Filed Under Architecture

Cleveland Trust Tower

Marcel Breuer's Only Skyscraper

The 9, originally called Cleveland Trust Tower and then Ameritrust Tower, is the only skyscraper designed by one of the most eminent Modernist architects of the 20th century, Marcel Breuer. But like a number of projects Breuer designed in his career, this Brutalist tower did not win universal praise and was nearly destroyed in the early 2000s. 

Marcel Breuer was a Bauhaus-trained architect and furniture designer. A native of Hungary and a protege of the eminent Modernist architect Walter Gropius, Breuer earned a reputation for designing furniture and tubular steel chairs such as the Model B3 or Wassily Chair in the 1920s. In 1938 he joined Gropius on the faculty at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. For the next three years, Breuer and Gropius collaborated on several residential designs, including Aluminum City Terrace, an International Style defense housing project near Pittsburgh in 1941. The 240-unit "ultra-utilitarian" compound of prefabricated multifamily and semi-detached dwellings immediately drew "intense antagonism from surrounding economically well-off private residential property owners" who decried the project's design. It would not be the last time Breuer's designs produced strong feelings.

In the 1950s, Breuer continued in domestic architecture but also moved into institutional building design, notably in his UNESCO headquarters and I.B.M. Research Center in France. He went on to design the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1966, which earned him accolades, but when he produced a design for the proposed FDR Memorial that same year in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts rejected his creation as a "disrespectful" "pop art sculpture." Breuer found a better reception with his design of the Department of HUD headquarters in the Southwest Washington, D.C. urban renewal project, and he enjoyed commissions for a number of laboratories, university and museum buildings, including the Education Wing at the Cleveland Museum of Art, completed in 1971.

The latter commission, received in 1967, led Cleveland Trust Company to turn to Breuer to steer the expansion of its downtown offices at Euclid and East 9th Street, where George B. Post's early-1900s rotunda was too small for the bank's needs. Breuer was no stranger to Modernist additions to historic buildings. He had recently designed a proposed pair of skyscrapers to rise above Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, but the project foundered because it underestimated the groundswell of commitment to historic preservation among New Yorkers who were still reeling from the loss of the grand Penn Station.

In Cleveland, Breuer planned twin 29-story towers that together would frame the old rotunda with frontage on Euclid and East 9th. Elements of the building's design evoked Breuer's HUD headquarters. The first tower, clad in black granite with cast concrete window frames, was completed on the East 9th side in 1971. Bank president George Karch was quick to assert that it reflected Cleveland Trust's dissent from the prevailing "gloomy predictions" about downtown's future. However, by that time, the second tower's expected construction was not expected to start before 1975. Not only was the second tower ultimately not built, its twin and the rotunda were abandoned in 1996 after Ameritrust (as Cleveland Trust had renamed itself in 1971) merged in 1991 with Society for Savings, which had recently invested in expanding its footprint on Public Square, leading to the construction of the Society Center. Society and KeyCorp, which acquired it three years later, had no need for the old Cleveland Trust complex.

The tower sat empty for nearly a decade before Cuyahoga County purchased it in 2005. County commissioners tried to convince the public to support demolishing it for a new county administration center because it was purportedly beyond saving. The threat of demolition hung over the tower for several years, stimulating considerable efforts to highlight the building's many merits, including its build quality, the renown of its architect, the fact that this was Breuer's only skyscraper. 

After the county commissioners' failure to assemble the needing financing for a new county complex and their becoming embroiled in scandal, the Geis Companies, a Northeast Ohio real estate development firm, stepped in and offered to purchase the skyscraper and rotunda and undertake their adaptive reuse. Completed in 2015, the rotunda opened as a distinctive Heinen's supermarket, while the tower became the 156-room Metropolitan Hotel and 105 apartments, and the adjacent Swetland Building contained part of Heinen's on the first floor and more apartments on upper floors. The project did much to reenliven a forlorn corner of downtown and ensured that Cleveland did not destroy what was possibly the boldest expresssion of one of the 20th century's greatest Modernist designers.

Audio

A Different Expression Architect Norman Perttula appreciates the "benefit of shade and shadow" on Breuer's tower and contrasts it to the trend of "glass box" skyscrapers in the mid-20th century. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
In Defense of the Breuer Building Architect George Dalton, speaking at the time when the Ameritrust Tower's demolition appeared likely, appreciates the "deep shadows and articulation of the facades." Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Architect Rendering The original design drawn by Marcel Breuer in 1967 included a pair of towers that were adjoined at about a 30-degree angle, framing the historic George B. Post–designed banking hall commonly called "the rotunda." However, Ameritrust, as Cleveland Trust renamed itself in 1971, never okayed the second tower, which would have replaced the Swetland Building on Euclid Avenue. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1967
Breuer's Wassily Chairs Breuer designed the Wassily Chair at the Bauhaus in 1925 and went on to design the Cesca Chair three years later. The latter, more simplified chair design, was the basis for many tubular steel chairs still found widely throughout the world today. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Aluminum City Terrace Aluminum City Terrace was a collaboration between Marcel Breuer and his Harvard mentor Walter Gropius. It was a federal defense housing project completed in 1943 in New Kensington on the eastern fringe of Pittsburgh. Source: Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division Creator: Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. Date: December 20, 1943
Breuer's UNESCO Headquarters in Paris The glass-and-steel canopy entrance for the Metropolitan at the 9 nods to this earlier Breuer concrete canopy on his UNESCO headquarters building in Paris, completed in 1955. Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 Creator: Anna Armstrong Date: June 24, 2009
Breuer's Whitney Museum Lobby and Stairs Breuer's Whitney Museum of Art building, completed in 1966, was his most significant institutional building in the U.S. to date, but the accolades it enjoyed did not extend to acceptance of his bold design for a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the nation's capital two years later. Source: Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 Creator: Jonathan Lin Date: May 23, 2014
Robert C. Weaver Federal Building Breuer designed the Weaver Building as the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1966. The exterior of the Weaver Building exhibits a clear influence on Breuer's Cleveland Trust (Ameritrust) Tower design in Cleveland. Note the molded concrete window frames, which also dominate the Cleveland tower's facade. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Creator: Carol M. Highsmith Date: September 2012
Breuer's Grand Central Tower Design The New York Landmarks Commission quashed the plan for this pair of Breuer-designed to be built using air rights above the historic Grand Central Terminal in the late 1960s. As a result, Breuer's Cleveland tower became his only completed skyscraper. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Interior of Breuer's CMA Education Wing Marcel Breuer received his commission to add a wing to the Cleveland Museum of Art shortly before his Cleveland Trust commission. The Breuer addition, completed in 1971, was artfully incorporated into the CMA's massive expansion that used a soaring glass atrium and flanking gallery buildings to connect Breuer's building with Hubbell & Benes's original marble 1916 building. Source: Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 Creator: Tim Evanson Date: February 10, 2017
Elevator Shaft During Construction The elevator shaft's construction appears here prior to the building of the surrounding steel skeleton. This view faces east, where the Swetland Building appears behind the rotunda. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Glenn Zahn Date: 1970
Steel Skeleton In this construction view, the steel skeleton is nearly complete, and exterior concrete, glass, and granite cladding work is advancing up the building's sides. This view looks northeast from the vicinity of Prospect and East 9th, where a corner of the Rose Building appears at left. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Van Dillard Date: 1970
Marcel Breuer and His Tower The architect stands at Prospect and East 9th with his tower looming behind him. The Cleveland Trust annex in the foreground was demolished for the Cuyahoga County Administrative Center about 45 years later. Had the county's original plan not been stopped, a single, larger new building would have replaced this and the historic tower. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: February 1, 1971
Metropolitan at the 9 This evening view shows the front entrance of the Metropolitan Hotel. The tower is split between a hotel and apartments, some of which are among the most expensive rental units ever introduced in the Cleveland market. As downtown's resurgence continued, the per-square-foot rents of The 9 stood out less and less. Source: Metropolitan at the 9

Location

2017 E 9th St, Cleveland, OH 44115

Metadata

J. Mark Souther, “Cleveland Trust Tower,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 2, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/962.