Watching One of Cleveland’s Giants Fall
Thirty years ago, I took a trip with my dad and brother to downtown Cleveland to watch two old buildings get blown up. The event was billed as a momentous milestone, but to me it seemed more like a natural disaster. A tsunami of dust swept towards us and, within seconds, I lost them in the crowd.
One Saturday morning when I was seven years old, my dad took me and my brother downtown to watch a building get torn down. This was a celebratory occasion, as odd as that might sound – two old buildings on Public Square in downtown Cleveland were demolished to make way for a new office tower.
I’ll never forget that morning, but even if I did, I’m reminded of it every time that I visit my dad’s law office. His wall is decorated with framed photos of the building coming down, images a friend gave to him after discovering that he’d captured us in the foreground. The photos, which were snapped in quick succession, show the building as it collapses like a sand castle pounded by a giant fist. In the foreground, dust surges towards the fleeing crowd, and there we are, running.
That morning, we’d sped down the hill from the broad, leafy streets of Cleveland Heights, beneath the rusted rapid transit tracks to Carnegie. I stared out the window at the boarded-up buildings and empty lots that were interrupted only by the Cleveland Clinic, its sleek buildings a wary, armored town amidst the decay.
Outings with my dad were special, and Mike and I were excited when we found him waiting for us downstairs when we woke up. My dad left early each morning and came home late at night. On weekends, he woke up early and read the paper as he waited for us to shuffle downstairs in our pajamas. Then, over a heaping plate of pancakes and maple syrup that mom made, he’d offer up some adventure, sharpening the air of mystery and excitement that clung to him.
We parked on a side street downtown and got out. We walked a few blocks along East 9th and Superior to the Huntington building. My dad stopped and pointed at the solid, sure lines of the stone pillars and ledges on the façade.
“Boys, look up,” he said. “This is one of the oldest bank buildings in Cleveland.”
My brother and I weren’t listening – we were dreaming about sliding down the brass banisters. Dad was constantly telling us about old buildings. My grandparents grew up in Cleveland before moving to the suburbs, and my dad’s office was downtown. The city was important to us, yet with each visit it seemed a little more of it had disappeared, slipping into the gaps between buildings.
We trailed behind my dad as he walked down Euclid. I hurried along behind my brother Mike; the youngest child.
We reached the barriers on Euclid and stopped. My dad stared up at the building. As a crowd gathered behind us, Mike and I argued over who got to stand in front.
“Hey! I can’t see over your shoulder!” I said.
“Well, move then,” he retorted, shoving me out of the way.
My dad shushed us and placed us on either side of him so we couldn’t fight. We looked up at the building that was going to be demolished. It was made out of sandstone, with terra cotta and ornate brickwork above the windows and doors. The façade was the color of soot and exuded a sense of faded grandeur.
Why are they tearing it down? I asked my dad. They were going to build a skyscraper in its place, he told me. His explanation seemed at odds with my parents’ thrift. I came from a family of fixers and savers – people who repaired old appliances and saved twist ties from loaves of bread. In our house, it was heretical to discard any item, no matter how small, that could be repurposed.
The crowd swelled behind us. I overheard an older guy say, “I used to work in that building, when I was just starting out. I remember riding the old elevator …”
Near the yellow police barricade, a couple of guys began throwing a Nerf football around. A few minutes later, a scuffle broke out. The cops stepped in and broke it up as people craned their necks. Everyone was strangely cheerful, as if buoyed up by the idea that tearing down these buildings would give us a fresh start.
It was almost nine, and we counted down together: Ten, nine, eight …
“Stay with me,” my dad urged me and my brother, holding our hands tightly.
There was a loud explosion, and the building broke apart. It slid from the sky and folded like a wheezy accordion, pushing out a cloud of cindery dust. The crowd turned and rushed towards me with no warning. I couldn’t see anything as the dust closed in, covering me like flies, swirling in my eyes and nose, so I ran.
As I fled, my hand slipped free of my dad’s. I stopped and looked around after running for a block or two. I tugged on a sleeve that looked like his and found myself staring at a stranger. I rubbed my eyes and pushed my way through swarming faces, looking for my dad. My heart pounded – I was terrified.
I wandered past the old Woolworth’s and peered down East Fourth Street at the slender storefronts filled with wig shops, jewelers and bars whose neon signs glowed in the haze. The corner bar had its screen door propped open, and inside, people sat on barstools and nursed beers as the dust floated past.
On the street, strangers walked past me, wiping the grime from their faces as they headed to their cars. Did they see me? I wondered. I wandered down Euclid Avenue in the direction of where the building stood. As I looked down a cobblestone alley, I saw a man sleeping under a pile of blankets, covered in dust.
I found myself standing in front of the entrance to the May Company. The Terminal Tower loomed above me, and in front of me stretched the Mall. I looked around me – downtown was emptying out, and soon it would be a ghost town again. Thinking about how I’d get home prompted a fresh round of tears.
My dad put his hands on my shoulders, giving them a rough squeeze, and for once Mike wasn’t smirking. I was so glad to see them. His white t-shirt covered in grime, my dad looked like a TV hero who’d just emerged from a blaze. Engine lights flashed over his shoulder as firemen sprayed down the rubble.
“Stay with me this time,” he said, and grabbed my hand. I didn’t dare to let go.
My dad, my brother and I never talked much about that day. Years later, I’d look back and think it curious that my dad had brought his two sons to witness a spectacle of this kind, and I’d even laugh about it. It was typical of my father, whose idea of family outings often involved something mildly inappropriate.
A few years later, the BP Tower was finished, a sign of the city’s renewal. Around it, downtown was pocked with parking lots where Victorian buildings once stood.
That morning, we walked back up Euclid to East 9th, and when we reached the arched entryway of the Arcade, we stopped and looked up at the building.
“This arcade was one of the first of its kind in the country,” my dad told us. His enthusiasm had not flagged, despite the fact that he looked as if he’d just crawled out of the building’s coal chute. “It was built in 1890.”
The Arcade brought back memories. My dad had taken us inside once before, and I remembered the shiny brass balconies and the vaulted glass ceiling that filled the inside with light. Men worked in the offices above, and downstairs there was a watch repair shop that had old-fashioned lettering in its windows.
Looking up at the sandstone entryway, I didn’t quite trust that it was solid. I saw the century-old building combust and break apart, its pieces fall from the sky.
Dad pulled my hand again, and this time I held on tight. When we got to the car, my brother called out, Shotgun! We left downtown the way we’d come, stopping only for the red lights, wiping the dust from our eyes as we drove back home.
By Lee Chilcote
Note: The 16-story Williamson Building was one of the tallest buildings in Cleveland when it was built in 1899. The Cuyahoga Building, built in 1892, was designed by noted architect Daniel Burnham. One of the city’s last Chicago style buildings, it had a sandstone exterior over a steel frame. This info came from my dad.