Rock Hall Expansion Groundbreaking Recalls Spirit of Original 1995 Ceremony

The design pays homage to the original design while accentuating the public space and adding to the lakefront landscape

click to enlarge Rock Hall Expansion Groundbreaking Recalls Spirit of Original 1995 Ceremony
Jeff Jones Photography

For just a few hours on Thursday afternoon, Cleveland hit the wayback machine while looking forward.

Half of City Council, Mayor Justin Bibb and a large chunk of his cabinet, officials from the Ohio Arts Council, Rock Hall board members, state congressmen, Pennsylvania tourists, the Ohio Speaker of the House joined a dais of Rock Hall inductees to mark the biggest moment for the Rock Hall since its opening in 1995.

But the groundbreaking of the Rock Hall's $100 million expansion, which will open in 2026, was applauded by its stakeholders as something more than another triangle with glass: a community space ripe for the revival of the lakefront.

"This is more than just financial impact," Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Department of Development, told the hundreds of attendees from the stage podium. "This expansion will bring a renewed excitement to Downtown Cleveland as a more accessible and beautiful lakefront is created... A revitalized Rock Hall will help shape this area of the state with brand new energy."

Originally dreamt up in 2020, the Rock Hall expansion project, its architects and managers told Scene, sprouts out of the institution's yearning for both more space—50,000 square feet of it—and a desire to expand and diversify its link to the public.

A note here that over 95 percent of the cash raised for the groundbreaking was from local donors.

Several times during Thursday's ceremony, speakers' and inductee guests' minds drifted back to the early nineties, when Cleveland was selected, by national poll, to be the host city of a museum dedicated to rock n' roll and its purveyors. The city's reputation was so strong that, in a second poll, Cleveland won again—taking 35 percent of the vote.

Although it's unclear how much of the remaining costs will lie on the public's wallet, speakers on Thursday were apt to pitch the expansion as a clear community good more than a front-yard addition.

Tim Offermatt, a project manager, told Scene that the extension's 6,000 square-foot multipurpose space, with its pristine Lake Erie views, its new "student center" and a "breathtaking entrance worthy of rock and roll" would match a form-follows-function mentality. Same goes for its park next door. Meaning, space without a ticket charge.

"That is free space," Offermatt told Scene after the ceremony. "That's a look from when you walk in the front door. You can walk down those steps. You can hang around in the amphitheater. You can walk out to the harbor without buying a ticket. You can spend as much time as you want."

And, Offermatt added, act as an aesthetic compliment to I.M Pei's original structure without cutting the beloved plaza in half. "Our fundamental idea is to grow what happens here, not to substitute one area for another," he said.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism who led the design of the addition, said the rooftop greenery, the floor-to-ceiling glass, all of the expansion's look was influenced by Pei's intention. Without inching too close.

"We wanted to make it both reverent and irreverent, like rock and roll itself," he told Scene. "So we kiss the building, but we do it very carefully."

But Thursday's groundbreaking, as it must've felt back in 1995, extended past any shiny, oddly-shaped thing in front of North Coast Harbor. As the applause and sing-a-longs Thursday showed us, the Rock Hall's phase two was more about Cleveland honing its luck and spirit as a music bastion.

It's why its inductees—Sam Moore of Sam and Dave; Martha Reeves; Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas; and Charlotte Caffey and Gina Schock of the Go-Go's—were invited to the dais, every speaker noted. (And not just politicians in high socks.)

"You know, they look different, they sound different, but they have one thing in common: They all created the sound of young America," Rock Hall Chair John Sykes said on stage, nodding back to the dais. "I think how lucky we are. Because without them, we wouldn't be here today."

At one point in the ceremony, Michelle Phillips, now 79, gets up from her chair and walks up to the mic. Without prompting, she sings "California Dreaming"—"All the leaves are brown / and the sky is gray"—and for twenty seconds the entire crowd has its oh wow moment. Phones came out. Hundreds echoed Phillips' voice. "Oh my god," someone said from the crowd.

Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris walked up to the podium after the applause ended. "Wow," he said. "I guess Clevelanders can harmonize, too."

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About The Author

Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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