First Published in The New York Times
New Focus on a Forlorn Cleveland Tower
CLEVELAND, June 17 — Marcel Breuer, one of the fathers of modern architecture, built only one skyscraper, the 29-story Cleveland Trust Tower, which today stands abandoned on a forlorn block downtown.
But a plan to demolish the tower, and replace it with a midrise government office building, has caused an outcry among architectural preservationists, who call the building an overlooked landmark.
“It’s like saying it would be O.K. to lose some of the paintings that Picasso did that weren’t his best work,” said Louis R. Pounders, a Memphis architect and member of the design committee for the American Institute of Architects. “Anything that’s done by someone of Breuer’s stature has merit on its own.”
Some people, though, just call Breuer’s building ugly.
“That thing looks like a collector’s case for Matchbox cars,” said Julie Baker, a commercial banker, as she sat on a patio opposite the tower. “If I could get a wrecking ball, I’d tear it down myself.”
Few people know that Breuer designed the Cleveland Trust Tower, which was built in 1971, a year after he offered his plan to build a large skyscraper directly atop Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. That proposal galvanized the historic-preservation movement in New York, which, helped by the support of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and others, scored a major victory by defeating the project.
Except for their vastly different scales, Breuer’s designs for the Cleveland and Grand Central towers were quite similar. Their facades, honeycombs of rough concrete that make no effort to conceal their girth, were undiluted expressions of modern design principles. With deeply inset windows, both buildings were examples of the dark, sculptured aesthetic of Breuer’s later work, which found its most popular expression in his design of the Whitney Museum.
The fact that preservationists here are defending the Cleveland tower provides a paradoxical footnote to the most humiliating defeat for Breuer, who died in 1981.
“It is quite amazing how things have come full circle,” said Anthony Hiti, a Cleveland architect fighting to save the tower. “This building represents his vision for Grand Central on a smaller scale, which gives it more historical significance.”
The National Building Museum in Washington is planning a major exhibition on Breuer’s architecture and design, to open in November. The curator, Susan Piedmont-Palladino, wrote a letter recently to the Board of Commissioners in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, comparing the possible destruction of the tower to the razing in the 1950s of Victorian masterpieces and several major buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright.
“These are irreparable tears in the fabric of our built patrimony,” Ms. Piedmont-Palladino wrote, “and surely everyone involved came to regret those decisions.”
Designed as an imposing symbol of the strength of its namesake, the Cleveland Trust Tower instead became a monument to the company’s failure. The original plan called for a wing that would wrap around the bank’s glass-domed rotunda building at the corner of East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue, the historic heart of Cleveland’s financial district. The company never grew to the point that it needed the space so the wing was never built.
Cleveland Trust changed its name to Ameritrust, and in the late 1980s merged with what is now KeyBank. The old bank forfeited its name and its corporate headquarters, and the Breuer tower has been empty ever since. In September 2005, Cuyahoga County bought the tower and five adjacent buildings for $21.7 million. Two of the county’s three commissioners voted in March to demolish the skyscraper.
County leaders and preservationists agree on the tower’s shortcomings. By modern standards, its layout and ceiling heights are cramped. Its mechanical systems, designed for a building twice its size, are outdated and overly large. Its porthole windows provide terrible insulation.
Some government officials have grown tired of pointing all this out.
“We represent the philistine position, those people who are too stupid to realize the architectural significance of this building,” David Lambert, assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said dryly at a recent meeting of the Cleveland Planning Commission.
The commissioners who voted to demolish the tower, Jimmy Dimora and Timothy F. Hagan, did not return calls seeking comment.
Replacing the tower with an office building would cost $223 million, said Barbara Shergalis, the project’s director. The design is not complete, but officials envision a highly efficient 15-story building with a large footprint that would allow the public easy access to all departments.
“I’m incredibly excited about this because it’s an opportunity to invigorate what was once the most vital core of downtown Cleveland,” Ms. Shergalis said.
The planning commission will discuss the issue again on June 29.
The county commissioner who voted against tearing down the Cleveland Trust Tower, Peter Lawson Jones, said that retrofitting it would cost $185 million to $200 million, a significant saving for taxpayers over the cost of a new structure. Mr. Jones also said that he had become a fan of the old tower’s design.
“To my eye, the rotunda is more attractive,” he said, “but the two of them can make a very interesting contrast.”