Playhouse Square Center
Restoration of five theaters makes this effort the largest theater preservation
project in the country
There is no square at Playhouse Square, confusing many out-of-town theatergoers,
but there is a kind of a triangle formed by the convergence of Euclid and
Huron roads. Cleveland's theater district of today actually got its misleading
name from the news media, which coined the term when a multitude of theaters
were constructed in the location between E. 14 and E. 17 along Euclid Avenue
in the early 1920s. It must have been an amazing time to work in construction
in the City of Cleveland.
Playhouse Square Foundation
The first theater to be built in the area was the Stillman, a movie house
at E. 12 and Euclid, by developer Joseph Laronge. This started the drive
that ended up with the creation of a massive entertainment district, then
and now. Laronge and three others, including Marcus Loew, formed a partnership
called Loew's Ohio Theaters and began focusing on major building projects
along Euclid. What made the complex unique is not so much its external architecture
but rather its distinct spatial arrangement, creating an overwhelming synergy
of programming, and the Phoenix-like survival that have made it a focus
of downtown development.
Construction began on two other Loew's theaters, the Ohio and State,
in 1920, with the two opening in February of 1921 within a week of each
other. Both Italianate theaters were designed by Thomas W. Lamb, who is
thought to be the creator of the modern theater auditorium. The Ohio was
built as a 1338-seat legitimate theater and the State a motion picture venue.
Because a Euclid Avenue marquee was considered essential, the theaters were
built on a lot that extended 500 ft back from Euclid but shared a frontage
on that street of just 85 feet. The 3400-seat State is essentially on E.
17 St. behind the Palace, set back 320 feet from Euclid, but its 180-ft-by-45-ft
lobby, said to be the largest of any theater in the world at the time, gave
it the prestigious front door it needed.
At the same time, the eight-story Bulkley Building was going up, containing
not only offices and an enclosed garage but also the 3,600-seat Allen movie
house, by architect C. Howard Crane. The Pompeiian-styled theater was owned
by the Allen brothers, who soon sold their failing business to Loews in
Across the street, a 1,500-seat legitimate theater, the Hanna, was designed
by Charles Platt and built on E. 14 as part of the Hanna Building complex
by Dan Hanna in honor of his dad, president-maker Mark Hanna.
In the next year, the 21-story Keith Building was being built by Edward
F. Albee, to be completed in 1922 as the city's tallest. Atop the Keith
was the largest electrical sign in the world, advertising what's inside
the building: the Palace. Aptly named, the 3400-seat vaudeville theater,
designed by Chicago's Rapp & Rapp, contained every sort of glamour,
from the Grand Hall lobby and half-a-million-dollar art collection to the
barber shop, putting green and nursery for the convenience of the players,
as well as a tailor shop and animal room for productions. Visiting vaudevillians
were happy to play the Palace, as they could be sure of getting the creature
comforts there that were lacking in other cities. A carriage call system
is installed on the outside of the building along E 17 that allows patrons
to call their chauffeurs to come pick them up when a signal is flashed on
the marquee. Pretty swell.
This swankiness continued in one form or another as the theaters collectively
continued to offer movies, plays and special appearances by top entertainers.
The Ohio later became a casino, complete with a Coast Guard recruiting station
during World War II. But the urban unrest of the late 60s and other cultural
changestelevision and the need for smaller movie housesput an
end to the theaters. A fire at the Ohio in 1964 and vandalism in the others
caused seemingly irreparable injury, and seats and fixtures are ripped out
and sold. Weathseepae caused still more damage. The four theaters on Euclid
that had opened within 19 months closed within just 14.
In 1971, a Cleveland schools employee named Ray Shepardson looked into
holding teacher meetings in one of theaters; their beauty made him a champion
of preserving the spaces. And Life magazine ran an article on the Spirit
of Cinema, one of the sumptuous series of James Daugherty murals that graces
the State's long lobby. This attention led to the formation of the Playhouse
Square Association, which began the long, hard process of bringing the theaters,
and theater district, back to life.
A major upset: the May, 1972 announcement that the Ohio and State would
be razed to build a parking lot. The civic outcry in response gave added
impetus to saving the complex, and salvation measures such as long-run theatrical
productions began in lobbies and other spaces while restoration efforts
were funded and examples of what-could-be developed. A second try at tearing
down the Ohio and State in 1977 ended with the buildings being purchased
by the Playhouse Square Foundation, which coordinated both the management
and preservation effort. National Register of Historic Places status occurred
Architect Peter van Dijk and consultant Roger Morgan headed the group
that directed the theater complex restoration. The Ohio, scheduled to be
last due to its extensive damage, was fast-tracked to become the home of
the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, and construction by the Dunbar Construction
Co. began at the end of 1981 according to plans by Dalton, van Dijk, Johnson
and Partners. The $4-million project was completed in less than nine months.
Restoration of the State began in May 1979, with the new $7-million stagehouse
going up in 1983 and completion of the whole in summer of 1984. Work on
the Palace was to begin but was put off until 1987, due to fundraising needs,
and that year also saw the State's three lobbies being renovated to the
tune of $1.2 million and construction of a new parking garage behind the
complex. The year-long work on the Palace, as with the other renovations,
was an artisan's nightmare, with proscenium arch, side boxes, iron and brass
staircase railing and doors and other hardware restoration as special challenges,
in addition to the construction of a new orchestra floor, balcony re-terracing,
HVAC and mechanical systems. It all came in on time and on budget.
With three theaters lighted, the center encouraged others to invest in
new construction, with the $40-million Renaissance Office Building, at E.
14 and Euclid finished in 1989 and the $27-million Wyndham Hotel in 1995.
In addition, the Allen, threatened by demolition, was also revamped,
despite some who felt three theaters enough. It began a total renovation
that included demolition of the old movie stagehouse to create a new one
with room for live theater. GSI Architects and Turner Construction did the
work, and its constructors got to celebrate the reopening in 1998 a day
early. The last of the Euclid Avenue theaters to be completed, it made Playhouse
Square Center the largest theater restoration in the world and the complex
the continent's second largest performing arts complex, with over 10,000
seats, surpassed only by Lincoln Center.
The year 1997 saw the Hanna Theater reborn, despite still more objections
to a fifth theater, giving the complex a total of five theaters; Playhouse
Square Foundation acquired the theater in 1999.
A development engine
Thompson & Wood's 1994 overall Master Plan for the district included
adding excitement to the Theater District, realized in 1996 with the addition
of new marquees and other elements. Lighted billboard crawls and video screens
were added, along with a discount ticket sales office in the newly developed
urban sitting area that is Star Plaza.
In addition, 345 market-rate rental units have been built, and the Playhouse
Square Foundation, a theatrical impresario uniquely involved in urban redevelopment,
is looking into for-sale and still more rental units. Also under construction
is the $1 million revamp of the Haig Avedesian Building into Playhouse Square
Corporate Center at 1317 Euclid and the 101,000-sf Playhouse Square Plaza
office space at 1220 Huron, both by the American National Group. New parks
include a $1-million green space at Huron Point near the Theater District
and a revamp for Chester Commons at E. 12, now called Perk Plaza.
But it is PSF's acquisition of the 246,000-sf Playhouse Square Building,
designed by Walker & Weeks, in 1998 that is most talked about. It set
the stage for the six-story One Playhouse Square, a $30-million redevelopment
into an arts education facility and offices for WCPN public radio and WVIZ/PBS.
The two media are collaborating on the ideastream initiative, a 90,000-sf
space for multiple media production and the application of digital technology
that will allow the integration of the performing arts and education into
the larger community. For instance, a two-story TV studio and theater will
be included inside a light court in the inner part of the building. The
flexible space, designed by van Dijk Westlake Reed Leskosky, will take advantage
of its storefront location to add to the excitement of the district and
invite the community to participate in what is being called a "messy
vitality." The ideastream project, being constructed by Turner Construction,
will be completed later this year.
And the Cleveland office of URS Corporation will make an upper 45,000-sf
of the building it new headquarters. It is the architect for the basic renovation
of the building exclusive of the ideastream work. Like the theater restorations,
the center will serve as a national benchmark for a way to combine the arts,
education and technology and to use the arts to create a focus for urban
Size: 5 theaters, 10,000+ seats, three office buildings
Architects: Thomas Lamb, C. Howard Crane, Rapp & Rapp, Charles
Original timeline: 1920-1922; Closings of Euclid Ave. theaters:
1968-1969; Renovations: idea for rebirth began in 1971; Ohio reopens in
1982; State in1984; Palace in 1988; Hanna in 1997; Allen in 1998; Named
to National Register of Historic Places: 1978;
Sources: Playhouse Square, Cleveland : An Entertaining History:
1810 to the 21st Century, by Kathleen Kennedy and Jean Emser Schultz
(graphics taken from this source); Cleveland Architecture: 1876-1976,
by Eric Johannesen