by Denise A. Hunyadi and John D. Hays
[ Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 53 of Voyage,
the quarterly journal of the Titanic International Society. ]

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

The familiar words of what is commonly believed to be the U.S. Post Office motto came to mind as we carefully made our way to Oberlin, Ohio. We were driving through a heavy snow squall on a narrow country road that cut through farm land 25 miles southwest of Cleveland, and the irony of those words was clear to both of us. We were on our way to McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory where Robert G. Lodge, president of the firm, was going to show us the work his studio was doing to restore 35 murals painted by noted American artist and Titanic victim Francis Davis Millet. Entitled “Mail Delivery,” the murals had once decorated the Postmaster’s office when installed in the Old Cleveland Federal Building in 1911. We were excited about having this rare opportunity to see Millet’s murals close up, and to learn about their restoration. Like the motto’s couriers, we weren’t going to let a January snowstorm keep us from our Oberlin appointment.

Cleveland's Group Plan of 1903

At the end of the 19th Century, Cleveland was experiencing unprecedented growth and rapidly emerging as a major Midwestern center for commerce and industry. In just over 100 years, Cleveland had grown from a small pioneer settlement in the Western Reserve of Connecticut to become, by 1900, Ohio’s largest city and the seventh largest in the nation. The era’s new-found prosperity and civic pride brought a growing sense of civic responsibility. It was also a time when, upon visiting Europe, many of Cleveland’s prominent citizens were finding inspiration in the monumental architecture, wide avenues, and beautifully landscaped plazas of its great cities. A collective vision took hold among the city’s leaders to create a new “Civic Center” emulating the finer elements of those cities – a dream realized in the Cleveland Group Plan of 1903.

The city’s leaders did not look entirely to Europe for their inspiration. They found much of it in the neoclassical architecture of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Many of America’s most influential architects and artists had been brought together to create the magnificent structures that graced its Grand Court in Jackson Park. Daniel H. Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect instrumental in bringing the exposition to that city, worked tirelessly to oversee the design process, and his appointment of Francis Davis Millet in 1892 to serve as superintendent of decoration was critical to the exposition’s success. Millet’s career as a decorative artist had already spanned nearly two decades dating back to his work with John LaFarge at Boston’s Trinity Church, but his preeminence as both an administrator and muralist was clearly established at the 1893 exposition. He was, by then, widely recognized not only for his artistic talent, but for his organizational skills and attention to detail. In Chicago, Millet was responsible for the selection and coordination of color and decoration throughout the exposition, and he brought together a group of America’s most renowned artists, including Edwin Blashfield, George W. Maynard and Kenyon Cox, to create murals for many of the major buildings. Collectively, these talented artists and architects created along Chicago’s lakefront a magnificent “White City” of monumental architecture based on the principles of the esteemed Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Pauline King would describe the fruits of their efforts in her 1902 book, American Mural Painting:

“Nothing like it was ever seen before or is likely to be seen again. The creation was a fairy tale in fact, which the imagination of a body of architects, with Beaux Arts training behind them, told in iron and plaster for the delight and edification of the world. Before even the foundations were laid, these men by common agreement made their plans in such a relation to one another, and to the environment, that effective grouping should be a certainty. And who that saw the result will ever forget the harmony of the vast yet ethereal edifices that stood about the great lagoon, as though conjured there from a dream of classic beauty?”
The creation of Chicago’s “White City” had a profound effect on American architecture for decades and led directly to the “City Beautiful” movement that swept the nation at the turn of the 20th Century. In Washington, D.C., it inspired the Senate Park Commission plan published in 1902, and cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco created plans for similarly grand public spaces and structures. In Cleveland, a Group Plan Commission was formed with Daniel H. Burnham, chief architect of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, as chairman. The Commission included New York architects John Carrère, planning director for Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition, and Arnold W. Brunner, whose design had been chosen for the new U.S. Post Office, Custom House, and Court House (Federal Building) near the center of downtown Cleveland on Superior Avenue.

In addition to the Federal Building, Cleveland was preparing to build, but had not yet established sites for, a number of new municipal buildings. The Group Plan Commission was charged with creating a monumental “Civic Center,” incorporating each of these structures. In August, 1903, they submitted their design to the city, having arranged the buildings, in best Beaux Arts tradition, around a great plaza. The mall served as the centerpiece of the plan, and stretched from the bluff overlooking Lake Erie to Public Square at the city’s center. The Commission’s report strongly urged that granite be employed for all buildings, and stressed the importance of maintaining the cornice line of the principal buildings, as well as a general uniformity in design. As the location and general design of the Federal Building had already been determined, it would set the tone and scale for all buildings that followed and, together with the Public Library, would anchor the group’s inland terminus.

Over time the city endeavored to complete the plan, building a County Court House (1912), a new City Hall (1916), Public Auditorium (1922), and Public Library (1925). Ten years after the adoption of the Group Plan, The International Studio, a journal of art and architecture, reflected on the “City Beautiful” movement, pointing out that “Cleveland has successfully carried out a splendid ‘Civic Center’ development which is not only of vital interest to the nation from the point of view of its intrinsic excellence, but from the fact that it is not entirely on paper, or buried in masses of municipal reports, but is actually being done.”

Next: Architecture of the Cleveland Federal Building

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