Towering Questions

The Ameritrust Tower is a building only a mother could love.

Designed by renowned mid-20th century Modernist architect Marcel Breuer, the 29-story tower — with its black granite façade and rows of deep-set windows — is his only high-rise office building.

On the skyline, the Breuer tower looks dark, imposing and heavy. The recessed windows almost disappear into the honeycomb of rough concrete. The angular cutout on the southern-facing cornice provides the only direct light.

Up close at East Ninth and Euclid, the view doesn’t get much better. The building has been vacant for 17 years, with sooty, black soap-scum-like rings marking the concrete “bathtub” windows.
Next to the Cleveland Trust rotunda, a 1908 Beaux Arts beauty, Breuer’s tower hardly holds a candle. Its hefty scale and plaid golf-pants lines present an unlikely frame for the rotunda’s classical details.

The tower has other problems too. Most people agree that its floor plan, ceiling height and other mechanical fixtures are outdated. The single-pane windows are energy wasters.

It’s easy to call the building ugly, unfit.
And Cuyahoga County commissioners did almost exactly that when they purchased the tower and a few adjacent buildings in 2005 for $21.7 million. They saw it as the perfect location, at the nexus of two major downtown thoroughfares, for the county’s consolidated administration building. But the Breuer tower wasn’t in the plans. When commissioners sought architectural proposals, they encouraged new designs rather than adaptive reuse possibilities. And in late July, the city OK’d demolition.

It seemed no one really cared much about the Breuer building.

In fact, most Clevelanders don’t know Breuer’s work at all. If they do, it’s for his 1971 addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which creates the north entrance and is being incorporated into Rafael Viñoly’s current museum expansion and renovation. Yet, Breuer also designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., and several federal office buildings in Washington, D.C.

Now that the wrecking ball is warming up, architects, preservationists, environmentalists and grassroots government watchdogs have discovered affection for Breuer’s tower.

An architect on the design committee for the American Institute of Architects told the New York Times that demolishing Breuer’s work would be “like saying it would be OK to lose some of the paintings that Picasso did that weren’t his best work.”

Environmentalists argue that tearing it down would waste all the “embedded” energy (the energy used in its original construction) and that all the building materials would end up in a landfill.

Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, calls the plan to demolish the Ameritrust Tower and erect a new administration building “a monument to decades of Democrat-led government waste and abuse.” (Read more about Frost in Erick Trickey’s feature “Pork Roast” ). Frost claims the county could save $20 million or more if it renovated the tower, rather than demolish it and build new.

Then there’s Breuer’s own argument for his work in the book “Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow, The Philosophy of an Architect”: “What is the principal difference between what we call ‘modern space’ and the attitudes of past architecture? I think it is one all-important change in our lives: we have learned to move faster — faster than anyone ever moved before. We no longer see little details, disconnected or detached from the overall picture. We see continuities ... .”

Maybe the county’s moving too fast now, speeding toward a decision we’ll regret. It’s easy to dispose of things because they have fallen out of style, because they need work, because we can. What more could be done with the Breuer tower with some effort and time? Thirty creative ideas have already been submitted from around the world. The dialogue has begun.

Could these details lead us to a renovation that’s spectacular, something worthy of such an important gateway into our city, something that would better connect Breuer’s modernism with our modern aesthetic and needs?

Maybe Breuer’s right. Maybe there is something to love here after all.
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