The City Club of Cleveland’s move to Playhouse Square heralds higher visibility for historic Cleveland institution – June 8, 2023

The City Club of Cleveland is taking over the ground floor of the building formerly known as the Dwellworks building, under the big Playhouse Square sign, at East 13th Street and Euclid Avenue.Steven Litt,

The City Club of Cleveland’s move to Playhouse Square heralds higher visibility for historic Cleveland institution
by Steven Litt, – June 8, 2023
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CLEVELAND, Ohio — America’s Citadel of Free Speech is getting ready to come down to earth so it can retail big ideas from a storefront on the sunny side of the street.

Those points capture the essence of plans by the 111-year-old City Club of Cleveland to move by September, with a precise date to be determined, from its current home in an upstairs space west of East Ninth Street downtown to the ground floor in a former F.W. Woolworth store at 1317 Euclid Ave. in the heart of Playhouse Square.

“We’re creating a retail civic experience here that is all about access and accessibility,’’ said Dan Moulthrop, the club’s CEO since 2013. “I’m thrilled.”

A non-partisan debate forum and a beloved Cleveland Institution, the club is famous for giving open mics to everyone from Carl Stokes, Robert F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama to Liz Cheney, Karl Rove, and William Barr.

The club’s new home will be the sixth in its history of bouncing around downtown since 1912. And it may be the most important move yet.

For the past 40 years, the club has been the sole tenant on the second floor of the eponymous, 13-story City Club Building, built in 1907 at 850 Euclid Ave. The building faces north from the south side of the avenue, meaning that sunlight has not been a big factor inside the floor occupied by its marquee tenant. Nor was visibility from the street.

Going upstairs at 850 meant punching 2 in the building’s vintage elevators or taking the stairs. Renovated in 1999, the club has always felt welcoming and lively, despite being internally focused and not directly connected to the surrounding city.

At Playhouse Square, the club will be far more visible on the north side of Euclid Avenue inside a new, sidewalk-friendly storefront where it will face south into the sun from behind big glassy windows. It’s a fitting spot for an institution whose mission is “to create conversations of consequence that help democracy thrive.’’

Moulthrop said he’s excited to have a nonprofit organization as the club’s landlord because the relationship could give his organization a new sense of long-term stability in comparison to inhabiting commercial real estate that could change hands.

The club announced its upcoming move to Playhouse Square last December, but Moulthrop shared new renderings and other details about the move recently with and The Plain Dealer.

The new renderings, prepared by the Cleveland office of DLR Group, emphasize the light, airy look of the new space, which has 16-foot-high ceilings and big display windows with curved corners.

“There is something so accessible about this space, which communicates something to the community we’ve never communicated before in our physical presence,’’ Moulthrop said during a walk-through.

Construction workers are now fitting out a 14,600-square-foot space in the club’s new home, with seating for 350, representing a 50% increase in capacity over its current location in the City Club Building at 850 Euclid Avenue, where it has spent the last 40 years.

The square footage will be the same before and after the move, but the club will allocate more of its footprint in its new home to its primary mission — hosting public forums.

A big lift

Built in 1924, the club’s upcoming new home was designed by the famed Cleveland architecture firm of Walker & Weeks, which also designed Severance Music Center in University Circle, home of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Although it’s just two stories high, the Woolworth building was built with massive, heavily-riveted steel columns designed to carry additional stories above it that never got built.

Those columns are coming in handy now. In order to create a column-free space with clear sightlines inside the club’s bigger new dining room, the DLR architects have decided to remove four of them from the center of the space.

In order to do that, the designers will transfer the structural load to a pair of giant trusses that will be placed on the building’s roof. The trusses will shift the load to other columns at the edge of the club’s dining room that are strong enough to carry extra weight.

The crane lift, scheduled for June 26, should be dramatic. As they raise the trusses into position, operators will need to avoid bashing the big Playhouse Square sign that rests atop the building, overlooking Euclid Avenue.

Adding to Playhouse Square’s history

In recent years, both floors of 1317 Euclid have been occupied by Dwellworks, which provides corporate and individual relocation services for businesses. Dwellworks has consolidated on the upper floor of the building.

In its new home, the City Club will become part of the ongoing story of Playhouse Square, the city’s theater district. Preservationists in the 1970s and ‘80s saved the area’s early 20th-century movie palaces and Vaudeville houses from destruction during the era of urban renewal and white flight.

In order to lure suburbanites downtown, which was then perceived as dangerous, the Playhouse Square Foundation built a large parking garage connected to the theater lobbies from behind, off Dodge Court. Visitors never had to set foot on Euclid Avenue.

Since then, Playhouse Square has assembled and curated a sizable portfolio of real estate around the neighborhood, where it has built a hotel and attracted tenants including restaurants and civic organizations including the United Way and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Northeast Ohio’s chamber of commerce.

The new City Club address is part of a row of buildings housing branches of Cleveland State University’s Art Gallery; Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and graduate programs in urban design and landscape architecture, and Ideastream, Cleveland’s public broadcaster.

Craig Hassall, Playhouse Square’s president and CEO since 2022, called the club a “top drawer’’ addition and said he would consider it an addition to the district’s collection of resident companies, including Great Lakes Theater, the Tri-C JazzFest, the Cleveland International Film Festival, DanceCleveland, and Cleveland Ballet.

“I personally love the fact that the City Club coming into the neighborhood will raise the importance of spoken word events,’’ Hassall said.

The club will add foot traffic and vitality, making Euclid Avenue, “more attractive and welcoming and a place you really want to hang out,” he said.

The club will have an impact on street life starting every Friday in August when it will hold its weekly forum outside on U.S. Bank Plaza, the triangular park between East 13th and East 14th on the south side of Euclid Avenue. Details will be shared on the club’s website,

Artistic footnote

The City Club’s move will be accompanied by one important change: The organization will not be bringing along its big, 1940 “Free Speech’’ mural by Cleveland artist Elmer Brown, one of the most important Black artists in the city’s history.

Reflecting the club’s racial reality before World War II, Brown painted the mural as a depiction of the club as an all-white institution. A solitary Black man, believed to represent the artist, is included in the image.

Moulthrop called the mural, which measures more than 8 feet high by 21 feet wide, “a product of its time,’’ that no longer communicates “the sense of belonging and inclusion that is at the heart of our work.”

To safeguard the artwork for posterity, the club has donated it to the Western Reserve Historical Society, which is planning to display it alongside information providing historical context.

“We love it, it’s just so much of its time,’’ Dennis Barrie, the veteran museum planner and administrator who serves as vice president of experience design for the historical society, said of the mural.

“I know why places like the City Club need to refresh their approach, but it’s our obligation to understand the past,’’ Barrie said.

The City Club will display a digital reproduction of the mural at its new home in Playhouse Square. Moulthrop said the club wants to acknowledge the mural “as a part of our history while creating a more inclusive space and making room for the stories still to be told.”

The Creed of the City Club of Cleveland -1916 Ralph Hayes


I hail and harbor and hear men of every belief and party; for within my portals prejudice grows less and bias dwindles.

I have a forum-as wholly uncensored as it is rigidly impartial. “Freedom of Speech” is graven above my rostrum; and beside it, “Fairness of Speech.”

I am the product of the people, a cross section of their community-weak as they are weak, and strong in their strength; believing that knowledge of our failings and our powers begets a greater strength. I have a house of fellowship; under my roof informality reigns and strangers need no introduction.

I welcome to my platform the discussion of any theory or dogma of reform; but I bind my household to the espousal of none of them, for I cherish the freedom of every man’s conviction and each of my kin retains his own responsibility.

I have no axe to grind, no logs to roll. My abode shall be the rendezvous of strong-but open-minded men and my watchword shall be “information,”not “reformation.”

I am accessible to men of all sides-literally and figuratively-for I am located in the heart of a city- spiritually and geographically. I am the city’s club- the City Club.


“Freedom’s Forum” The City Club 1912-1962 by Dr. Thomas F. Campbell

“Freedom’s Forum” The City Club 1912-1962 by Dr. Thomas F. Campbell

Long out-of-print book written about the Cleveland City Club’s first 50 years.

A wonderful description of the people who helped to create The Citadel of Free Speech.

Courtesy of Mrs. Marguerite Campbell and the City Club

pdf file about 5 mg

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The City Club – A Century of Ideas

From Inside Business Magazine Nov/Dec, 2012 issue

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A Century of Ideas

The City Club of Cleveland, our citadel of free speech, is still thriving after 100 years.
It doesn’t look like anything special at street level, a storefront housing yet another CVS drugstore in yet another American city. But the name on the stone façade of the building at 850 Euclid Ave. — “The City Club of Cleveland” — commands attention and respect.

For the last hundred years, the organization has been “a citadel of free speech,” as Executive Director Jim Foster calls it. Many of the speakers and debaters at its 12:30 p.m. Friday forums are instantly recognizable, names such as George H.W. and George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jesse Jackson, Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, John Glenn and Muhammad Ali. And over the years its members have included everyone from late Plain Dealer rock writer Jane Scott to former President Bill Clinton.

Hewitt Shaw, president of the club’s board of directors, says the club’s long history of attracting distinguished unpaid speakers has created an iconic institution.

“I get a chance to meet with the guests before they go out to speak,” he says. “You can tell they understand the history of the club. I don’t care how important they may be or how much of an expert they may be — it’s an honor that they very much appreciate.” 

The City Club of Cleveland was founded in 1912 as a response to the political and social reforms of the day. “The public’s business was coming out of the smoke-filled rooms, of party bosses and municipal bosses pretty much having their way,” Foster explains. Cleveland mayor Newton D. Baker, who went on to establish the law firm Baker & Hostetler, and like-minded individuals such as Alfred Benesch, a founding partner in the law firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff and a leading figure in the Democratic Party’s reform wing, came up with the idea of establishing a place where citizens could learn about and openly discuss public policy and social issues. 

According to Foster, they modeled the City Club after an institution in Boston. Of the 165 Clevelanders invited to attend an Oct. 30 organizational meeting, 111 showed up; 104 agreed to buy $10 shares in the newly incorporated entity.

Foster notes that the word “club,” with its inference of exclusivity, was a misnomer from the start. Although women could not join the organization until 1972, it immediately extended membership to men of all races, ethnicities and religions — a radically progressive act in the early 1900s.

“In the very founding documents is the restriction that the City Club not take positions on issues with the exception of free speech,” Foster adds. “We were founded as a place where people could come and talk about their ideas, whatever they were.”

The new organization hosted its first forum on Dec. 21, 1912. The program consisted of a speech by Toledo mayor Brand Whitlock on municipal ownership of utilities, followed by a question-and-answer session — an hour-long format that endures to this day. The group convened its weekly meetings at various halls until it took up residence on the third floor of Weber’s Restaurant, a popular Superior Avenue eatery, in May 1913.

During the next two decades, the City Club made a national name for itself by booking an impressively diverse roster of speakers, including Theodore Roosevelt, women’s-rights activist Margaret Sanger, powerful United Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, cowboy humorist Will Rogers and Boston retailer Edward Filene. Foreign presenters included Syngman Rhee, first president of the Republic of Korea’s provisional government, and immigrant journalist Ilya Tolstoy, son of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

By 1929, the organization merited a move into its own clubhouse, a building at 712 Vincent Ave. While many institutions closed their doors during the Depression, the City Club 
remained open.

“There was a time when a couple of staff people didn’t get paid,” Foster says. “We were able to cobble together enough support to survive.”

Retired attorney Stanley Adelstein recalls that the City Club was scheduling its forums — preceded by a half-hour lunch, just as they are today — on Saturdays when he first joined in 1941. “People worked a half a day on Saturdays,” he explains. The meetings moved to Fridays in the 1950s. He remembers seeing a picture of picketers protesting an April 1967 appearance by segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace on the front of a New York City newspaper during a trip to Europe, and of attending a May 1974 senatorial primary debate between incumbent Democrat Howard Metzenbaum and former astronaut John Glenn.

“Howard Metzenbaum accused John Glenn of never having held a real job,” Adelstein remembers. “It cost Howard Metzenbaum the election.”

Perhaps the most dramatic event in the City Club’s history, however, was an address delivered by Robert F. Kennedy on April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like many events throughout the organization’s history, it required renting a larger space — in this case, the ballroom of what is now the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel — to accommodate the audience. The former U.S. attorney general and senator, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke about “the mindless menace of violence” instead of politics. It was the only time a City Club guest didn’t take questions from the audience. Foster says Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, told him it was her father’s most notable speech.

“It was profound and prophetic,” Foster says. “Two months later, he was assassinated.”

In 1971 the organization left its clubhouse — one of the buildings torn down to make way for National City Center (now known as the PNC Bank building) — for offices and dining/meeting space in the Women’s Federal Savings & Loan building on Superior Ave., near Public Square. The club moved to its current home in the former Citizens Federal Savings & Loan building at East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue in 1982. The building’s Columbus-based owner put the City Club’s name on the structure after the organization re-signed a lease in 1998.

The City Club has changed with the times to retain its approximately 1,000 members and attract new ones. Fifteen years ago, Foster began offering the occasional forum on a different day and time to better accommodate speakers’ and members’ schedules. He hopes “City Club in the City,” a six-year-old program that stages forums out in the community three times a year, and New Leaders, a young-professionals group that meets in the evening every couple of months, will continue to help build a more diversified audience.

“People might say, ‘The City Club is a bunch of older white businesspeople in suits,’” Foster says. “We have a lot of those. But we want younger people, women, people of color.”

The organization also continues to use ever-evolving technologies to distribute its programming. Forums are carried live on WCPN-FM and rebroadcast on approximately a hundred other radio stations in Northeast Ohio and around the country. WVIZ-TV televises the most recent program the following Sunday morning. The organization even has its own YouTube channel and poses questions to speakers sent in via Twitter.

Foster and Shaw acknowledge that the very digital and social media they’ve embraced present a challenge to luring people out of their offices and homes for a weekly luncheon meeting. Yet the City Club continues to book facilities much larger than its 280-seat dining room for anticipated major draws such as political debates and state-of-the-city and state-of-the-county addresses. Foster says that the Oct. 15 debate between incumbent U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel sold out the Renaissance Cleveland ballroom in 12 days. Shaw believes the opportunity to pose spontaneous, unscripted questions to local, national and world leaders — one of the reasons he became a member seven years ago — remains a part of the forums’ appeal. 

“We believe there’s still a place for civil, public, face-to-face discourse,” he says. “That’s what we provide.”


Teaching Cleveland Digital