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With the Columbia, something more than a landmark lost

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/15/11 @ 10:00am

The Columbia Building<br />Before being demolished for a casino parking garage, the Columbia Building in downtown Cleveland got a $9 million upgrade.

As I exited the 1916 neoclassical masterpiece of Cleveland City Hall-the city's first landmark designated by the Landmarks Commission (in 1942)-still sweating from the packed room where the commission decided on a 3-2 vote to tear down the 1912 Columbia Building (pictured right) today, I headed on foot south along the Daniel Burnham-designed Mall Plan. I scanned the skyline and tried to picture complete city blocks of classic buildings before fires or development proposals leveled them (some which never panned out and left the scars of surface parking lots or horrid examples of post-modern architecture like the dark vertical brick façade of the Bond Court/Sheraton Hotel).

I tried to comfort myself with the thought that all cities are constantly in flux. More buildings than one can count like the National City Bank tower were built on sites of classic beauties like the Hickox Building (pictured middle), built in 1890 on the corner of E. 9th and Euclid (itself replacing a church ? at least preservationists convinced the builder to incorporate the church's clock tower. The Hickox itself was replaced by the Bond, a squat, futurist building in 1946 until NCB rose in 1980).

As I walked past the 1916 East Ohio Gas Building at E. 6th and Rockwell (pictured at bottom), which Calfee, Halter & Griswold law firm is investing $30 million to restore as their offices, I saw dozens of union laborers in bright green shirts and white hardhats taking their lunch. After, I took my lunch from the Old Arcade and practically bumped into the mayor's Chief of Staff Ken Silliman-who so eloquently spoke in favor of demolishing the Columbia-and watched as he crossed Euclid toward E. 4th street. Now as I ride up the HealthLine on Euclid past the Mather Mansion, I flip through Clay Herrick, Jr.'s Cleveland Landmarks, a book on the important architectural landmarks built during the city's heyday. Herrick includes a chapter on the Columbia which he identifies as Dyke College (they bought the building in 1981). He writes:

Dyke's promotion to students features the fact that the Prospect-Ontario location is so close to the Terminal Tower, to rapid and bus lines, and to parking facilities which may increase as Domed-Stadium plans are implemented in the area (editor: OK, he was a little off on that one). Also, it is close to more companies which employ Dyke students and graduates.

Dyke had raised $3 million in the early 1980s to update the building. Herrick also notes how the Columbia was part of a historic block of buildings on Lower Prospect, which, unlike Upper Prospect, wasn't designated a landmark district.

Adjacent to the 1894 Marine Building and the original Richman Brothers factory (the Mechanics Block), the Columbia Building was built in 1912 by Morris A. Bradley on property purchased by Captain Alva Bradley (after whom Thomas Alva Edison was named). Once the headquarters for the Nickel Plate and Erie Lackawanna Railroads, the building was owned for many years by Mrs. Malcolm Vilas (nee Helen Marie Bradley).

Cleveland has a great history of demolishing buildings-some it swore to protect by designating them landmarks-sometimes to build new (sometimes the new wasn't built and a 'missing tooth' effect started to deface the downtown). These self-destructive tendencies have gone unabated. The current decision reflects a continuation of the same narrative used to justify it: Economic development. But the $400 million carrot from the casino ignores the more than $400 million invested in reusing old buildings when the city believed it could restore historic places as new vibrant destinations (E. 4th Street, the Warehouse District, Playhouse Square as pedestrian zones and places to linger).

Cleveland Restoration Society president Kathleen Crowther made a strong case that the Landmarks Commission and City Hall have a legal obligation to police the purposeful neglect of landmark buildings like the Columbia (former caretaker Gibby Singerman testified earlier that the $9 million investment to upgrade the building was squandered by parking lot owner Lou Frangos when he purchased the building two years ago and didn't drain the fire/sprinkler system, ruining new ceilings and much more).

Crowther concluded that the city was heading down a road of "demolition by neglect" with more of its landmarks. Landmarks Commission chair Jennifer Coleman was also miffed that the commission wasn't consulted early in the process and aired to whomever at the city was listening that it expected a change; that it expected the Planning Commission to tell it when it was approving plans like those to demolish the Columbia and replace it with a hideous parking garage and turn lower Prospect into a valet zone-before staring down the barrel of gun.

In the end, after the testimony of dozens of creative class professionals, downtown residents, The Cleveland Coalition, CSU students (representing the 400 Facebook friends to Save Lower Prospect), AIA Cleveland, the Restoration Society, all the Landmarks Commission could do with the deal the city cut with the casino was eek out a weak concession that the building will not be demolished unless Rock Gaming works out with state lawmakers a deal for tax revenues from the casino (which has held up construction on the temporary casino). The other potential sticking point is the walkway above the sidewalk-if the state history preservation office, which gave tax credits to restore the Higbee building, doesn't approve the walkway punching through the Higbee's 2nd floor window, it might scuttle the walkway and put the Pradas of the high rollers on the street and swerving around four lanes of valet exit dumping on to Prospect.

In the end, Dan Gilbert's $400 million carrot outweighed the city's principles, that new development must integrate with the urban fabric, that it should do more than bring in gamblers: it should do no harm, and it should catalyze the city's great successes in restoring its history as a new 'city of choice'. The overpacked and overheated room of supporters to "Save Lower Prospect" had their love of this vision for Cleveland spurned today.

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