Friday, December 16, 2016

Kinks in history........... I found and resolved one today.

I'm researching the history of the old Cleveland Convention Center, which was built beneath the Cleveland Mall (or parts of it) in 1964. It's confusing, because there's not much documentation about the existing "convention center", Public Auditorium, which was constructed in 1922. Most histories refer to Public Auditorium as if it were a single unit, but I've discovered that it's not. In fact, Music Hall and the Little Theater (on the auditorium's south end) were not built until 1929.

In 1932, the northern end of Mall B and all of Mall C were dug up. An underground exhibition hall was constructed beneath them. A tunnel led from the basement of Public Auditorium to the Mall B hall, and another tunnel under Lakeside Avenue connected the Mall B hall with the Mall C Hall.

I worked out that kink last month.

I found a second kink today.

Almost every history traces the construction of the 1964 Cleveland Convention Center to the city's jealousy over the New York Coliseum, which opened in April 1956. This spurred an attempt to build a $15 million convention center north of the Old Lakeside Courthouse and City Hall. This would be three stories high, with a below-ground exhibition hall, and it would extend over the railroad tracks to reach the Memorial Shoreway.

Voters rejected the bond measure. Mayor Anthony Celebrezze tried again in 1958. Once more, voters rejected the measure. In 1960, the Greater Cleveland Convention Center and Visitors' Bureau pushed the convention center -- this time low-balling the cost at $12 million. It wouldn't be built north of the courthouse and city hall, but rather beneath Mall B. Voters approved the measure. (And wouldn't you know it?? It cost $15 million in the end. How'd that happen??)

In fact, that's not how the story goes. The kink can be traced back to 1954. Celebrezze had been elected in November 1952, and was an energetic, vibrant, go-getter mayor. He was something Cleveland hadn't seen since Tom Johnson left office in 1909. Celebrezze was looking for a way to really revitalize the lakefront. Cleveland had foolishly built Municipal Stadium smack on the shoreline in 1931, and the Memorial Shoreway from 1933 to 1936. This cut off the lakefront from public access. It was city policy (adopted in 1942) to restore the lakefront to recreational use, but...

But Celebrezze knew that recreational use wasn't gonna happen. In fact, instead of being torn out, the Shoreway was being loaded with more and more cars. The Lakeland Freeway, completed in 1953 and linked to the Shoreway, made sure of that.

Cleveland Hopkins Airport had just been expanded in 1954 by a local archited named R. Franklin Outcalt. The St. Lawrence Seaway had also opened the same year, bringing a hell of a lot of international trade to the Port of Cleveland.

Celebrezze convinced Outcalt to design -- for free -- an "international center" on the Cleveland lakefront. Lo! This "international center" was north of the old courthouse and city hall, partly beneath Mall C and partly extending over the railroad tracks.

If that sounds familiar, it is. The plans for the proposed 1957 Cleveland Convention Center are basically repurposed "international center" plans.

In May 1955, Celebrezze and Outcalt presented their "international center" plans to a local committee of businessmen. It generated no interest, so the plans were filed away. But Celebrezze believed in them, big-time. They'd be a game-changer for Cleveland, he felt. In January 1956, Celebrezze was at the American Municipal Association (now the National League of Cities) meeting in San Francisco. He ran into legendary New York City real estate developer William Zeckendorf. He invited Zeckendorf up to his room, and showed him Outcalt's plans. Zeckendorf was so impressed, he agreed within a few months to finance the project and build most of it -- IF Celebrezze could get voter approval of the plan.

The rest is unkinked history. The city council approved the deal, but voters shot it down. Zeckendorf withdrew. Another shot in 1958 failed, too. And the 1960 effort won.

It took me months, but I got the kinks worked out.

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