The City Club of Cleveland’s move to Playhouse Square heralds higher visibility for historic Cleveland institution –
by Steven Litt, Cleveland.com – 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 cleveland.com 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,
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.”