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Issue Date: August 2009


Iconic Cleveland (continued)


Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com
Now almost all of the six-building Union Terminal complex was finished and ready for business. Tour guides led guests through the station, up stairways and down corridors. Photographers from the city’s three newspapers and from national picture services roamed the station, their flashes exploding with rude, popping bursts, gray smoke and white light.

The $150 million terminal was the gateway to the nation’s other great metropolises, so every detail attested to Cleveland’s status as a cosmopolitan city — the taxi stands, the baggage rooms and the signal tower where the massive network of tracks was controlled with 576 levers and monitored on an electrified 34-foot-long chart.

At 12:30, the 3,000 guests took their seats at 300 tables in the concourse and ticket room. All of them were men except one, Susan Rebhan, Cleveland’s only city councilwoman. Three hundred waiters, their white uniforms standing out in the black-coated crowd, served the ceremonial lunch: breast of chicken, baked ham, tomato and egg salad, cantaloupe, radishes and olives. The Cleveland Grays band oompahed into the concourse, blaring out John Phillip Sousa marches.

Newton D. Baker, former mayor and secretary of war and leading local attorney, served as toastmaster and apologized that it had taken him so long to seize the land for the complex in court. Despite the Depression, railroad presidents reassured the invitees — and the thousands listening to the ceremony on WTAM radio — of the resilient strength of Cleveland, the nation and the rail system. “We believe we’ve turned the corner to as great prosperity as we’ve ever enjoyed,” declared Patrick E. Crowley, president of the New York Central Lines.

Missing from the ceremony were the masterminds of the sprawling complex, Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, who listened to the broadcast at their farm in Hunting Valley in keeping with (as the Cleveland News described it) “their unalterable rule never to appear at public events.”

The terminal’s doors opened to the public around 4:30 p.m., and in the next seven hours, about 50,000 Clevelanders swarmed through the station. They browsed the drug store, billed as the world’s largest, with 400 private humidors for cigar smokers; gazed into the main restaurant, the English Oak Room, with its paneled oak walls and posts with inlaid ebony; and visited a toy store that (the Plain Dealer’s Loveland warned) was “so cunningly arranged that no youngster could resist it.” The concourse was still filled with people as the big clock over the information desk neared midnight.

“I didn’t imagine it was so large, did you?” a woman asked her husband.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “I knew it was a whopper.”

She reached out her hand and said it was time to head home. He was still looking around, not ready to go.

That night, the old train station on the lakefront, built in 1886, fell silent. The next morning, the News declared the Union Terminal “the greatest monument yet erected to the city’s progress” and predicted Cleveland wouldn’t need another new train station until 2000.

Only those looking the most soberly at the Depression’s omens could have imagined that the Van Sweringens would see most of their interstate railroad empire collapse by the time they died five and six years later, or that the future of transportation lay not at Public Square but at the scrubby little airfield at the city limits, or that Cleveland’s industrial power would someday shrink as the Van Sweringens’ wealth and the railroads did.
Only the pessimists of 1930 would have forecast that the Terminal Tower, the symbol of Cleveland’s reach for greatness, was built from an ambition bigger than it could fulfill. Maybe that’s why, even though it is no longer Cleveland’s tallest building, the Terminal Tower is still the ultimate symbol of the city. It evokes a goal we can’t quite achieve but won’t give up on, a faint memory of melancholy drowned out by a deeper flush of pride.

TOWERING TRIVIA
Here's some I-bet-you-didn't-know-that conversation fodder about the city's other two instantly recognizable skyscrapers. Feel free to use these at your disposal to impress others. You're welcome.
200 Public Square

Height: 658 feet  |  Opened: 1987
Formerly Known As: BP America Tower
Tall Tale: Proving that progress makes some people nervous, Cleveland City Council insisted that the BP America Tower be built shorter than the 708-foot Terminal Tower. They wanted the historic building to remain the city's tallest skyscraper. (Of course, City Council dropped such demands a few years later, when it came time to discuss the construction of what is today known as Key Tower.)
Key Tower

Height: 947 feet  |  Opened: 1991
Formerly Known As: Society Tower
Artistic Flourish: Developer Richard E. Jacobs impressed Cleveland art lovers when he installed James Rosenquist's 86-foot painting F111, an icon of 1960's pop art, in the tower lobby. But Jacobs sold the painting to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1996, leaving a huge blank space. He fixed the problem by paying New York artist David Salle $400,000 to paint a new 17-panel mural, Songs for Sale, with the same dimensions.

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