The Beginner's Guide to Dead Zones

A primer on Cleveland's most spectacular decay

Perhaps you've heard that Cleveland has a problem on its hands. Cultural theorists posit that, given our current rate of outward migration, the entire population of Northeast Ohio could be housed in a single Steak 'n' Shake booth by 2023.

But as the herd inevitably thins, our views of some of Cleveland's most spectacular creations become ever clearer. We invite you now to gaze with us at these glorious structures of bygone eras, which time may have forgotten but which a wrecking ball will likely find. This, after all, is how the path of urban renewal is blazed, so that our civic planners may hold fast to hope that there be space remaining for perhaps four or five more CVS Pharmacies.

Here then is a celebration of five of the most striking architectural marvels that still dot our horizon, but whose intended uses served the needs of a society that has long since relocated to Nashville in hopes of getting the band together.

Enjoy them while you can — or make an offer of your own. These babies are priced to move.

Cleveland Trust complex

WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: East Ninth and Euclid, in the heart of downtown

HISTORY: Built in 1905 as the headquarters of Cleveland Trust, which became Ameritrust bank. The neoclassical rotunda, with its illuminated stained-glass dome and marble floors, stands in stark contrast to the brutalist concrete office tower adjacent to it. But the original building's grandeur is unlikely to be replicated by any new construction. In the basement, a gigantic vault door worthy of any heist movie stands ajar, and behind it what had been safe deposit boxes are now in disarray. Meanwhile, the 28-story office tower — designed by the famous modernist Marcel Breuer and built in 1971 — looks like a matrix of concrete bathtubs. Together, the buildings form a space that architect Paul Volpe calls "tremendously inefficient" — and therefore a perfect marriage for the county government, which planned to consolidate its operations there.

VALUE: Purchased in 2005 for $22.5 million by Cuyahoga County, which invested another $35 to $40 million in asbestos removal before opting to demolish the place. The county eventually decided to sell at a loss, in keeping with local tradition.

STATE OF DECAY: The decay here is not so much physical as financial. The county put the property up for bids, and one group responded with an offer of $35 million. The plan included a hotel and office space...until financing fell through.

WHAT IT'S GOOD FOR: Mostly making county leaders look like rubes. "This must be restored and preserved," says Volpe, whose firm, City Architecture, has been a leader in figuring out ways to reuse big old piles of bricks. He's a tad less enthusiastic about the tower: "I don't love this building, but I respect it." The county's plan would have injected people and life into the downtown neighborhood, he says, but no fresh alternatives appear imminent. "How I would enjoy viewing performance art in this space. An amazing restaurant someday maybe as our food scene explodes."

The whole shebang will be back on the market this summer, so get your investment group together. "We want to get a reasonable sum and move on," says county spokesman Jay Ross.

U.S. Coast Guard Station

WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: At the end of the West Bank pier in the Flats, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River (accessible via Wendy Park if you follow the service road from Edgewater Park past the scenic water treatment plant).

HISTORY: Designed by J. Milton Dyer — the guy who drew up Cleveland City Hall — it opened as a U.S. Coast Guard station in 1940 and closed when the Guard moved near East Ninth Street in 1976. The place was never a lighthouse, but its white observation tower makes it look like one. The station, with its spectacular views of the downtown skyline, was sold to developers in 1985 and operated briefly as a nightclub in the early '90s, when the local entertainment scene centered around vomiting in the Flats. Accessible only by ferry, the club became somewhat less popular when the Lake froze each winter.

VALUE: $431,800, according to the county auditor.

STATE OF DECAY: About how you would look if you sat naked, facing the elements for 70 uninterrupted years. The roof, window, and door frames — and anything else not made of rock or concrete — have fallen apart, and the list of building code violations runs so long that the place didn't feel very gift-like by the time it was "gifted" to Cleveland in 2002. On the plus side, the concrete walls that give the place its art deco style are in good shape, and the mayor's office claims that bids are being collected to repair the roof, thus ensuring that the structure can safely sit dormant for another 20 years or so.

WHAT IT'S GOOD FOR: "It appears difficult if not impossible to create a self-sustaining investment," says Volpe. "The thing is, it's worth saving. Fortunately, an enlightened group is working with the city to envision ideas that require subsidy, but make sense. I am most excited about something truly connected to the water, with an emphasis on the environment. Some Cleveland icons are just too important to let go of."

The city seems to agree: "As we get the building in better repair, there are other groups that would find the setting and architecture as major plusses and would regard the relative inaccessibility as more a plus than a minus," says mayoral spokesman Ken Silliman. He sees it as a venue for special events like weddings. It already hosted last year's Burning River Fest, with plans to return there this year. Fun fact: The city got 10 more days of use out of Cleveland Browns Stadium than it did from the abandoned station in 2009, but with way more expensive beer.

Warner and Swasey Observatory

WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: 1975 Taylor Road, in the wilds of East Cleveland — but in the nicer wilds, near the Cleveland Heights border.

HISTORY: Two amateur astronomers, Worcester Warner and Ambrose Swasey, flush with wealth from their machine tool business, built a backyard observatory between their adjoining residences in the early 20th century. They gave it to Case Western Reserve University in 1919, and the university added to it over time — an auditorium, classrooms, exhibit hall, library, and more. The university stopped using it in 1985 because the surrounding area gave off too much light. Since then it has had several owners, the latest being Nayyir Al Mahdi, who planned to convert it into a residence before a pesky mortgage fraud conviction derailed his plans in 2007. That same year he transferred title to his own development group, which county records indicate is still the owner.

VALUE: Purchased by Mahdi and Associates for $115,000 in 2005; transferred to another corporation owned by Mahdi in 2007. The county auditor values the property at $164,300, with an outstanding tax balance of 24,666, which has been accruing since 2007.

STATE OF DECAY: Partially boarded up, but with many missing windows and one of the observatory domes left open, it has been open to the elements for several years.

WHAT IT'S GOOD FOR: "It would make a wonderful restored observatory or a fabulous residence," says architect Volpe. "I don't know who is going to pull either of these off." In other words, the place is ripe for development by anyone with a few million extra bucks and mad-scientist fantasies.

Richman Brothers Factory

WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: 1600 East 55th Street, in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, across the street from the vacant but smaller Wilson Middle School, near many vacant but smaller homes.

HISTORY: Richman Brothers had been a purveyor of men's suits, hats, and furnishings since back in 1879. But by 1916 the company needed a great big factory to supply its stores nationwide. That factory — built by Christian Schwartzenburg and Gaede Co. — is a five-story, 23-acre facility where hundreds of workers cut and sewed clothes for decades. The Woolworth Co. bought Richman Brothers in 1969 and shuttered the operation in 1992. Since then, people have been trying to figure out what to do with the massive building.

VALUE: $312,000

STATE OF DECAY: Semi-boarded and semi-open to the elements, the factory is structurally sound enough to have attracted a steady stream of hopeful visionaries...yet decrepit enough to still be sitting lifeless.

WHAT IT'S GOOD FOR: Late councilwoman Fannie Lewis wanted to recast the building as a jail, and a local developer envisioned 350 market-rate apartments. There's always something "percolating" there, in the words of mayoral spokesman Silliman, but not much really happening. An investment group called 1600 East 55th St. LLC bought the place last fall with hopes of attracting a range of new tenants. They don't seem to have had much luck.

Volpe has studied the site at least three times and hasn't come up with a viable solution. He says it's too big for most uses, but partial demolition would negate historic tax credits. He'd love to see an institutional campus, like a school or small business incubator. "Is it worth mothballing for an extended period until the market provides an opportunity for a viable use?" he asks. And if so, could the same be done with Michael Stanley?

Fifth Church of Christ Scientist

WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: At the corner of Lake Avenue and West 117th Street, in Cleveland's Cudell neighborhood. It sits across the street from Lakewood, near Edgewater Park, lakefront houses, and Clifton Boulevard's lively commerce and nightlife.

HISTORY: West Side Christian Scientists worshiped in this octagonal stone building from 1926 until 1989, when the congregation moved to Rocky River. Riser Foods, which operated the adjacent Rego's grocery store, bought the place in 1991 with the intention of swinging a wrecking ball to clear the way for parking. But neighborhood activists stepped in to prevent the demolition. In 1995, Riser had asbestos removed, along with the building's interior woodwork and other finely crafted details. By 2002, the company determined that demolishing a beloved landmark would not look favorable on its resume, and so the decrepit church was given to Cleveland. Since then, plans have ranged from a bookstore to a produce market to condominiums.

VALUE: $305,000, based on most recent purchase price.

STATE OF DECAY: Boarded up but never well sealed from the elements, it has become a haven for the pigeons that come and go freely, leaving a festive ring of dung beneath the perimeter of the cupola, 65 feet above. Still, the stone bones of the octagonal structure are solid.

WHAT IT'S GOOD FOR: In 2008, a developer determined it couldn't come through with its planned housing and retail project, and gave up dibs on the building. Since then, the city hired an architecture firm to assess immediate structural needs, such as where to put all that pigeon poo.

Architect Volpe believes redevelopment of the empty grocery store next-door and the adjacent parking lot are necessary to accommodate retail uses for the place. "Residential is the best viable option," he says. "Really cool loft units could be developed. The location is fabulous."

The city plans to secure the roof and stop further decay at a price that will cost you, the taxpayer, a mere $200,000. "It's a highly valued neighborhood asset," says Silliman. It's just not valued by anybody with the money to do something about it.


Amid Cleveland's crumbling classics are numerous buildings that have successfully undergone "adaptive reuse" — the term used to describe restoration projects when architects go to wine parties.

Take the lakefront apartment complex known as Quay 55. It's been 36 years since the former Nicholson Terminal was used for its intended purpose — as a dock and short-term storage facility for newsprint and cars unloaded from steamships arriving from Detroit.

Built in 1929, it was a victim of the constantly evolving transportation industry: Competition from railroads and much larger, ocean-going freighters forced the place out of business by 1974. What remained was all many Clevelanders can remember: an empty, red brick shell of a building that happened to be perfectly situated on the lakeshore with stunning views of downtown.

By 2003, developers Mark and Fred Coffin converted the industrial facility into 139 apartments, with 115 heated parking spaces on the first floor. It was the first multi-family residential development on the lakeshore in Cleveland history.

Following are some other recent adaptive reuse success stories:

The design firm Nottingham Spirk saw beauty in the empty First Church of Christ Scientist, designed by Walker and Weeks — the folks behind Severance Hall. Perched at the top of Cedar Hill, it was completed in 1931. The congregation eventually moved on to new digs on Lee Road, and Nottingham Spirk bought the place and renovated it as offices in 2005, earning national acclaim in the process.

The Union Gospel Press complex was a university in the 19th century, then a Bible-printing shop at the turn of the 20th century until ceasing operations in 1950. Developers Merl and Stavros Roberts plunged $21 million into renovations in recent years and reopened the spot last year as the Tremont Place lofts, a luxurious apartment community.