Gehry Glitter

Case Western confronts the costly world of designer architecture.

Osmosis Jones
The $63 million Peter B. Lewis Building is definitely not a square box. - Walter  Novak
The $63 million Peter B. Lewis Building is definitely not a square box.
When Kim Cameron was named Case Western Reserve University's business school dean in 1998, he inherited a shortfall. The Weatherhead School of Management had raised $34.6 million to construct a $40 million building to be designed by Frank O. Gehry. It was up to Cameron to make up the difference.

No problem, he thought. Raising money is what deans do.

But soon after Cameron came aboard, he learned the job wouldn't come in at $40 million. He sat down with the architect and the contractor, and they looked for extravagancies to nip and tuck. Eventually, a $48.8 million building was agreed upon. Cameron says he was assured the price would not climb higher.

Cameron thought -- and still thinks -- the building would be a gem. Clevelanders may know University Circle as an intellectual and cultural hub; but outside the region, Case struggles for recognition. Since his ribbony Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997, Gehry has become architecture's brightest star. His buildings are startling abstract sculptures, graceful hulks of swooping metal and curving stone. A Gehry could proclaim the university like no piece of faculty research.

The trouble for Cameron was this: $48.8 million wouldn't be enough, either. The final design asked for $57 million. Planners, Cameron says, had miscalculated the construction industry's enthusiasm for the project. They assumed that bidding would be competitive, that Cleveland builders would trip over themselves for a chance to work on a Gehry. Instead, his curvilinear design scared them off.

The building, for example, is five stories high, but has 17 floor and roof elevations. There are 15,600 square feet of blueprints. One steel fabricator withdrew from the project, telling Cameron, "I'm going to make $10 million to build the Gehry. I can make $90 million building a bunch of square boxes in half the time."

The price of the building is now at $63.2 million. Upon completion, its beauty and drama might make the Rock Hall seem an icy shard. The question is, will this piece of designer architecture have been worth it?

Peter B. Lewis is an unconventional insurance mogul. The 67-year-old chairman and CEO of Progressive Corp. once boasted that he would work until the "Nelson Rockefeller event" occurred. Rockefeller died at age 70, in the embrace of his 25-year-old girlfriend.

Lewis is as philanthropic as he is energetic. He contributed $50 million to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and $55 million to Princeton, his alma mater. Last month, he donated $7 million to the ACLU, a group not known to raise a fist for premium writers. But then, most insurance executives aren't arrested in New Zealand for marijuana possession, as Lewis was last year. (Charges were dropped.)

At the new Weatherhead School building's inception, Lewis agreed to cover 60 percent of the costs of the structure that would bear his name. Originally, Case officials planned a $25 million building, but after Gehry was hired at Lewis's suggestion, the price went up to $40 million.

Lewis had long yearned for Gehry. In the '80s, he commissioned the architect to design a home in Lyndhurst to rival Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in western Pennsylvania; the project was never realized, though elements of the design emerged in Gehry's later work. Weatherhead presented an opportunity Lewis didn't want to miss.

"I think he really sees this as his major gift to Cleveland, and he hopes it becomes a catalyst for other things," says Jennifer Frutchy, Lewis's philanthropic adviser. "One of his best lines is, he wants it to be so provocative, he hopes it starts fights in bars."

Provocation is costing Lewis plenty. Cameron says the insurance titan "hit the ceiling" when he brought news that estimates had reached $57 million. "Peter was unhappy with me," Cameron says, "but you've got to give him credit in that he stuck with it." His stake is now $38 million.

Frutchy downplays her boss's ire. "That hasn't fazed him at all. He said his commitment would be 60 percent, and he's held tight."

Case President David Auston, who quit this year, was also displeased with Cameron. In fact, he fired him. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, Cameron believes the Lewis Building "may or may not have been" the reason he lost his job. (It didn't help that he succeeded Scott Cowen, a ferocious fund-raiser who left Weatherhead in 1998 to be president of Tulane University.) Cameron doesn't think anyone could have tamed the project's costs, but he refuses to sound like a victim. "I was the guy sitting in the chair," he says with a sigh of resignation.

Those involved with the project today dismiss characterizations of a runaway beast. Ken Kutina, Case's vice president for institutional planning, says the building is on time and on budget. His one regret is that, early on, poorly informed estimates leaked to the public. "We talked about dollar costs before we had the design far enough to know what it was really going to cost."

Jim Glymph, the No. 2 man at Gehry's Los Angeles firm, points to three reasons the original estimates missed the mark: Weatherhead decided it needed another 20,000 square feet, the budget didn't anticipate fiber optics and distance-learning capabilities, and the steel fabricator, after six months on the job, decided to build square boxes instead. Aside from those obstacles, the project is going swimmingly, says Glymph. "It's one of the more complex buildings we have done. Frank thinks it's going to be very special."

Weatherhead has raised $57 million, and Director of Development Richard Bennett is foraging for the last $6 million. He hopes to raise $5 million by offering a benefactor the naming rights to Enterprise Hall, another Weatherhead building. The rest he plans to raise in $10,000 and $25,000 chunks.

"This is going to be an icon for the Weatherhead School and Case Western for years to come," Bennett says, as workers mount stainless-steel panels on the Lewis Building's south face.

The building was designed from the inside out. Faculty members encouraged Gehry to place their offices near foot traffic to increase chance encounters with students. Only occasionally does Bennett fall back on the company line that a Gehry design symbolizes Weatherhead's innovative spirit and outside-the-box thinking.

He's heard grumbles that $63 million is too much for a university to spend on a building that resembles an airline disaster. But Bennett says most critics are won over by the structure itself. "People who have hated it have come and seen it and been inside and said, 'I changed my mind.'"

Yet even some of the building's fans question its location, tucked on the corner of Bellflower Road and Ford Drive. Neighboring buildings and foliage obstruct many views. On a clear day, the glassy west face should be visible to downtown skyscrapers, and vice versa. Still, compared to, say, Severance Hall, it's peeking out from behind curtains.

As for the money, Weatherhead leaders insist that capital spending is held apart from academic spending. Not a scholarship will be lost; not a chair will go unendowed. "I haven't heard any faculty complain they haven't been able to get money because of 'that damned building,'" university spokesman Jeff Bendix says.

Cameron applauds givers for supporting the building as well as other programs, though he concedes, "When you've got $30 million to raise, you don't raise it for scholarships and student aid."

Kutina concurs -- to a degree. But he says Gehry's name also brought donations the school could not have otherwise raised. "I think, when you do something monumental and cutting-edge, it generates additional giving."

The building's ultimate value remains indefinable. Visitors flock to Bilbao, which was a derelict port city before the Guggenheim. Closer to home, Ohio State spent $43 million to build Peter Eisenman's funky Wexner Center for the Arts in 1989. This spring, The New York Times revisited the Wexner. Color photographs accompanied a critic's lengthy essay -- priceless publicity.

Cameron, the deposed dean, likens the Lewis Building to the expansion of Hopkins airport -- something that needs to be done, whatever the short-term price. "The building is going to put Cleveland on the map."

Adds Bennett: "Alums will be proud of it. I think it's going to attract students, and it's going to attract recruiters."

And for those keeping score, it will still cost $30 million less than the Rock Hall.

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