Plain Dealer, Cleveland Memory Project

Cleveland, Ohio -  One-hundred years ago, Cleveland was a Great American City --  one of the largest and most prosperous in America. The 1920s was a decade of great growth, change and wealth for the Fifth City.

In many ways, this big, glamorous city was a world away from 2020s Cleveland, and yet 1920s Cleveland faced many of the same concerns as today.

With nearly 800,000 residents, Cleveland was only smaller than New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. In 1910, it had been a little over 500,000.  Paired with the capital built by philanthropically-minded industrialists, population growth inspired development.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1929, Cleveland Union Terminal

"The big thing is, there is a lot of construction in the downtown area," says John Grabowski, Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and Senior Vice President for Research and Publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society. "The Federal Reserve, Union Terminal, the landscape is changing."

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1927, Cleveland Union Terminal

Soaring skyscrapers were erected, including the Terminal Tower and the Cleveland Union Terminal, the most ambitious project of the decade. Construction began on Cleveland's iconic landmark in 1924. The railroad terminal and skyscraper were the idea of the Van Sweringen brothers, the developers who helped build Shaker Heights, as well as the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit. By the 1920s, the brothers owned a $3 billion railroad empire – hence the desire to build a terminal downtown.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1926, Cleveland Union Terminal

The construction reshaped the city. More than 1,000 buildings and whole city blocks were demolished to make room for the tracks and terminal. Modeled after New York's Grand Central Station, when it was completed the 52-story, 708-foot steel Terminal Tower was the second tallest building in the world, after the Empire State Building. Tenants began to move into the Beaux-Arts building in 1928, with the first train using the terminal in 1929.

Courtesy of Playhouse Square: 1920s

Theaters and other leisure-times venues were opened, such as Playhouse Square. When they were built in a 19-month span in 1921 and '22, the theaters at Playhouse Square made for the largest performing arts district outside of New York. The Palace was the most majestic of all the Euclid Avenue theaters. Built by vaudeville magnate Edward F. Albee, the 3,100 seat theater was dubbed the "Showplace of the World."  Down Euclid Avenue, theater development continued with the famous Keith's 105th Street Theatre in 1923

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1922 Templar

The nascent car industry also boomed in the 1920s, with makers such as Templar, Winton and White.

Library of Congress: League Park

The decade began with a bang: the Indians 1920 World Series victory, won at League Park in the upscale Hough area on October 12.

Nationwide, women's' suffrage was achieved nationally in 1920, but locally women had been voting in progressive East Cleveland as early as 1916.

Cleveland Memory Project: Bamboo Gardens, on East 88th Street, was a popular Jazz Age club.

The Roaring '20s were a time of seismic social change.  Most visibly among the youth.

"There is so much optimism among the American people," says Regennia Williams, Historian at the Cleveland History Center. "The war is over, and  (they think) there will never be another. The women are bobbing their hair and dancing the Charleston and there is incredible rise of the Jazz Age. … And you have this cultural renaissance in Harlem, and what's happening there is happening other places like Chicago and Cleveland."

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: Liquor was openly sold in Cleveland during Prohibition. Here locals are seen loading booze, still and equipment on E. 107th Street in 1929.

A swinging scene of clubs and speakeasies emerged in Cleveland despite Prohibition, which was never really enforced that strongly. The Mayfield Road Gang and organized crime flourished in Cleveland in the Jazz Age, thanks to a steady business of bringing in booze from Canada.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: Hotel Winton

Lounges and clubs in luxurious new hotels such as the Winton and Allerton lured Fine Young Things. The edgy and secretive Kokoon Arts Club drew revelers to its infamous Bal Masque's at hidden locations throughout the decade; the events were so wild the city forced them to cancel due to fears of "debauchery" in 1923 and '24.

Mike Levy, The Plain Dealer, Kokoon Arts Club Costume Ball

For white Clevelanders, much of the action centered around the swinging second downtown of Doan's Corners, East 105th to 107th streets and Euclid Avenue.

Cleveland Memory Project: Doan's Corners

Doan's was an entertainment hub, with seven theaters and even more lounges and restaurants.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: Wade Park Manor

It was also a desirable residential area, with apartment buildings such as Tudor Arms and Wade Park Manor, called "the newest move in Cleveland's progress towards complete metropolitanism" when it opened in 1923.

Library of Congress: 1910s, Doan's Corners

Young Clevelanders flocked to Bamboo Gardens, Oster's and Lindsay's Sky Bar (opened in 1934).

"People smoked and danced and drank their way to happier times.   Your lifestyle was your own choice in the 1920s," Stephen Harrison, Cleveland Museum of Art Curator of Decorative Art and Design, told The Plain Dealer in 2017.

"You could control how you dressed and looked and that was one thing that cut across race in this era of fashion and music."

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1921, Cedar Avenue

Most things didn't cut across race, however, even in the North. For African-American Clevelanders, the nascent Cedar Avenue area, not Doan's Corners, was the center of daily life – and nightlife.

In the '20s, the city demographics began to rapidly change. The great wave of European immigration that bulked up the city and its factories in the previous two decades halted due to the post-war Immigration acts of 1921 and 24 which greatly restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. As the city entered the decade, 20 percent of the population was foreign born, a number that began to plummet.

Cleveland Memory Project: Majestic Hotel

At the same time, African-American migration to the city began in earnest, from 35,000 in 1920 to 70,000 in 1930. New black residents found industrial jobs they could not below the Mason-Dixon line and built the near East Side around Cedar Avenue into a vibrant neighborhood of churches and shops and houses and apartments and hotels and clubs. It would become known as Cleveland's Little Harlem.

Historian Williams says Southern blacks were drawn to the opportunity that Cleveland offered.

"The same thing that attracted and retained a lot of those Eastern and Southern Europeans attracted black workers from the rural South. Cleveland offered the promise of steady employment that wasn't seasonal and centered around the growing season, and a chance for your children to go to school eight months a year, not just after the cotton harvest.

Cleveland Memory Project: 1940, Alonzo Wright gives basket to family in need

Still, Cleveland, like most everywhere else in America in the 1920s was de facto segregated. New African-American residents may have wanted to live in the vibrant area, but almost all of them settled around Cedar Avenue out of necessity – that's where they were welcome.

When Cleveland's first black millionaire, Alonzo Wright, moved out of the central city to Cleveland Heights in the 1930s, his house was firebombed. Amusement parks Luna Park and Euclid Beach Park only allowed African-American patrons in on certain days. "Segregation gradually increased as the population grew," says Grabowski.

"In the greater Cedar Central area you had a concentration of black talent: lawyers and doctors and journalists right there with the factory workers. There's a danger in romancing Jim Crow, but (this area) did provide role models for black children growing up there because of de facto segregation. People didn't have any other choice (on where to live)," adds Williams.

Jazz Age composer Noble Sissle, most famous for "I'm Just Wild About Harry," was born in Cleveland and was a Central High graduate.

Cleveland Memory Project: The Bamboo Garden on East 88th Street was a Jazz Age favorite

The arrival of so many new residents brought new life to Cleveland in more ways than one. As in New York, there was a cultural renaissance.

"A lot of big dreamers and music makers and other moved here," says Williams. … "There was a lot going on in the heart of the 'negro ghetto.' You had businessmen and entrepreneurs but you also had Alan Cole, the great photographer, you had Karamu House and you had a young dreamer who would graduate from Central High and go on to become a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes."

Migrants from the South brought the unique American art form of jazz with them.  Cedar Gardens Harlem-style nightclub at East 79th and Cedar was hopping almost every night, as was the Majestic Hotel on East 55th Street. Not only was this  venue known for its popular Furnace Room nightclub and barbecue; it was the only major hotel in the city that welcomed African-Americans (and was listed in the Green Book), and thus became a stomping grounds for touring acts.

Cleveland Memory Project: Playhouse Square

It wasn't just the population inside the city that shifted in the 1920s.

It was also in this era that the suburban migration that has remade the city a century later began in earnest, thanks in part to all those cars. (And the desire to maybe not live next to a steel mill, but instead have your own house and lawn and American Dream).

"The spatial growth of  suburban areas in the '20s is incredible," says Grabowski. "You begin to see a lot of these inner ring suburbs beginning to boom." By 1931, East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Lakewood, Bedford, Berea, Euclid, Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, Parma, Rocky River and Shaker Heights all had city status, and there were 52 other villages incorporated.

East Cleveland had nearly 40,000 residents by 1930, a 45 percent increase from a decade earlier. Cleveland Heights had 51,000 residents, a staggering 415 percent increase in a decade. On the west side, Lakewood grew 79 percent through the decade, to 70,000 residents.

Plain Dealer Historical Photographic Collection: Cleveland Union Terminal concourse

"The automobile has arrived and the interurbans (electric railway lines) are still there and the, but they are not going to last. The sprawl we know now has its roots then," says Grabowski.

It was in the '20s that the wealthy industrialists who built Cleveland into the Fifth City with their refineries and steel mills and foundries began their move east from their fin de si 1/4 u00e8cle castles on Millionaire's Row.  The area on Euclid Avenue was a shadow of itself by the 1920s – and fading. By the 1930s, many of the mansions had been chopped up into rooming houses. By 1937, most of the houses had been torn down – primarily for commercial buildings or parking lots. None were occupied as single family homes.

Plain Dealer Historicl Photograph Collection: "John L. Severance, donor with the late Mrs. Severance of $1,000,000 for the construction of a permanent home for Cleveland Orchestra, yesterday broke ground for Severance Hall on Nov. 15, 1929"

The upper crust moved to East Cleveland and Gates Mills and Shaker Heights and other once far flung areas to get some distance from the hoi polloi.  Still, they continued to spend, both on new homes and public buildings they endowed, such as Severance Hall, which opened as the home of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1931.

Cleveland's premier Jazz Age artist Viktor Schreckengost's "Cocktails and Cigarettes" punch bolw, from 1931, is on display at the museum exhibit (CMA)

This helped design flourish  in the '20s, with firms like Rose Iron Works founded in 1904 by Martin Rose, who trained in Vienna and Budapest;  Cowan Pottery, founded in Lakewood in 1912; and, of course, sculptor and artist Viktor Schreckengost, perhaps Cleveland's greatest artist, who graduated from the School of the Arts in 1929.

Cleveland Memory Project: The Alhambra Theatre on Euclid Avenue, opened in 1911, was one of the most popular spots in the Doan's Corners area in the 1920s. It was later joined by six more theaters, including the popular Keith's 105th Street Theatre in 1923.

"There is a lot of money in the city in the 1920s," says Grabowski. "A lot of entrepreneurs and investors. But a lot of them are probably worth more on paper.

"The roaring '20s will come to a crashing halt for many of them, most apparently for the Van Sweringen Brother whose empire is pyramided and comes to grief in the 1930s."

Enter the Great Depression.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection: 1929, Severance Hall


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