In 1972, a burial shroud had replaced the stage curtain on four of Playhouse Square's theaters. The State and Ohio theaters were first on the demolition list to make way for a parking lot. But Ray Shepardson and the Playhouse Square Foundation stepped in to rescue them.
"Cleveland is blessed with a wealth of great architecture," says Art Falco, president of Playhouse Square Foundation. "Other cities envy us. They come to see and learn from what we've done in our Theater District."
Playhouse Square is not the only corner of the city to have benefited from historic renovation projects. All across town, there's been interest in finding new uses for our grand older buildings in ways that are cost effective, create unique living or work spaces and maintain the city's special character.
"The bad news is that downtown Cleveland's real estate market has not been as active as those in other large metropolitan centers. The good news is that, as a result, much of the city's architectural legacy remains intact."Ronald Ratner, executive vice president of Forest City Enterprises, says Cleveland is especially well-suited to this kind of strategic planning. And he should know, since Forest City was responsible for the $300 million transformation of the Terminal Tower from dingy Rapid station into the glittering Tower City Center complex.
"The bad news is that downtown Cleveland's real estate market has not been as active as those in other large metropolitan centers," Ratner says. "The good news is that, as a result, much of the city's architectural legacy remains intact.
"We have an urban context worth preserving, a skeleton for districtwide redevelopment and groups that understand the importance of capitalizing on it."
A key example is the Historic Gateway Neighborhood, where a large number of notable buildings dating back more than a century are clustered in the area extending eastward from the Terminal Tower to Playhouse Square. Many have long been in a state of disrepair, largely vacant or hidden behind ugly, altered facades. Street-level retail business had taken a nosedive. The future of numerous buildings was in jeopardy, but the tide may be beginning to turn.
Just eight years ago, there was no housing that rented at market rate in Gateway. Currently, there are 580 units -- including the recently opened Osborne Building -- and another 130 financed and under construction. Where there were no hotels, now there are five.
Three of these hotels -- the Hyatt Regency in the 1890 Old Arcade, the Marriott Residence Inn in the Colonial Marketplace (seven linked buildings that marry the Euclid Arcade, built in 1911, with the 1898 Colonial Arcade) and the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in the 1895 Guardian/ National City Building -- represent some of the most dramatic and original historic-preservation projects in Cleveland and the nation. At a total cost of more than $110 million, they were meticulously restored to their original grandeur and simultaneously given a new function and a new lease on life.
"Hotels don't typically locate in buildings intended for something else," says Jonathan Sandvick of Sandvick Architects Inc., who was the architect on the Holiday Inn project. Instead, they prefer cookie-cutter layouts with conventional room configurations.
"What they got however, are facilities that transcend the expected and predictable," he adds. "They're compelling places with a kind of authenticity, a sense of real history that people can connect with."
And, of course, there is also the Warehouse District, where retail and commercial space has doubled over the past 20 years, and 14 residential buildings have appeared where there were none at all -- three new ones and 11 conversions.
"The market is strong," says Sandvick. And making the Warehouse District a residential area will ultimately lead to an exciting, mixed use, urban environment.
"The district has the largest concentration of restaurants and nightspots in the city," adds Tom Yablonsky, executive director for the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp. and the Historic Warehouse District Development Corp. Additionally, occupancy rates top 90 percent in the more than 1,400 condos and apartments between Superior Avenue and the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie from West Third Street to West 10th Street.