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Downtown Cleveland: Public Square, Christmas Story and more

Written By | Jul 17, 2016

Cleveland, Ohio skyline. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Cleveland, CC 2.0)

CLEVELAND, July 17, 2016 – Early in the 20th century (and still to some extent today) Cleveland was a teeming, low-rise city loaded with manufacturing jobs as well as with plenty of prostitution and crime, much of which dominated Cleveland’s roistering downtown.

You had to be a tough guy to live here. And my staunchly Irish-Democrat maternal grandfather fit the bill. A Cleveland city councilman and deputy Cuyahoga County sheriff at the turn of the last century, he went after the crooks and assorted riff-raff while serving the rising Democrat machine that was beginning its move to permanently rustle the Ohio Gang Republicans out of town.

Bronze statue of early 20th century Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson, a noted defender of free speech. The statue was recently relocated on Cleveland's recently-renovated Public Square. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

Bronze statue of early 20th century Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson, a noted defender of free speech. The statue was recently relocated on Cleveland’s recently-renovated Public Square. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

Cleveland’s Public Square: The Rust Belt’s Hyde Park

The initial impetus for “cleaning house” was Cleveland’s controversial reformist mayor, Tom Johnson, who served in that office for most of the 20th century’s first decade. Interestingly, Johnson was also a champion of free speech, inspiring Cleveland to set aside a quadrant of the city’s still-evolving Public Square for any speaker who wanted to mount a soapbox, the way they still do in London’s Hyde Park. (2016 Democrats would do well to heed Tom Johnson’s fine example today.)

A bronze memorial statue of Johnson was eventually commissioned and installed on—as I recall—the northeast quadrant of the square. During Public Square’s recent and extensive pre-convention renovation and reconfiguration it was moved to a nearby, more central location on the Square’s north side despite considerable controversy. There, from his new perch, Tom Johnson continues to keep an eye on Cleveland’s downtown.

On the other side of the Square is the city’s distinctive Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, erected to commemorate the many Ohio soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union in the Civil War. It was opened to the public in 1894.

Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo (c) T Ponick)

Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio. The largely abandoned former May Department store is located directly across the street. (Photo (c) T Ponick)

An interesting aside: in 2011, some history researchers unearthed a surprise. Not present among the monuments list of the area’s Civil War dead were an additional 140 names of black soldiers who also fought for Ohio and the Union. Those in charge of maintaining the monument promised to help with further research with an aim toward eventually adding those names to the monument as well. I am not aware of where this effort stands at the moment.

Straddling the Southwest quadrant of Public Square is one of Cleveland’s most distinctive buildings, a substantial edifice that marked the peak of the city’s economic fortunes as well as the beginning of its decline. The massive Terminal Tower and its adjoining complex were built and completed in the early 1930s to serve in part as a major railroad passenger terminal (hence the name), given Cleveland’s still-central place in America’s bustling manufacturing business. The remainder of the complex and its distinctive tower offered prestigious office space for businesses, as well as room for a huge department store and an adjacent luxury hotel.

Read also: Downtown Cleveland: City revival before the RNC storm

The entire, huge train station, business and commercial complex replaced central Cleveland’s crime-ridden central city slum and red light district, and the city looked forward to a bright future as befitted its substantial industrial might.

Alas, much of life depends on timing, and Cleveland’s timing was bad. As the Great Depression rapidly took hold, destroying businesses and lives on a massive scale, the Terminal Tower complex proved to be a fantastic idea that had come far too late. Those who financed and built the complex went bankrupt, the use of railroads to carry large numbers of passengers in this country began a long decline along with the city of Cleveland itself.

Not all was lost, however. One of Cleveland’s most iconic retail businesses, Higbee’s Department Store, was located on 11 stories of the complex’s commercial space. It was known for its large selection of fine merchandise, for its popular 10th floor Silver Grille restaurant (where my mother and I dined many times when I was a kid).

Christmas Story House.

The “Christmas Story” house in Cleveland, Ohio, as pictured in the film. Via the “Christmas Story House and Museum” website.

Beginning around Thanksgiving, Higbee’s elaborate showcase windows, extravagantly decorated Macy’s midtown-style for Christmas each year, attracted families and children to the store’s downtown locale from Cleveland’s far-flung, growing suburbs.

Better yet, like Kris Kringle at Macy’s, the “real” Cleveland Santa Clause was installed at Higbee’s for the entire Christmas season, and visiting him (and paying for a photo with him) was always a must.

Sound familiar? Higbee’s downtown setting is a touchstone for to Christmas movie fans. Devotees of the 1983 cult film “A Christmas Story” will gleefully recall Ralphie’s near-death experience as he encounters an irascible Santa in that precise downtown setting—an encounter that was actually filmed in Higbee’s beautiful art-deco interior when the great store was still open for business. Film fans should note that Ralphie’s house is now part of a “Christmas Story” museum located across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland’s reviving Tremont neighborhood. And yes, real, working Leg Lamps of all sizes can be purchased there.

One view of Cleveland's iconic Terminal Tower. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

One view of Cleveland’s iconic Terminal Tower. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

Most local department store chains began to flounder not long after Ralphie and Hollywood paid that visit to Cleveland, however, and Higbee’s didn’t escape that cruel fate. The venerable chain and its flagship store ultimately shut their doors for good in 2002.

After a period of dormancy, the Higbee space and much of its Art Deco interior and famously elaborate elevators were restored. The Silver Grille was also renovated and revived as a place where special events were staged. And, after an earlier transformation into the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland, the space was renovated again, re-opening as the JACK Cleveland Casino on May 11 of this year. No doubt the new proprietors are hoping to attract at least a few high-rolling Republicans to the slots and tables this week, assuming they can break through a phalanx of picket lines the “progressives” will be sure to set up.

Read also: Downtown Cleveland: Playhouse Square, memory lane and beyond

The Terminal Tower complex was rechristened “Tower City” several years ago. Its existing railroad terminal, while a longtime stop for Cleveland’s cross town commuter rail system (once known as the “Rapid Transit” and now the “RTA”) was nicely renovated, although somewhat strangely, the city’s tiny Amtrak station is situated a considerable distance away from  the Tower in a tiny terminal near Lake Erie. Since the Amtrak train arrives there each day at roughly 3-3:30 a.m., however, there’s little traffic at that station today.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Tower City complex was renovated to house a downtown shopping mall and newly spiffed up office space. I am told the retail business there is okay but not always fantastic.

The life and death (and maybe rebirth) of May’s and Halle’s

Like many old downtowns, Cleveland housed several local department store chains. Chief among them in the city’s heyday were May’s and Halle’s.

JACK Casino currently occupies part of the former Higbee's department store space off Public Square in the Tower City complex. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

JACK Casino currently occupies part of the former Higbee’s department store space off Public Square in the Tower City complex. (Photo (c) T. Ponick)

The downtown May Company store was located not far from Higbee’s, occupying its own massive building just across the street from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. For most of its existence, the May Company headquarters were located in St. Louis and, as a conglomerate, it bought out a substantial number of smaller chains over the years, including Washington DC’s once prominent Hecht’s department stores.

Ultimately, May Co. ran into its own difficulties, selling out to Federated Department Stores in 2005. Federated soon adopted the name of its most famous subsidiary—Macy’s—and those May Co. locations still deemed viable were rebranded as Macy’s stores as well. May’s downtown Cleveland location didn’t make the cut, and still stands mostly derelict today, although its ground floor is currently occupied by a division of the local community college catering to associate degrees and certificates of training for students interested in the culinary and hospitality industries.

A bit further east on Cleveland’s once-storied Euclid Avenue (1228 Euclid) is what’s left of the third of Cleveland’s Big Three downtown Department stores, Halle’s. After shutting down years ago, the space has remained largely vacant. Word is, however, that a new group will (or already has) purchased the building and will transform it into more of those trendy condos meant to attract a young, vibrant demographic into living downtown.

Next: From historic Playhouse Square to Quicken Loans Arena.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17