Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The two oldest buildings in Downtown Cleveland

A little while ago, I wrote about the Mechanics Block, built circa 1835 and demolished in 1971. At the time of the demolition, it was the oldest building in downtown Cleveland. I wasn't able to learn much about its early history because, for most of its lifespan - probably because, for most of its history, it wasn't seen as that significant - there were plenty of larger, more (commercially) important buildings built soon after. Only with the loss of those buildings does this early structure begin to seem more important.

I encountered the same problem in trying to learn about the early history of the two oldest buildings in downtown Cleveland. While good examples of the style for the time they were built, they weren't considered fancy or otherwise architecturally special. They had escaped academic notice as late as 1964, when Edmund H. Chapman's classic analysis of this city's growth, Cleveland: Village to Metropolis, was published. Only now that they are the last of their type do we try to look further.

Photograph by Jenny Carpenter Valencic

The Hilliard Block, at 1415 West 9th Street, Cleveland, Ohio, was constructed circa 1850. It was built for Richard Hilliard, for his grocery business, Hilliard and Hays. Hilliard, a Cleveland resident since 1824, was involved in both business and politics. He was elected president of the village council twice, in the early 1830s, and in 1836, when Cleveland became a city, he was elected alderman.

The condition of this historic brick late Federal has improved considerably since it appeared in Landmark Architecture of Cleveland by Mary-Peale Schofield, in 1976. At the time, almost all of the windows were boarded up.

Photograph by Jenny Carpenter Valencic

Since that date, the building, seen here from the rear, has been restored. The chimneys, built right into the sides of the structure, and which were missing in 1976, have been reconstructed. The peeling paint (and lovely patina) of the sign, reading "Drug Sundries Co." are now gone, replaced with paint in a color that is probably similar to that of the bricks. While it would be nice to remove the paint from the bricks, there isn't a safe way to do that, short of using a dental pick. Further, it's possible that the bricks are somewhat deteriorated and that the paint affords a measure of waterproofness.

Photograph by Jenny Carpenter Valencic

The Central Exchange, now Frank Morrison & Son, is similar in style. The historic structure, at 1330 Old River Road, was built at about the same time as the Hilliard Block - circa 1850. Schofield's guide is the first pubication to notice the historical importance of this structure as well.

The unusual curved corner of the front of the building, shown here, is likely original.

Photograph by Jenny Carpenter Valencic

The Central Exchange is wedge shaped - the angles of the walls in the photographs are not the result of some wide-angle lens. Schofield noted that part of the riverside dock remained, though it appears obscured in this photograph. The windows on the side of the structure have been widened - they would have originally been of the same proportions as those on the front of the building, like the Hilliard Block. Further, the windows on the rear have been shortened.

It's worth noting that the Central Exchange also appears in better condition than it did in 1976 - the glass block on the front of the structure has been replaced with traditional windows.

The dates for both of these structures are estimates. There's still plenty that could be learned about their history. This research would better illuminate these few remaining elements of this period of our history that are left in downtown Cleveland.


  1. You can see a picture of the Central Exchange building (labeled "J.U. Karr General Ship Supplies" from 1905 at the following link:

    The picture may help determine the original location and size of windows, but the building may have already been modified at time of this picture.

  2. Thank you for pointing that out. The original, even higher resolution image may reveal some slight details about the building that are missing now. It's interesting to see that the windows aren't quite where I had expected they might be. These two images from the same series also show the building, though the one that you've shared is definitely the best. As with all the images in the Detroit Pubishing Co. collection, they are available as 160 mb tiffs for those who desirely blinding-high resolution.

  3. Thank you Christopher. I have an office in the Hilliard Building. According to, it is the oldest building in the warehouse district. It also reports that in addition to his grocery business and his activities in politics, Mr. Hilliard was the great grandfather of Harriet Hilliard Nelson, the 50s/60s TV actress of Ozzie and Harriet.

    Jim Schumacher

    It also reports that Hilliard helped fund the Ohio Canal and founded the short-lived Cleveland University in 1850 and finally that the Hilliard Block is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Cleveland Landmark.