A visit to the former Cleveland Union Terminal

1930 poster of Cleveland Union Terminal by Leslie Ragan
1930 poster of Cleveland Union Terminal by Leslie Ragan

There’s no denying it… the star ceiling in Grand Central Terminal is wonderful (and even cool enough for someone to actually get a Grand Central tattoo). But I must admit that after recently visiting Tower City Center (the former Cleveland Union Terminal), I was absolutely mesmerized by the ceiling there. It isn’t hard to see why – the repetitive pattern of flowers is not only beautiful, but almost hypnotic. Besides the two terminals having attractive ceilings, Cleveland’s terminal was influenced by some of Grand Central’s innovative designs. Tracks were built below ground, with the terminal building and tower constructed atop (making use of the “air rights”), and stores and hotels were constructed in adjoining buildings, ensuring that a traveler never had to step foot outside if that was their wish.

Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White and officially opened in 1930, the Cleveland Union Terminal complex was comprised of several buildings, and included the impressive Terminal Tower. The fourth tallest building in the world when constructed (and second tallest in the US), the tower was 52 stories and 708 feet tall, and remains one of the most notable features in Cleveland’s skyline. Politically, the two parts were separated by ownership – the terminal was owned by the Cleveland Union Terminal company, and the tower by the Cleveland Terminals Building company. The Nickel Plate, New York Central, and Big Four railways were the primary stockholders of the Cleveland Union Terminal company, and thus the main train building.

  
 
Cleveland Union Terminal construction photos.

Though the railroads certainly had an investment, the main figures behind the station were Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, eccentric brothers that developed the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Village (now Shaker Heights). Part of that development included an interurban streetcar link from the village to downtown Cleveland, called the Cleveland Interurban Railroad. Eventually the brothers envisioned a train terminal that would connect their railroad with the other streetcars and railroads in Cleveland, and the concept for Cleveland Union Terminal was born.

Postcard and matchbook from Union terminal
Postcard and matchbook from Union terminal. The “Busy Person’s Correspondence Card” may be one of the best postcards I’ve ever seen.

   
  
   
  
   

Photos of Cleveland Union Terminal in 1987, before much of the renovations to turn the station into a mall occurred.

Today Cleveland’s light rail uses the station, but beyond that longer distance trains have disappeared. Amtrak moved their operations to a newly built station closer to the waterfront in the ’70s. The original station platforms were for the most part demolished to create a parking garage. After extensive renovations the building now goes by the name of Tower City Center, and houses a shopping mall, restaurants, a movie theater, casino and two hotels. Despite all these changes, much of the entranceway from Public Square looks as it did when first constructed, including that mesmerizing ceiling.

Entrance of Cleveland Union Terminal
Entrance to Cleveland Union Terminal from Public Square. From the collection of Steve Swirsky.

 
  
  
  
  
 
   
  
 
   
   

5 thoughts on “A visit to the former Cleveland Union Terminal

  1. Great series of photos as usual. You give everyone a real feel for the place. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for continuing to expand our appreciation for what, sadly, seems too often to be a lost, but not forgotten, world.

    I’ve probably referenced this song before but I think it’s worth mentioning again:

  3. It makes me wonder what happened with the Baltimore Penn Station hotel plans… I haven’t heard anything about them lately.

  4. I love the post card – I seriously want one! Great pictures and write-up as usual. I assume you didn’t have any issues photographing inside. This is one of the few places where I got a “No Photography” slap from a police officer (due to 9/11 he said). I later got a letter from the Chief saying in general photography is permitted, but I haven’t been back since to get more pictures.

    1. Yeah, taking photos was fine, nobody said anything to me while there. Believe it or not, the mall has a twitter account, and they actually retweeted one of the photos that I instagrammed of the ceiling.

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