The Terminal Tower: A Cleveland Landmark

The Terminal Tower's distinctive cap in the Cleveland skyline
The Terminal Tower's distinctive cap in the Cleveland skyline

As Cleveland continues to struggle with its identity and future, one landmark remains unchanged. Since its completion 80 years ago, the grand matriarch of the skyline, enthroned at the southwest corner of the city’s four-block ‘front lawn’ of Public Square, has been The Terminal Tower.

Originally dubbed Union Terminal (since it anchored the unified rail terminus at Cleveland’s core), the tower was conceived by the visionary brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, real estate developers who also created the Village of Shaker Heights, and designed by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. The Van Sweringens were early forerunners of today’s mixed-use developers. By the end of its eight-year construction sequence, The Terminal Tower Complex became home not only to the city’s central rail station, but also to its largest hotel, one of its major department stores, a grand public lobby and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space spread throughout four adjoining and interconnected buildings.

Erected to a height of 708 feet, The Terminal Tower in 1930 became the second-tallest building in the world. The diminishing floor sizes of its ‘wedding cake’ Beaux-Arts styling gave its uppermost floors panoramic views of the city below. For decades that view has been shared by the many visitors to the Tower’s upper floor observation deck (from which, on really clear day, you might even catch a glimpse of rickzworld).

In addition to its mixed-use makeup, The Terminal Tower lodged many ‘firsts’. It was one of the first and most significant ‘air-rights developments’ over existing rail lines and roadways. Its structural piers, bored to bedrock 250 feet below street level, were then the deepest ever driven. During its construction, rail service was maintained, streets were relocated, bridges were built, and many unique structural framing challenges were met by the complex 3-D geometry of its lower levels. It rightfully rivals such grand urban complexes as Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station as an architectural and engineering marvel.

The Terminal Tower Complex has long been owned by Forest City Enterprises — one of the nation’s largest developers of office, retail and residential space — which has its headquarters in the Tower. Forest City undertook expansion and substantial renovation of the complex, renaming it Tower City Center, in 1988-1990. A second hotel was added, as was a grand retail concourse with expanded food service. Over the last several years, another major renovation has been underway, with all elevators being replaced and most of the fragile decorative stone exterior of the Tower’s cap being cleaned and repaired or replicated. Citizens can once again gaze on the grande dame of Cleveland architecture in all her restored glory.

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