ELEGANT CLEVELAND / This ongoing series looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.
If you lived at Moreland Courts in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s, you didn’t have to mix it up with the hoi polloi at a gas station: A valet would fill your tank from the Sohio pump in the basement garage. You’d never run into your live-in servants on the passenger elevators, because they’d take the service elevators. You wouldn’t even have to go outdoors to dine at the Shaker Tavern at the Square — a long hallway and a special key would get you in.
That’s the signature experience Moreland Courts, which arose in the late 1920s, offered. By design, the luxurious apartment complex emanated a mystique. If you were welcome to live at Moreland Courts in the 1930s, you’d know about it. Otherwise, there wasn’t so much as an exterior sign naming the edifice you were gazing upon.
The block-size complex at Shaker Boulevard and Coventry Road evokes big-city living at its finest, as you would experience on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was — and continues to be — home to people with the means to afford enormous houses but who instead choose to live in a spacious abode that is part of a community of 15 buildings.
The very creation of Moreland Courts, at the edge of Shaker Heights, occurred because that city’s exclusive zoning code did not allow for apartments at the time. So, the complex was built just over the border in Cleveland, as an integral part of the development of Shaker Square’s retail complex.
All the individual units here were at least 1,500 square feet and ranged up to 4,000. Most were single-story, but there were two-story apartments with leaded-glass windows to match. One thing you wouldn’t find back then: a small studio or one-bedroom apartment, because when the complex was constructed, it was feared smaller units would draw bachelors, wayward husbands or, heaven forbid, their mistresses.
Privacy reigned. Inside most buildings, there weren’t common gathering areas; even the elevators were shared by only two or four units on a floor. You’d be more likely to see your neighbors at the private clubs to which you belonged or in Palm Beach, Fla., in the winter.
Moreland Courts’ unofficial slogan in the days when Cleveland bustled as America’s fifth-largest city was “Where the wealth of the world resides.”
For many families, though, this architectural wonder has meant the warmth of home for many decades. William Bruner, for example, is the third generation of his family to live here. His father, Clark, and mother, Polly, moved in in 1937; his grandfather lived with the family until his death at 94.
When Bruner was a teen, his friends loved to visit his family’s apartment before they all headed to Shaker Square to Marshall’s Drug Store for a malt or John Wade’s record shop to listen to 45s.
John Greene, then president of Ohio Bell, lived just below the Bruners, and Polly Bruner liked to warn her son that if he and his friends were too noisy, “Mr. Greene will have our phones disconnected.”
Still elegant but not exclusive
Then and now, Moreland Courts is an anomaly in Northeast Ohio. The level of urban elegance it offers is said to be unparalleled between New York and Chicago — both when the complex opened and today.
In Northeast Ohio, where people live in apartments and condos on their way to buying a house, the Courts always have been anachronistic: People aspire to them, and when they get in, they tend to stay. On many occasions, residents’ children have taken the space upon their parents’ deaths.
In recent years, Moreland Courts has become a far more diverse and democratic place. Where once it housed only captains of industry and families found in the social register, it now attracts people with the finest cultural pedigrees as well: Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland director Jill Snyder, former Western Reserve Historical Society director Ted Sande.
But also making their homes at Moreland Courts are Cleveland’s building and housing director, Ed Rybka; Cleveland State University urban-policy professor Norm Krumholz; and environmental activist David Beach.
Where once there was homogeneity, there is ethnic, racial and religious diversity — adding a draw is the fact that the complex is in Cleveland, making it attractive to people who must live in the city for professional reasons, but it’s part of the Shaker Heights school district.
And, in a nice bit of circularity in these environmentally minded times, Moreland Courts residents like to talk about how they can be without a car for days or weeks at a time. Besides the restaurants and shops at Shaker Square and in the nearby Larchmere District, residents easily can take the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s rapid downtown, to University Circle and even the airport.
How a classic takes shape
This one-time bastion of bluebloods got its financial footing from Josiah Kirby, a colorful fellow who was flagrantly successful at making money, at least for a time.
At the start of the 1920s, Kirby had the $30 million that was the estimated cost for what was to be a massive project of apartments and retail in and around Shaker Square, then referred to as Moreland Circle.
And then his money was gone, and he went to prison for mail fraud and jury fixing. As Sande puts it, “He was a shady character who hired a brilliant architect.”
The architect was Alfred W. Harris, and he had conceived of a complex that would in effect be a narrative of English architecture. Harris had served as an aviator during World War I and found himself enchanted by the medieval towns he saw in England. It shaped his architectural creations when he returned home.
He designed several houses in Shaker Heights, a community with street names that paid tribute to English life, and Moreland Courts was to be a masterwork that would reflect all the best elements of distinct eras of English architecture: Elizabethan, neo-Gothic, Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian.
But then Kirby’s empire collapsed, and the Van Sweringen brothers picked up the project. Soon they had their own architecture firm: Small and Rowley, which designed the Van Sweringens’ Daisy Hill estate in Hunting Valley.
The visionary Van Sweringens were business-minded. Beauty was well and good, but only to a point. So their architects adopted a more streamlined approach to Moreland Courts.
Exterior embellishments were kept to a minimum. So were those inside. The walls were still several feet thick, to be sure, but the suites did not have the millwork or plasterwork detailing seen in the Harris-designed suites at the Point Building, the first and still most lavishly appointed portion of the Courts.
Filling the apartments was not a problem, not even during the Depression or World War II.
Back then, most of the residents still had live-in servants, who had their bedrooms on the far side of the kitchen. Each apartment had two phones: one for the family, one for the servants.
In the 1940s, there were uniformed doormen and a 24-hour switchboard. A number of fine shops lined the long hallways known as the Gallery — a women’s boutique, a men’s shop, a tobacco shop and the linen shop called Isabel Barry’s.
These were days of extreme privilege and wealth. One woman who lived at Moreland Courts in the ’40s, Katherine Holden-Thayer (the Holden family owned The Plain Dealer), had six cars at the Courts and seven more at her estate in Gates Mills. In an interview conducted for the Cleveland Restoration Society in 2007, Lou Hubach, who worked as doorman and switchboard operator in the 1940s, said with a chuckle, “She liked cars.”
Then there was Mildred, a switchboard operator who, as everyone who remembers her agrees, couldn’t help but listen and learn secrets.
Graham Grund, a well-known arts patron, lived in Moreland Courts as a young woman in the 1940s. Like many families of the time, her parents also had a home in the “country,” in Gates Mills, where they spent the summer.
She moved back to the Courts seven years ago after the death of her husband, having lived in Gates Mills for many years.
“I don’t think there’s anyone alive here but me who would remember the shops we had here,” she says. “I wasn’t old enough to buy the things they offered, but Mother did.”
Her parents moved into Moreland Courts in 1940 or 1941, she says. “Life was lovely. It was home. But everything changes — and everything really changed after the Korean War.”
Except, she allows, “this is still one of the most beautiful sets of buildings anywhere. Nothing has ever matched it.”
Residents old and new soak up the atmosphere
James Irving, an interior designer who has lived in the Courts since the late 1960s, couldn’t agree more. He lives in the Point Building, though he didn’t always. He moved from one of the Tudor buildings after several years when one of the sought-after suites opened up.
His suite combines his professional artistry, personal taste and the best of Moreland Courts’ interior construction — so much so that it became a must-see for actresses and writers who came to the Shaker Square Bookshop.
Joan Fontaine stopped by when she was in town to talk about her autobiography, “No Bed of Roses.” So did the fashion writer Eugenia Sheppard and Stephen Birmingham, author of an acclaimed book on Manhattan’s Dakota Building.
Moreland Courts today
Price of suites: In the past two years, the price range has been from $30,000 to $550,000, depending on size and building.
Monthly fees: $1,100 to $3,300. These pay for both the high level of service provided by the building and the recent $15 million in massive restoration and renovations to the historic structure.
Services provided: 24-hour valet, security and switchboard; pick-up and delivery of packages and dry cleaning, etc.
Moreland Courts, Birmingham told Irving, compared most favorably to that storied building.
Rayleen Nanni is one of Moreland Courts’ newest residents. She owns the Metropolitan Galleries at Shaker Square, a furniture and art gallery. She lived in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood for 15 years before moving to Northeast Ohio several years ago.
She lived for a time in Ohio City. “But I always dreamed of coming to the square and living here,” she says.
It has the urban feel of Manhattan to her, if on a smaller scale. On Sundays, she and her husband buy the paper, walk to Shaker Square for coffee, perhaps have brunch at one of the restaurants.
“You can walk, and you see people,” she says. “I like looking outside my apartment and seeing the rapid trains. It’s just a very urban feel.”
Irving, too, can’t imagine being at home anywhere else. Anyone who loves history and hearing people’s stories — especially the anecdotes of well-traveled residents — couldn’t live in a richer place, and Irving was a friend to many of the grande dames who lived at the Courts.
People remember their names: Mrs. Ziesing. Mrs. Eells. Oh yes, Mrs. Eells, whose luggage would be stacked shoulder-high at the entrance of the Point Building as her driver and car approached. Her staff would line up and stand at attention as she left the building to winter in Palm Beach.
That time — that extravagant lifestyle — largely has vanished, at Moreland Courts and elsewhere. As Irving points out, “Who can afford live-in help, even if you could find help that would be willing to live in?”
Life with servants has passed into history. But the stories of Moreland Courts? For now, there are still a few people who can tell them.
Or keep the secrets.