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Landmarks in The Land: The history and revitalization of Terminal Tower

The iconic Cleveland skyscraper is nearly 100 years old and still a beacon of the city's skyline.

CLEVELAND — Standing tall in the Cleveland skyline is a structure synonymous with the city itself: Terminal Tower, the 52-story landmark skyscraper located in Public Square. It remains an enduring symbol of the region.

"People are drawn to this building for a number of reasons," historian John Grabowski says. "I think it’s just an iconic building in the city and it makes anybody want to be a part of it."

Terminal Tower may no longer be the tallest building in Cleveland, but it still holds the title for best known. It's a lasting legacy of what was once one of America's largest cities, but how did The Land's most popular landmark come to be? Grabowski says it all comes down to suburbanization.

"It’s a story about real estate, creating Shaker Heights, and trying to get an electric railroad to go from Shaker Heights into Downtown Cleveland," he explained, "and knowing that you needed a terminal in Downtown Cleveland."

Credit: 3News
The downtown Cleveland skyline.

In the early 1900s, brothers OP and MJ Van Sweringen were buying and developing real estate in the Cleveland area, including a plan for an upscale suburb they named Shaker Heights. However, they needed a way to get people from that new community into the city. 

"So they became owners of railroads, they become real estate entrepreneurs," Grabowski said. "They decide they finally have the land [and] they get it cleared by the city to build on the southwest corner of the square."

Credit: Shaker Historical Society
Oris Paxton Van Sweringen.
Credit: Shaker Historical Society
Mantis James Van Sweringen.

What began as plans for a rail station called Cleveland Union Terminal morphed into the 52-story, 708-foot-tall skyscraper that stands today. When it was completed in 1927, it was the tallest building in the country outside of New York City.

More than 1,000 buildings were demolished in Cleveland to make way for the project. Designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, Grabowski says its construction helped put Cleveland on the map.

"I think this adds to what one would call the legitimization of Cleveland as a major city," he added. "You’ve got this building from the 1920s that says, 'Cleveland is here, Cleveland's a transportation center.'"

Credit: Western Reserve Historical Society
Terminal Tower is pictured mid-construction.

The tower became not only a transportation center for residents of the suburbs that followed, but also a downtown hub with offices, shops and restaurants — bringing together Cleveland's famed Higbee's department store on one side and the Hotel Cleveland on the other. In 2016, real estate group K&D bought the tower and subsequently created 300 apartment units with amenities.

"This was about a $105-million project in total, including the apartment renovations and everything," K&D Vice President of Commercial Real Estate Matt Driggs said, also noting that the project was an important anchor to help re-create a downtown community to attract retail, business, and young people while also preserving a part Cleveland's history. "We put a lot of money back into the building to make sure that it can be a long standing functioning wonderful building like it’s always been."

Credit: Western Reserve Historical Society
Terminal Tower is pictured in 1970.

Once sparked by the suburbanization of Cleveland, Terminal Tower is now drawing people back into the heart of the city.

"What we're seeing is the rebirth of Downtown Cleveland, not as a business center, but as a residential center," Grabowski stated.

It's just one of many historic buildings modernizing and adapting to serve as home to a new generation of Clevelanders. Driggs says the project is helping to lead the way in establishing a new residential neighborhood around Public Square.

"Terminal Tower can still be the centerpiece of that neighborhood on Public Square," he declared, "which is what I think Public Square should probably be."

An iconic tower, reaching ever upwards towards the sky, and continuing to push Cleveland into the future.

Credit: 3News
The downtown Cleveland skyline at night.