Cleveland's Towering Image

Famed Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s haunting shot of the Terminal Tower launched her legendary career — and captured the city at the greatest moment in its history.

Photography by Magaret Bourke-White

I passed her once in the old Plain Dealer building. The encounter happened so quickly I did not recognize her until she was gone. It is odd how that fleeting moment still haunts me.

Her hair was gray and her face was tired, although I remember she smiled as she passed. Later I learned it was Margaret Bourke-White, the famed photographer. I remember her face reflected the Parkinson’s disease from which she suffered.

What made me recall that moment after all these years was a note in a photo magazine that this month marks the 70th anniversary of the first issue of Life magazine.

Life was the high point of still photography, its staff legendary icons of the photo essay, the celebrated visual form that television would replace.

Margaret Bourke-White photographed the first Life cover and ascended into celestial prominence in her field. It was her work in Cleveland that propelled her to fame.

One of the most compelling photographs ever taken of Cleveland is her picture of the Terminal Tower under construction in 1928. It is an ephemeral portrait of what would become the city’s symbol, taken at the apogee of the town’s industrial reach. The picture is mystical, with the tower ensconced in a soft haze, pointing up and into clouds that embrace it in a diaphanous billow.

Bourke-White came here in 1927, a 23-year-old woman intent on making a name for herself, tireless in her pursuit. She found Cleveland at the precise moment when it was converting into a major, modern industrial city brimming with activity, its future aglow in the steel furnaces that belched up from the Flats.

Cleveland was on the verge of becoming America’s fifth largest city, having grown by 103,000 persons in the ’20s. The chamber of commerce boasted that Cleveland had some 2,250 industrial plants.

In 1927, Cleveland was an enormously wealthy place. People owned more radios than telephones and more cars than radios. They danced at supper clubs such as the Mayfair and the Club Madrid and ate at the Golden Pheasant and Bamboo Gardens. New Yorkers dodging Prohibition regularly traveled here to drink good-but-illegal Canadian whisky.

Amid this burgeoning city, alive with fire and future, Bourke-White made her way, first working for architects who were designing the splendid houses in suburbs such as Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights.

Bourke-White’s father, an engineer, had taught her to appreciate the texture, curve and rhythm of machinery. She loved to roam the Flats, fascinated by its industrial frenzy, shooting pictures of bridges, locomotives, construction, coal and iron ore heaps. She captured Cleveland’s modern look, which embraced art deco and metal.

Her photos began to appear in various publications around town. Businessmen noticed her work, her exuberance, her dedication and her beauty. Her pictures of the Terminal Tower launched her to a new level of achievement. She was hired by the Van Sweringens, the two retiring millionaires who built not only the tower, but also Shaker Heights.

When it was constructed, the Terminal Tower was the tallest building in the U.S. outside of New York City. The basement of the tower held a train terminal, and the newly constructed complex of buildings surrounding it made the area the second most important commercial district in the world. Bourke-White wanted to move her studio to what is now the tower’s closed observation deck, but had to settle for space on the 12th floor. Today the offices of Forest City Enterprises, owners of the tower, occupy that floor.

An advertising executive suggested she photograph the steel-making process for one of his clients, Otis Steel. It was a challenge unlike any that Bourke-White had undertaken.

Photography then was not what it is today. The cameras were big, boxy things, the film incredibly slow. The lighting requirements were severe. You needed to be patient and strong to work in the medium. It was not considered work that women could master.

Steelmaking was a hot, hard job, with danger as much an ingredient as the iron ore itself. No women ventured near the furnaces and giant ladles pouring molten steel that lit up the night skies above Cleveland.

Still, Bourke-White took the job, and after two months, she produced a pioneering achievement in photography. At first, hundreds of exposures and one after another of her innovative techniques failed. The heat was so great, the varnish on her wooden cameras curled.

Finally, by using flares and a highly sensitive developing process, she made 10 pictures that stunned the advertising executive as well as the steel company owner. It was not only a photographic breakthrough for Bourke-White, but also a breakthrough for women.

In 1930, Henry Luce, who published Time in Cleveland in the mid-1920s, started the business magazine Fortune. Impressed with Bourke-White’s steelmaking pictures, he hired her as a staff photographer. She moved her studio from the Terminal Tower to the Chrysler Building in New York.

She went on to an incredible career at Life, shooting classic photo essays in myriad adventures that took her around the world many times. She was the first woman correspondent in World War II. She died in 1971.

The picture of the Terminal Tower, caught at the peak of Cleveland’s greatness, is a ghostly reminder of our once romantic past. No obvious honor in Margaret Bourke-White’s memory exists, yet in a way, the tower is a monument to her greatness as well.

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