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One hundred years ago, at a site where East 6th Street meets Lakeside Avenue, a massive edifice, framed in steel and cased in granite, was taking shape, soon to become Cleveland’s grand City Hall.
From its groundbreaking in 1911 to its dedication in 1916, the rising of City Hall kept stone cutters, marble setters, wood workers and other skilled tradesmen busy, while the project, not just a civic building, but a monument to a major municipal government, caught local and world-wide attention.
The imposing structure, featuring a grand center hall flanked with massive marble pillars and rising three stories to an arched ceiling, was one of a group of similar Cleveland buildings erected in the early 20th century.
The projects, known as the Group Plan or Mall Plan, were the ideas of early urban planners whose goals were to build public structures of similar design, incorporated by open spaces or malls.
In Cleveland, the first of the group was the old Post Office and Federal Court House on Superior Avenue at Public Square, erected in 1911.
It was followed by the Cuyahoga County Court House on Lakeside Avenue, Cleveland City Hall, Cleveland Public Library on Superior Avenue, the Board of Education building on East 6th Street and Public Auditorium, across Lakeside from City Hall.
Other great things were happening at the same time. The Cleveland Museum of Art opened 100 years ago, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens were established and the Cleveland Play House had its first production. At the same time, the Detroit-Superior (Veterans Memorial) High Level Bridge was under construction and opened in 1917 and the Cleveland Metroparks organized that same year.
During the planning stage of the old Post Office and Federal Court House, a battle erupted over whether the exterior of the building should be sandstone or granite.
Organized labor called for sandstone, basically because granite would have to be cut at quarries in New England, while sandstone, abundantly available in local quarries, could be cut here, thereby providing more work for the stone-cutting trade.
Granite, a much harder material than sandstone, eventually won throughout the entire group, but the struggle, reaching all the way to Congress and the White House, continued through the dedication of City Hall and beyond.
The United Trades Labor Council launched an attack against the Board of City Hall Commissioners, the group overseeing planning and construction of City Hall in harmony with the Group Plan.
As early as 1904, City Council, with the urging of the Board of City Hall Commissioners, adopted a resolution calling on U.S. Congressman Theodore Burton to take the case of granite over sandstone to Washington, D.C.
“Be it further resolved,” Council’s resolution read, “that he fully set forth the almost unanimous desire of the people of Cleveland for the use of granite instead of sandstone for the Federal Building now in process of construction.”
But the Labor Council shot back with a resolution of its own, calling on City Council to revoke its “outrageous resolution” and to “block this infamous plot of the Granite ring.”
“The Board of City Hall Commissioners in defiance of public sentiment . . . and in utter scorn of the demands of organized labor has unanimously decreed that Cleveland’s new City Hall shall be built of granite,” labor’s resolution read. “The United Trades Labor Council . . . does hereby register its formal condemnation against carrying out of this infamous action against home labor, home merchants and home material.”
But granite prevailed, prompting The Plain Dealer to report, “The best is none too good for Cleveland.”
And the Board of City Hall Commissioners resolved that “having studied the subject of material for the new City Hall for several years and believing that, on account of the monumental character of this building, granite is the best material for the same, (the board) directs the architect to proceed with plans and specifications based upon the use of granite for said building.”
The “said building,” in all its granite glory, turns 100 years old next year. On its first birthday, July, 1917, its architect J. Milton Dyer, writing in “The American Architect” magazine, described the granite as “executed with the utmost simplicity and with but little ornamentation.”
Then he takes the reader inside the newly dedicated City Hall, writing, “The main entrance vestibule is of gray marble, hone finished. In the grand lobby, a Doric order was used, executed in Boticini marble, also hone finished.
“The lobby extends through three stories and has a barrel vaulted ceiling, admitting light.
“The council chamber,” Dyer continues, “extending through three stories, is executed in oak of the Elizabethan period. It has galleries at each end and seats 750, in addition to the desks.”
Cleveland City Hall was dedicated July 4, 1916. It takes up eight million cubic feet of space and cost $3 million to build.
“Our great City Hall, with all its majesty and range of architectural expression, still stands solid today,” said Cleveland’s Chief City Archivist Martin Hauserman. “Its construction a century ago marked a historical milestone, the expansion of Cleveland from a village incorporated in 1814 to the sixth largest city in the nation.
“On July 4, we will be celebrating the 240th birthday of our great nation and the 100th birthday of our great City Hall.” Watch a TV20 video on the construction and upcoming centennial.