Lake Erie

Terminal Tower

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The Terminal Tower

Before | Planning | Construction | Facts | Sources

Before the Terminal Tower

Let's step back in time! It's 1910. You have business in Cleveland but live far away. Let's think about our trip. How would you get to Cleveland? What would you see?

You would probably have come by train. You would have been dropped off at 15 different locations, depending upon which train you chose to ride. If you were let off around midtown, you would have walked to Public Square. This was where the Cleveland trolley lines met. Or you might have taken an interurban -- a self-propelled electric railway car. (There were over 2,000 miles of tracks for this electrified railway car in Ohio at the time.)

Where the Terminal Tower now stands was once a collection of old buildings "covered with rust, soot and advertising, which bore witness to Cleveland's first mercantile age." You would have seen the Old Stone Church (1855) and the Society of Savings Bank (1889). You would also have seen the construction of the new Federal Building (1893) and the Williamson Building (1900). (These buildings were both demolished in 1982 to make way for the Sohio (currently called BP America) headquarters. You might also have seen the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.

Buildings removed on North Broadway
(CSU Library Archive)

Buildings removed from West Ontario
 (CSU Library Archive)

To see more construction photos, go to .


Planning the Terminal Tower Complex

Public Square had been the center of civic life in Cleveland. Beginning in the early 1890s there had been a movement afoot to centralize federal, county and city governments. All needed new, larger buildings and the Public Square site was proposed as the site for these buildings. They planned a "civic center" that ran from Public Square to Lake Erie. This represented a redevelopment of the core of the city. The people were reluctant to pay for this due to other practical problems they felt needed to be addressed. Also part of this plan was a new lakefront railroad station. The Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads were to pay the city $1 million for the site but World War I caused a postponement in the plan.

The Van Sweringen brothers had purchased land in Shaker Heights for a housing development. They decided that if the move to the suburbs were to succeed, train connections needed to be available. After much debate the location was changed to the current site of the Terminal Tower. In 1919, the Pennsylvania Railroad withdrew from the project. In 1922, Oris Van Sweringen opened an office for design and construction of the new building. Engineering expenses were high because of the large number of studies required for various parts of the project. One of these studies is the core sample study discussed in another section of this teachers guide.

After much "inside" manipulation resulting in the change in location from the lakefront to the "mall," the brothers Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen announced their plans in 1923 to build a building to compare to the Woolworth Building in New York City. A decision was made to raise the tower to increase office space.



Besides the increased office space of the new Terminal Tower building, the 52-story height is visually important to Cleveland. It was no longer to be just an accent to the train station, but also an aesthetically appealing addition -- a visage people would remember. It provides an anchor to the observer.

Because of the height of the tower, it was decided that it should sit on bedrock as a foundation. In 1926, 16 caissons (underground poles that sit on the bedrock and give strength to the building) each went down 200-250 feet to support the weight of the building. It was also necessary to design the buildings so that there wouldn't be unnecessary vibrations from the trains below or from traffic on the street. During this time, the project underwent a continual process of planning, rethinking and changing plans.

Construction was completed in 1930. The usefulness of the train station below was short-lived as cars became a more popular means of transportation. "The decision to heighten the tower no doubt saved the Terminal complex. "They created more than a 'Cathedral of Business': they created a visual symbol for the City of Cleveland -- a land mark [sic] with a sense of identity answering to Cleveland's psychological needs and a square with an entirely new physiognomy and character"




  • Location: 50 Public Square, Cleveland.

  • 52 floors.

  • Dedicated in 1930.

  • Function is office, hotel and retail.

  • Second tallest building in the world when completed in 1930.

  • The building is 708 feet tall.

  • There is a 63-foot flagpole at the top, taking it to 771 feet.

  • The steel-reinforced concrete supports for the Terminal Tower reach bedrock approximately 250 feet below the ground.

  • Sixteen caissons support the building.

  • More than 1,000 buildings were taken down to build the Tower Complex.

  • Several streets were eliminated and others were built during the development of the complex.

  • 2.5 million cubic yards of material was removed from the tower site.

  • It was opened as the Cleveland Union Terminal and dedicated by the Van Sweringen brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James.

  • The building management company was Forest City Enterprises.

  • The architect was Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

  • The general contractor was John Gill & Sons

  • The steel supplier was Carnegie Steel Company.



Facts from at

The Cleveland Union Terminal Collection

Dirty Little Secrets: Foundations From the Past a Western Reserve Public Media video production.
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