Filed Under Businesses

Kinney & Levan

The Nation's Largest Housewares Emporium

At 79 years old, George W. Kinney had no time to stop to smell the roses—79 of them—that his employees had ordered for his birthday. He was too busy preparing for his store's biggest expansion in three decades.

In the depths of the Great Depression, downtown merchant George W. Kinney pressed forward with an air of confidence. He expanded the Kinney & Levan store at 1375-85 Euclid Avenue from a housewares store to a full-fledged department store for the home in 1932. Kinney's radical reorganization enabled him to display wares in individual rooms to suggest how they might appear in a shopper's own home. Between the store's support columns on the street level, he arranged tall backlit cabinets and mirror-topped tables displaying various table settings. But it was the third floor that generated the most excitement. There Kinney created an experience akin to touring European and American history museum period rooms. Twenty-eight furnished rooms were filled with furniture manufactured by the Robert Irwin Furniture Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and decorated in period and contemporary styles. At the expanded store's preview for reporters, Kinney recalled how skeptics had scoffed at his decision in 1913 to move "so far out," noting with satisfaction that Playhouse Square had followed him uptown.

In 1873, twenty-year-old George W. Kinney, the son of a longtime trustee of Oberlin College, had traveled from Oberlin to Cleveland to sell several empty oil barrels to William H. Doan, who co-owned several Cleveland refineries that produced carbon oil, naphtha, and gasoline. On Doan's advice, Kinney decided to try his luck selling kerosene lamps, first from a building on the north side of Public Square, and quickly expanded to china, glassware, and lamps. In 1883, he partnered with merchant Aaron B. Levan to buy out the Bowman Bros. & Levan housewares store at 120 West Superior Street across from where the Perry-Payne Building was built five years later. Then, in 1885, they moved to a much larger building at 219-221 Bank Street (later 1427-37 West 6th Street). The business soon served a four-state area with four traveling salesmen and fifteen store employees.

Outgrowing its store on West 6th, Kinney & Levan moved in 1913 to a new six-story building leased from Samuel, William G., and Katherine Mather on upper Euclid Avenue, becoming the easternmost of downtown's major retailers. The building replaced the home where Samuel Mather had lived before moving farther east on Euclid Avenue. In the new terra-cotta faced building designed by Walker & Weeks, the store staked its claim as the nation's largest housewares store—"The housewife's paradise," averred George Kinney. The space was immense, so large, Kinney liked to point out, that he had no need of golf because he got plenty of exercise pacing the 450 feet between Euclid Avenue to Dodge Court multiple times each day. The store occupied the first four floors and basement, as well as the rear half of the fifth floor. The Cleveland Public Library occupied the front half of the fifth and all of the sixth floor until its new Beaux-Arts edifice was completed on Superior in 1925. The store featured five model kitchens and literally acres of floor space with a "bewildering" assortment of china, glassware, silverware, crockery, cutlery, lamps, appliances, and more.

Following A. B. Levan's death soon after the move to Euclid Avenue, Kinney continued to update his store. He opened a portion of the space to the Likly & Rockett Trunk Co. in 1916, and two years after that he added the Oriental Studio, where costumed Chinese women served tea to customers. In 1928, Kinney bought the property he had originally leased. In addition to recasting his store's "interior frontier," which historian Alison Isenberg has identified as an approach to helping "Main Street" survive the Depression, four years later, Kinney took up interior decorator services for other businesses and even decorated the "Home in the Sky" and "House of Tomorrow," two model "houses" in the Builders' Exchange Building, part of the Union Terminal Group.

The weight of economic conditions may explain why, in spite of having a payroll of 330 employees and a national reputation for its vast selection of merchandise, the Kinney & Levan Company leased out considerable space in its building starting in 1934. The lessees included the Intown Club, Foster Frocks, Guenther Art Galleries, and Poyner's Beauty Shop. The following year, Stouffer's restaurant moved into the former Likly & Rockett space. Finally, in 1936, months after George Kinney died, Kinney & Levan descended into bankruptcy and was sold at auction the following year. At the time of Kinney's passing, he and W. B. Davis of Lindner & Davis were the city's oldest downtown merchants.

After its sale, the Kinney & Levan Building's front half included a succession of various businesses, while Bailey Co. department store leased the rear half for its warehouse starting in 1937. Stouffer's held on until 1972, when the reduction of foot traffic after the closing of the Playhouse Square theaters finally forced it to close. Despite the gradual restoration of the theaters, the old Kinney & Levan building languished and was purchased by Playhouse Square Foundation in 1997. A decade later it found new life as the home of Cleveland's National Public Radio affiliate. Though he surely would have lamented the disappearance of retail, Kinney might also have appreciated the building's new name—Idea Center. After all, it had been his "idea center" too.

Images

Early View of the Kinney & Levan Building Source: "The Work of Walker & Weeks." The Ohio Architect Engineer and Builder. September 1914. New York Public Library.
Before and After the Merger In 1883, Aaron B. Levan and George W. Kinney bought the former Bowman Bros. & Levan store at 120 W. Superior St., which also sold china and glassware, among other housewares. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: September 28, 1882, and February 19, 1883
Kinney & Levan's Second Location Kinney & Levan moved from 120 W. Superior to the former Morgan & Root Building (third building from right) at 219-221 Bank Street in 1885. The store remained there until its move to Euclid Avenue in 1913. After 1906, the Bank Street address changed to 1427-37 W. 6th Street. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: 1896
Future Site of Kinney & Levan This photo, one-half of a stereograph card, shows Euclid Avenue in the years before Kinney & Levan pioneered the commercial redevelopment of the section east of East 13th Street. The fountain was in front of the mansion of railroad magnate Selah Chamberlain. The first house visible on the left was that of Chamberlain's easterly neighbor, iron baron Samuel L. Mather. After he moved to a much larger, 43-room mansion at 2605 Euclid in 1910, the Mather family built and leased the building to which Kinney & Levan moved in 1913. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: ca. 1900
Architectural Drawing of Kinney & Levan Building The front of the building to the right in this view faced Euclid Avenue to the south, while the rear section to the left backed up to Dodge Court on the north. Initially the building was visible on all four sides, but soon the Playhouse Square district developed, framing it on the east and west. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: ca. 1913
Elliptical Staircase on First Floor This elaborate staircase connected the first floor (at street level along Euclid Avenue) with the basement. Source: "The Work of Walker & Weeks." The Ohio Architect Engineer and Builder. September 1914. New York Public Library.
Wholesale Department The store's wholesale department was located on the second floor. Source: "The Work of Walker & Weeks." The Ohio Architect Engineer and Builder. September 1914. New York Public Library.
Cleveland Public Library in the Kinney & Levan Building This interior view on the sixth floor shows the skylight and magazine rack. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: ca. 1915
Kinney & Levan from the Southeast This illustration from Souvenir of Cleveland (1921) shows the view one would have had from across Euclid Avenue in front of the Hanna Building. This stretch of Euclid was in the process of rapidly transforming from Millionaires' Row to Playhouse Square. The building to the left, completed in 1915, housed the Lindner Co., a women's store that through later mergers became the Sterling-Lindner department store. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: 1921
Likly & Rockett Trunk Co. ad This trunk store was billed as one of the nation's largest. The map shows how the former Superior Avenue store and Merwin Avenue moved into combined space in the Kinney & Levan Building. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: April 12, 1916
Oriental Studio Opened in 1918, the Oriental Studio stocked lamps, chandeliers, vases, urns, and novelties imported from China. Chinese women in traditional attire served tea to customers. Creator: Braun Post Card Co., Cleveland, Ohio Date: ca. 1918
Surrounded by Commerce By 1921, the wisdom of George W. Kinney's gamble on upper Euclid Avenue was unquestioned. As this view looking east along the north side of the street makes clear, Kinney & Levan was in good company in the heart of a retail and entertainment district that rivaled that near Public Square. This photo was taken before the construction of the Keith Building at the end of the Playhouse Square block. Source: Cleveland Public Library Date: ca. 1921
Christmas Advertisement This ad shows the wide of range of items sold at Kinney & Levan in the late 1920s. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: December 16, 1928
Advertisement An ad for a coffeemaker that appeared in a theater program. Source: Cleveland Public Library Creator: Ohio Theater Date: March 16, 1930
Kinney & Levan's Interiors This ad points to how the company was active in interior decorating services in the 1930s, including furnishing the model "Home in the Sky" and "House of Tomorrow" at the Builders' Exchange Building. Like those models (which were the HGTV of their time), its store was set up to inspire customers to "re-do your own home!" Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: April 29, 1934
Bankruptcy Notice This statement from the receiver appointed by the court to administer Kinney & Levan in its bankruptcy points to the unprecedented bargains that awaited customers in these final days of the store's existence. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: May 10, 1936
Bailey Co.'s Warehouse Bailey Co., a Cleveland department store on Ontario Street, leased the back half of the former Kinney & Levan Building on Dodge Court for its warehouse in 1937. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: May 19, 1940
One Playhouse Square The former Kinney & Levan Building was bought by the Playhouse Square Foundation in 1997 and renovated a decade later to serve as home to Ideastream, the media company that combined WCPN and WVIZ. The building was known as One Playhouse Square before taking the new name Idea Center. Source: Playhouse Square Archives, Cleveland Memory Project Creator: Ruth Flannery Date: 1997

Location

1375 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44115

Metadata

J. Mark Souther, “Kinney & Levan,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 23, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/958.