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Issue Date: December 2011

Past Lives

Steve Gleydura

I can’t even count the number of luncheons, benefits and annual meetings I’ve attended at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. Honestly, I hadn’t ever given the hotel’s significance much thought: Its Grand Ballroom is the city’s largest, so hosting events there seems pretty natural.

Then as we were putting together this month’s “Classic Cleveland” story, I ran across a picture of the hotel, originally called the Hotel Cleveland, from 1918. There, the 14-story landmark was standing alone on Public Square. Where’s the Terminal Tower? I thought.

I knew the dates, of course. The Van Sweringen brothers’ Terminal Tower didn’t open for another decade, but the Hotel Cleveland was the complex’s initial phase. Still the picture was startling, as though the person you’d been married to for 15 years suddenly went from brown hair to blond.

During those visits to the Renaissance, I’d never realized that Daniel Burnham, who put together the city’s master plan, was also one of its architects. Or that the lobby, with its 26 1/2-foot ceilings and pink Tennessee marble floors, was one of the first designed above street level to discourage pass-through traffic. Or that the Grand Ballroom wasn’t added until a 1959 renovation.

What I find even more intriguing are the personal stories connected with the place. How the hotel was one of Eliot Ness’ favorite haunts. Or how Cleveland Magazine columnist Michael D. Roberts literally ran into John F. Kennedy in one of the hotel’s hallways in 1962. Roberts was there to cover the Indians’ introduction of Birdie Tebbetts as the team’s new manager. The president was there to speak at a Public Square rally. “I smacked right into him,” Roberts recently recalled to senior editor Erick Trickey. “The Secret Service grabbed me and held me against the wall until he passed.”

Or how former Plain Dealer reporter Doris O’Donnell tells of attending an early ’60s gathering at the hotel and hearing Ronald Reagan, then a General Electric spokesman, announce he’d become a Republican after decades as a Democrat. Two decades later, Reagan shook Clevelanders’ hands in the hotel lobby after his climactic 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter.

That’s the benefit of living in a city like Cleveland. History is all around us. It gives us character, personality, meaning. And it provides more than just a little inspiration to experience it.

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