Elegant Cleveland: The Lake Shore Hotel is still in its prime
This is the first of a recurring feature that looks back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown in architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones.
The ’20s still roared when a 10-story building, with walls as thick as a castle’s, began to rise on the Lakewood cliffs.This pale edifice that seemed to embrace the lake with its arms, while overlooking the nascent Cleveland skyline to the east, was aptly named the Lake Shore Hotel.
A Jazz Age palace of 1928, it promised to slake the thirst for indulgence of those who could afford to stay there.
Besides the sweeping lake vista, the man-made luxury would include 24-inch-thick walls that ensured quiet, privacy and strength in the face of the lake’s storms; a pier and beach, a courtyard with a pond; and underground parking in an era before most owned an automobile.”Vapor heat” would warm the guests, and “iceless refrigeration” would cool them; electric, cherry wood-lined elevators would carry them upward to their suites. An underground passageway would lead them to the beach.
And, as at any great hotel, there’d be the requisite ballroom and restaurants and a premier staff, many of them trained in Europe.
The next decade or two would bring such guests as actor Dick Powell, Aquacade star Eleanor Holm, impresario Billy Rose, and, some like to say, Al Capone.
Wallstone “Stoney” Merriweather was 16 when he worked as a busboy here, called in for the big parties. Today, at 74, he’s a maintenance man at the building, as he has been since the 1960s.
True to his nickname, Merriweather is not a big talker. But this courtly man is the history source everyone defers to. So, does he know if Capone ever stayed here?
He chuckles. “Oh, he surely did,” he says. “He surely did.”
Other locals remember seeing photos of Jean Harlow taken here, too, before her death in 1937.
“Mobsters and movie stars,” says Michelle Wilson, who manages what is now the Lake Shore Towers apartments with her husband, Jay, for Showe Management Corp. “Stoney says those were the only people who could afford to stay here in the 1930s.”
Today, the sandstone exterior is darker. Many, but not all, of the building’s residents are low-income; some of the apartments are subsidized. Most residents are 55 and older.
Glamour is a ghost now. A large-screen TV creates the liveliest corner in the ballroom; a table where resident Joan Brown sells candy bars attracts her neighbors to the lobby, where an old crystal chandelier shimmers. The former beauty shop sits empty, but Meals on Wheels volunteers stop by each day.Still, the ambience isn’t sad. How could it be? There’s the soft spray of the fountain in the courtyard, the lush green grass moistened by lake breezes.
And always the views — the million-dollar views.
From prosperity to perseverance
The Gothic building, with seahorses etched into the stone facade at the front, was financed by C.H. Cummins on what had been his 4-acre estate, Oakcrest.
He and Cleveland City Manager W.R. Hopkins told reporters in the winter of 1928 that they hoped that the west lakefront (technically in Lakewood, but just feet from the Cleveland border) would eventually front a territory of “high class and beautiful development, such as Chicago has developed along her North Shore, so-called ‘Gold Coast.'”
Cummins foresaw a lakefront development with lagoons for small craft, bathing beaches and parks. “We have in Cleveland’s west shore a district fully as beautiful as, if not excelling in beauty, Chicago’s North Shore,” Cummins said.
But before the next year was out, the stock market would crash, and the Lake Shore Hotel would be in receivership. The new owner, Capt. O.P. Alford of the Peabody Co. financial house in Chicago, bought it at a sheriff’s sale and continued its operation.
Cummins’ and Hopkins’ vision of the lake shore’s future foundered. Not until 1963 would anything — in this case, the Winton Place high-rise — exceed the height of the Lake Shore Hotel.
But this building, having risen during the last gasp of Cleveland’s most prosperous decade, would persevere and its fortunes adapt to the city’s.
A tango in the ballroom
The 1930s were a lovely time for Lake Shore guests who could afford its elegance. The first floor featured a restaurant called The Seaglade, where dinners, luncheons, wedding breakfasts and musicals were held. Its carpet was a deep orchid with a tropical yellow lily pattern; the ceiling was skylike, painted blue and silver. The Seaglade led to a patio where in summer, hotel guests sipped tea at tables shaded by multicolored beach parasols.The lobby led to the Octagon Room, where a circular fountain splashed (today, the room is painted with a mural and features a Venus-like sculpture). On one side were small dining rooms, for those who wanted privacy, for romantic or business reasons — or to partake of a high-stakes card game.
Beyond it was the Nautilus Room, which offered formal dining. Its enormous windows overlooked the patio and gardens, and offered an unrivaled view of the lake.
There aren’t many people around today who remember the hotel from the 1930s, but Jane Sutphin Leitch, 85, of Moreland Hills, does. Her father, Al Sutphin, was president of the Braden-Sutphin Ink Co., owner of the Cleveland Barons hockey team and builder of the Cleveland Arena.
She, her three sisters, brother and parents would travel in their Packard from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood to visit her great-aunts, Edna and Ethel Sutphin, both proud Daughters of the American Revolution. The Sutphin family would take the aunts to dinner in the Nautilus room, though they just called it the restaurant at the Lake Shore.
“We’d drive up the fancy, circular driveway in front,” says Leitch. “I remember walking into the hotel and seeing all the big windows and the lake.”
Jane Leitch recalls the long, straight, belted dresses her mother wore, and her aunts’ peplumed suits. She’d eat her favorite meal there: chicken, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, and cranberry salad, cut into a square. Dessert was ice cream sundaes with a cookie, and always another special treat: Aunt Ethel reciting James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie.”
“The restaurant was certainly the nicest on the West Side,” says Leitch. “The Lake Shore was just such a beautiful, special space.”
The best views at night were from the nightclub on the 10th floor, where Jean Harlow would have felt right at home. The wallpaper in this posh aerie was brocade; the mantel came from a Southern mansion where it had hung for two centuries; the chairs fashioned in Deco-style aluminum. In the ballroom of the Pent House Club, guests tangoed as Joe Can Dull’s Orchestra played; they could cool off on the veranda.
The nightclub eventually was turned back into a luxury apartment, but high times continued at the Lake Shore from the 1930s on into the ’50s, when a huge swimming pool was built. This became what was famously known as the Lake Shore Swimming Pool and Cabana Club. The private club with tiki bar became the place to be on the lake each summer.
Dixie Lee Davis, director of the Fifth Avenue Club at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beachwood remembers it well. “This was where all the West Side movers and shakers would be,” she says. She started going there in the late 1950s, as a guest of Pat Black, who was then the fashion director of Halle’s, where Davis also worked.
Since many Browns and Indians players lived in Lakewood (close to the old Municipal Stadium), they’d spend their leisure time there, and so would fashionable women — mostly in one-piece bathing suits (a few two-pieces, no bikinis) — and the men who flocked around them.
“It was a good place to be seen, very chic, and just lots of fun,” says Davis. This was not the era of daiquiris or frilly drinks, according to a menu from those days. Whiskey sours were 90 cents.
“That’s what we drank back then, whiskey sours or martinis, Manhattans, gin and tonics,” Davis says. “The food was great, and you had the cabanas if you wanted to get out of the sun.”
It was a sad day for many in 1970, when the pool closed forever, as the land was sold for a more profitable purpose — to make way for another condominium skyscraper. Today, the last inkling of the Swim Club is the closed-off underground passageway that Stoney Merriweather says once led from the basement to the pool. The Waterford now sits where laughter and the clink of ice in whiskey glasses was the sound of summer.
‘The lake is the gift’
The place was still swank enough in 1961 that Mike Douglas moved in when he was given his Cleveland talk show. Later that decade, a Brown Derby took over the restaurant space. Dinner theater productions and dances and cocktail parties continued to be held in the ballroom; the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival held a cocktail party in the courtyard. Local lawyer Jerry Dempsey would hold a grand party for 500 in the ballroom every year.The Brown Derby evolved into the French restaurant Maison Pierre, then the continental Marius, a restaurant that became a favorite of many, including a fair share of mobsters.
By the late 1980s, it had closed and remained vacant for some years. That’s when James Larsen found it. He’d been looking for a larger space for his Lakewood architectural firm, and saw the possibilities even through the grime on the chevron gold-flecked wallpaper. “I could see the room that lived underneath,” he says.
He spent $100,000 renovating the space, restoring it and finding, under years of caked-on cigar smoke, the gorgeous Deco crown molding that encircled the room.
Larsen was so drawn to the building — both its history and quality — that he took an apartment here, where he lived for 10 years. Being in his 40s, he was by far the youngest resident.
He got a great surprise in the mail one day: the son of the building’s original architect, Frank Bail, had learned an architect had moved his offices into the building. So from Florida, he sent him the original architectural drawings, ink on vellum, created in 1927.
While the hotel was said to have 450 rooms once, Larsen, counting the lines on the age-scented paper, says the drawings show there would have been half that number.
Larsen had his 50th birthday party in the ballroom in 1997, inviting everyone to dress as they would for a formal event in 1947, and they did, in tuxedoes and gowns. In 2003, he and his wife, Deb, had their wedding in the courtyard, bringing another elegant event to a place that had seen so many.
Larsen’s offices are still here, on the first floor, with their 15-foot-high windows. He loves the light, and being so aware of the seasons.
“The lake is the gift, whether it’s the waves in summer or frozen in the winter,” he says.
Above him, of course, are all the residents in 180 apartments, some of whom he still knows from when he lived here. The place has drawn its share of interesting people: Carlyn Irwin, the widow of the man who designed the electric “Lake Shore” sign on the roof lived here for many years; so did bank robber “Fast Eddie Watkins,” upon his release from prison in the 1990s.
But there are many kind and gentle people here, who live quiet lives and who appreciate the large apartments, the history, and most of all, the gift of the views from on high.
William Thornton is a retiree who lives on the ninth floor, in a unit with exceptionally large windows.
“The first thing anyone says when they step into my apartment is, ‘Wow,’ ” he says. “Always. ‘Wow!’ ”
Since he lives there, and has walked in so many times, he says something else.
“When I walk in, I say, ‘Thank you, God.’ ”
A lot has changed in the Lake Shore’s 80 years. But not everything.
Lake Shore Hotel timeline
on June 26, 2008 at 6:15 PM, updated August 30, 2010 at 4:39 PM
1928: Construction begins on Lakewood’s Edgewater Drive of a 10-story building that promises to be “the finest residential hotel between New York and Chicago,” to be built for $2.5 million. Frank W. Bail, who also designed Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, on West 117th Street, is the architect.
JUNE 1929: The Lake Shore Hotel opens. It is by far the tallest building outside downtown Cleveland. Hotel manager is Max Von Khuon, the Alsace-Lorraine native who formerly managed the Kirtland Country Club.
OCTOBER 28, 1929: Black Monday: the Depression begins.
JANUARY 1930: The Lake Shore Hotel is placed in the hands of a receiver because of $250,000 in outstanding debts.
APRIL 1934: A former penthouse apartment is turned into the Pent House Club, a swanky nightclub with a star bartender, Johnnie Quigley, who had been a favorite of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker’s at the Park Avenue Club.
1950s to 1960s: The Lake Shore Swimming Pool and Cabana Club, first only open to hotel residents, eventually becomes a private club that allows nonresidents to join. Professional athletes and other fashionable men and women make it “the place to be seen” each summer. In 1959, a poolside whiskey sour was 90 cents.
DEC. 23, 1964: The famed electric “Lake Shore” sign on the roof, a landmark for 34 years, is taken down. Neighboring apartment tenants complained its brightness was a nuisance.
1971: The hotel is converted to apartments.
1993: The building, now known as Lake Shore Towers, becomes a senior citizens apartment complex.
1999: Lake Shore Towers celebrates its 70th anniversary. Lakewood’s mayor Madeline Cain cites it for being the first high rise of Lakewood’s Gold Coast.