsey who died in 1904. Cook lived in the house until his own death in 1929. The above photo of Ernest S. Cook is from circa 1910. Source: Orth, Samuel Peter, A History of Cleveland, Vol. 3.  Chicago-Cleveland: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1910.
2830 Franklin in 1960 This photograph of the Spitzer-Dempsey House was taken by a county tax appraiser in 1960. He is seen standing outside the house. Note the fire escape which served as an emergency exit for tenants living in the attic of the house. In the 1960s, the house was still being used, as it had been since 1930, as a rooming house. Source: Cuyahoga County Archives
Another 1960s view. This photo taken in 1963 shows the Spitzer-Dempsey House to the left of the Gentsch House at 2826 Franklin Boulevard. The Gentsch House, originally the home of a Cleveland physician, was converted into a bar in the 1930s. It was the Circle Bar at the time this photo was taken, but later became Ohio City's popular Scrooge and Marley's in the 1970s and 1980s. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Spitzer-Dempsey House in 1979 This photograph of the Spitzer-Dempsey taken one year before the murder of Tammy Seals in October 1980. Prior to that year, the house had been owned by controversial Cleveland councilman William Sullivan, who owned a number of properties in Ohio City and who sold them after he was accused of having used his public office to profit in the purchase and sales of the properties. Sullivan sold the Spitzer-Dempsey House in August 1979 and it may have been vacant at the time this photograph was taken. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection
Tammy Seals In October 1980, straight-A student Tammy Seals was delivering newspaper on her early morning route when she was abducted, raped and murdered. Her body was found four months later, in February 1981, in a room on the second floor of the vacant Spitzer-Dempsey House. (Note that in the article the Plain Dealer incorrectly reported that the house was originally owned by James H. Dempsey, rather than by his father, Colonel John Dempsey.) Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Brought back to Life In 1996, the Spitzer-Dempsey House was purchased by two attorneys who spent countless hours and a great deal of money rehabilitating it. It served as their law offices for nearly 20 years. Today it is once again a single-family residence. This photo of the first floor hallway was taken in 2017. Source: Pinterest
Spitzer-Dempsey House today Rehabilitated and now a single family residence, the grand house is once again one of the jewels of Franklin Boulevard and Ohio City. (Photo taken in 2017.) Creator: Mark Souther

Location

2830 Franklin Blvd, Cleveland, OH 44113

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Spitzer-Dempsey House,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 16, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/917.