The Politics of Restoration
History becomes important to a politician at a certain point, basically at the time in his life when a kind of civic immortality needs to be assured. But for Ralph Perk, monuments are things that he spent years campaigning against, along with money, the rich and most things that are Anglo-Saxon. That is why Ralph Perk faces the problem of mixing immortality and politics in his ambitious project to restore his offices at City Hall to their former elegance. The mayor has been looking for his bit of Camelot and he intends to preserve it for the ages, despite what the Democrats may say. In fact, the mayor appears absolutely fearless. Spending thousands — whether public or private money — during an election year to redecorate his executive suite is about as bold as one can be. His thinking goes this way: After all, Ralph Perk is a man of the people and those people have a right to have their City Hall restored. Furthermore, what was good for the people under Ralph Locher and Carl Stokes is no longer acceptable for the people under Ralph Perk. Therefore, nice offices for Ralph Perk mean a better city and a happier constituency.
The mayor is personally managing the restoration of his City Hall chambers to their original magnificence, and doing quite a job, despite the politicking and backbiting that surround such an undertaking. Some of Perk's cabinet members and ranking assistants were themselves unnerved by the disruption of their daily routine and the sometimes high-handed manner in which the restoration has been carried out. But there is little outcry, for Perk is curator of all he surveys.
It all began last summer when Perk formed the Commission for the Preservation of City Hall with his furnishings adviser, introduced to him by an old friend, Wilson Hirschfeld, the former managing editor of The Plain Dealer. The commission set out to attract big names that would bring in big money for this work which, theoretically at least, is to be done through private contributions. Even Mrs. Thomas V. H. Vail, wife of the publisher and editor of The Plain Dealer, had agreed to serve. (She gracefully withdrew in mid-October as the Logics scandal broke in the dailies, linking Perk to a private computer firm.)
Perk has been working as diligently at this expensive restoration as he has on developing his fall political offensive, causing some lesser politicians to observe that if, perchance, he should decide not to run again (very small perchance, indeed), Jim Carney and Tony Garofoli could not say Ralph Perk Jr.'s father had nothing to show for his two years at The Hall. Between lunches, dinners, polka parties, ground-breakings and all those high-level conferences the mayor attends, he has been selecting velvet draperies, discussing the merits of parquet floors, looking for Oriental rugs, searching for hard-to-get wallpaper, and devoting the full power and influence of his office to find a proper commode for the executive washroom. "We're giving him instant class," declared a member of his own preservation commission. With his new-found "instant class," Perk and Richard G. Eberling, an interior decorator and chairman of the commission, this spring were transforming the mayoral suite from a depressed condition, the result of 30 years of bureaucratic neglect, into a monument Carl Stokes would never recognize.
In the next few months, where once there were gritty file cabinets and office machines, will emerge a drawing room and, hopefully, a kitchen for diplomatic dinners; where Perk's "Knights of Columbus Man of the Year Award" once hung, there should be oils of the Cleveland founding fathers, including John D. Rockefeller. The Growth Association earlier this year removed these dour paintings from its Union Commerce Building walls in a fit of image-changing, and shipped them to the basement of the Western Reserve Historical Society where Eberling, to his credit, found them collecting dust. Eberling appealed to the Growth Association President, James Davis, for the paintings and Perk applied some complementary pressure. The Growth Association last month was still debating the request. Some officials are not sure they want Samuel Mather looking at Perk.
We're getting the goddamned place in shape," a member of the preservation committee said, "and getting the nigger out. That's the whole thing in a nutshell."
That kind of comment, in regard to removing the last vestiges of the Stokes administration, shows the political understanding that some of the commission members possess. A few more expressions of such racial attitude and the preservation committee may be hunting a new landmark on which to ply its creative touch, while the mayor spends his Sunday mornings making some fast explanations to congregations in those black East Side churches that he prides himself on visiting.
Along with the return of "quiet dignity," as Eberling describes the future executive quarters, will be a bulletproof window in Perk's private office facing Lakeside Avenue. "You never know," said an aide more concerned with budgetary problems than how to polish Georgian silver, "when someone is going to try to get him [Perk] from the roof of the Public Auditorium."
While the plastic surgery at City Hall seems rushed but thorough, the actual planning and implementation has been going on since last August — with a lot of pain for all concerned, including Eberling who masterminded the project and marketed it to Perk.
Some of Eberling's decisions and the impertinent way in which they were often carried out might be questioned, but the Cleveland Press, in its tradition of breathless but insignificant exposes, learned that Eberling was not a member of any interior decorators' associations. He owns a window cleaning company, the Press "revealed" on page one. Leave it to the Press to discover and publish that newsmaker Eberling had a police record 14 years ago in Rocky River for petit larceny and, at the time, had been implicated but not charged in connection with several suburban burglaries. Eberling's extravagance — the project is expected to run more than $100,000 — will certainly draw councilmanic criticism, but his past has nothing to do with his artistic capability which, even his city hall antagonists admit, is very good. The Press felt no responsibility to point this out.
Before the Press broke its "exclusive," and that's what its city hall reporters were gleefully calling the story, Eberling was uptight about other reporters' inquiries. He believed newsmen were investigating the project to embarrass the mayor, so he scheduled a press conference to personally explain the restoration and publicly minimize Perk's participation. The Press ran its scoop and the conference never took place. The mayor and the preservation commission, at least for the moment, pledged support to the embattled interior decorator. But Perk was disturbed (more political fodder for the opposition), and the future of the Grand Design was left up in the air.
Despite his reservations about reporters, Eberling had occasionally discussed his project with them. He candidly told city hall associates, project contractors and suppliers, and friends exactly what he was doing. He thought Perk's political problems would not affect the work.
"First thing we are trying to do is keep it out of the political arena and it keeps getting bounced around in the political arena. . . . Well, I heard people say Perk was trying to feather his own nest because he lives in a poor man's house and he is a poor man's mayor," said Eberling, who also owns Dick's Window Cleaning Co. Eberling hit it on the nose. Convince the people the offices are theirs, not Perk's; don't use public money if private funds can be raised, and leave the Democratic jackals nothing to chew on.
Eberling would not say who the patrons would be. "1 can't tell you. Some of the people have asked that their names not be brought out, they want to be private donors."
"Is any of this going to be done with public money?" Eberling was asked.
"We sincerely hope not. Sincerely hope not," he replied, not mentioning that there were only a few dollars in the private kitty — not too much more than the $1,000 Perk shelled out from his Federal income tax refund to make the project appear legitimate.
By early April, however, bills for this renaissance, totalling more than $23,000, had come in to the Bureau of Accounts at City Hall. Ralph Muntz, the commissioner of accounts, said that no account had been designated for receiving and disbursing funds for the restoration project, and he wasn't sure whether purchases, work and services for the suite were to be competitively bid and advertised as the city statute dictates. Much of the work and many purchases were not bid upon, records show. Muntz added that the suppliers' and contractors' invoices were being processed through the regular tax-supported capital improvement fund used for normal City Hall maintenance.
In addition it is estimated that another $10,000 to $15,000 in city money was expended — about $6,000 for lumber alone—and hundreds of hours worked by city craftsmen in remodeling offices for Perk's secretaries and aides who were displaced by the restoration. That workaday area, jokingly called the "Holiday Inn" because of its modern right-angle veneered wood, glass and vinyl appointments, is adjacent to Perk's suites on the second floor.
Last year, other money was appropriated for installation of air conditioning and false ceilings in the mayor's offices. According to Eberling's restoration plans, much of this will be ripped out as the preservation project proceeds. Also, Perk in the summer ordered the repaneling of his reception foyer to provide additional desk space for secretaries, and the construction of a glass doorway to frustrate newsmen's accessibility to him and his assistants. Many of these costs were hidden because the work was done by city laborers, and will be ripped out by them this spring. Among the bills from private contractors during the recent restoration project was one for $4,563 from John Markovich, a Bay Village painting contractor, who assisted in remodeling of the Tapestry Room where ceremonial functions are held, the mayor's private office, and the reception room.
A party was held by the restoration commission on December 6 in the Tapestry Room for the designation of City Hall as an official landmark by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission.
Eberling and his commission hand-picked the guest list, the idea being to interest the upper crust in the project and pick their pockets. The restoration commission sent out 500 invitations under Perk's name, but only 250, maybe fewer, showed up. "With your interest, the treasures and landmarks of Cleveland will help illumine our future," a Perk press aide had written.
The Growth Association, which keeps a "top secret" guest list for its own private parties and fund-raising teas, provided only lukewarm support, and the people who did show up at City Hall were, in the words of a Growth Association member, "a bunch of nobodies." (James Davis, the Growth Association president, stopped in, but only to look for a friend he couldn't reach that day by telephone.)
"The party was poorly timed," said Eberling. "It was the worst time of the year, worst time of the week [Wednesday], worst time of the day [5 to 7 p.m.]. We brought in the landmarks commission to take it out of this political bit. . . . It was a good turnout, but 1 felt it could have been better."
William A. Silverman Co., public relations consultants, was listed on the evening's program as having donated "public relations counseling."
Silverman said he was asked to join the commission in March to help raise funds for the restoration, but had not been a member last year nor had he done any planning for the party or the commission in 1972. In March, Silverman, who had voluntarily counseled Perk from time to time, and is now a member of the commission, was awarded an $85,000 contract from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
The one-year contract was tunneled through Richard Boylan, the Perk-appointed head of the Cleveland LEAA Impact Cities Program, with the approval of the mayor and his cabinet.
Silverman said the contract is to fight crime by helping ghetto women find "better ways to protect themselves."
The dedication program also noted that one of the Oriental rugs at the party would be "given at cost" to the city by John Davidian, owner of V & J Orientals and Carpeting, 1260 Huron Road. Davidian was listed as one of the original members of the preservation commission. But as late as last month, one of Davidian's bills was being pigeonholed in the finance department, along with other bills and purchase orders for other companies involved in the restoration project.
Among the purchase orders on file in the Bureau of Accounts are: $1,426 for five Johnson chairs; $3,470 for executive desks, armchairs, vinyl mats, a credenza and one high-backed chair; and $923 for wallpaper from Albert Van Luit & Co. of Los Angeles.
But for the last six months, the overriding restoration issue has been the search for a toilet for Perk's private washroom. In March, after all Cleveland suppliers were unable to produce the toilet, one was found. In Canton.
Perk, the city's biggest "buy local" booster, couldn't find a commode in his hometown.
Eberling admits the search was harrowing but insists the toilet was needed, despite the necessity to look beyond the city limits.
"Well," said Eberling, "that is something needed, having followed the mayor's routine like I have had the occasion to. . . . I've been there in City Hall at 1 a.m. with the mayor, when he's been there from 8 a.m. He should have better facilities, so we've upgraded his lavatory so he has better facilities. . . . The old fixtures were ancient and broken down. The search took so long because of the severe building shortage in Cleveland. . . . And the funny part of the whole thing was we just wanted a toilet, just a simple toilet. . . . You can't get the old ones, you know. It's just impossible; and to try to get an old one and rework it with modern plumbing is a problem. . . ."
As the toilet search went on. Perk brought in an adviser from the East Ohio Gas Co. to review plans for the kitchen. Eberling says the kitchen is "a proper facility for an executive office."
"One of the problems with this executive office," he continued, "is that they do not entertain properly. The city should pick up his [Perk's] image, and this, we feel, is the way to do it. The kitchen, if we can raise the funds for it, will be, but up until now, there's nothing. ... It would be great. It's one of the greatest things that could happen for this particular area, regardless of whether Perk is there or not. . . ."
Eberling says Perk doesn't eat properly, but he should. "I've gone in when he's having lunch and it's a bowl of bouillon with two little cookies that come out of these little packets, and I end up with a bowl of bouillon and we sit there . . . and he should have, the mayor should have, a proper lunch. He should be able to entertain dignitaries and businessmen for, say, sweet-roll and coffee in the morning. He should be able to have a luncheon. There should be dinner parties for important business functions. This is what we can see in that executive suite."
So, what started out last summer without fanfare as a project to restore some of the mayor's city hall facilities has become a city hall cause celebre, involving not only Eberling, but some of the refined names in the city.
"You could say it all started when Mayor Ralph J. Perk first entered City Hall as a young councilman and was thrilled and awed by it," noted the program passed out at the landmarks ceremonies.
Eberling and his roommate, Buford Henderson, the efficient office manager of The Plain Dealer city room, had become excited about the merits of restoring the mayor's offices to their classical integrity after discussing the project with Hirschfeld.
Eberling insists that he became interested in the restoration after reading a newspaper account last August where a professor from the Cleveland Institute of Art wanted to "remodel" rather than "preserve" Perk's offices. The professor found the rooms "gloomy."
Perk had been home from an Eastern European tour for only a few months. He had visited and dined with cardinals, bishops and, of course, mayors, visiting as many city halls as possible. He made a one-day side trip to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in Czechoslovakia, not wanting to alienate the Cleveland Slovaks, the bulwark of his constituency, and was greeted magnanimously at the City Hall. That city hall, despite the poverty of the town, was perfectly preserved, and utilized for myriad civic functions, including baptismal ceremonies. In Prague and other capitals he found the same thing. Perk was impressed. Why not Cleveland? But then Bratislava did not have the Growth Association and a Democratic City Council to worry about.
So Eberling became chairman of the commission and Henderson a consulting member. Hirschfeld also wanted Henderson, a whiz at office management and procedure, to take an indefinite leave of absence from The Plain Dealer to reorganize Perk's office structure. However, Hirschfeld was attending an out-of-town conference when the Logics scandal hit the front pages, and Henderson was told by the editors to curtail his plans. Henderson denies he was told to resign, but Eberling contradicts him. Henderson: "Well, I just figured my affiliation with The Plain Dealer might make me required to ask for publicity or something, and I couldn't do it, so I left."
"He was asked by his superiors at work to leave," said Eberling. "I don't know what makes those people tick. Henderson wanted to serve on the commission. At the time, he even thought of leaving The Plain Dealer ... I honestly believe that one of biggest problems in the city is that everybody is afraid to do something; that they're going to be criticized or be affiliated with somebody. This did hurt Henderson quite a bit. He was very sincere in his work and he did a great deal of work, and, in fact, could have been tremendous there. It hurt him internally. It really got to him because he couldn't understand why he should be requested to drop out."
More disappointing was the refusal of Mrs. Vail to serve. "I have a feeling we are not socially high enough for Mrs. Vail," said Eberling.
"If they could have had her," says a Growth Association executive, "they could have had anyone they wanted on the committee. The name game is important in this town."
"She just accepted and cancelled out," Eberling continued. "That was in the fall. She contacted the office of one of the aides of the mayor and asked to have her name taken off. All I know is that I had four phone calls from City Hall and Mrs. Vail had asked to be taken off. ... I think, more than likely with the Vails they didn't want to be criticized for being connected."
Eberling has contributed thousands of hours of free time—"six hours a day," he says—to the project, and is seeing some of his goals materialize. The mayor's office could rival any late 18th-century French salon.
"But what Eberling and his commission don't understand is what makes big-city city halls operate in the 1970s," says a Perk assistant. "Politics."
Ah, there's the velour rub.
In other words, the grubby street politicking it takes to survive more than a 90-day Civil Service probation in city hall has escaped these artistic campfollowers who are more accustomed to working with antique dealers than double dealers. Eberling & Co. have had problems with the petty bureaucrats and secretaries, the $9,000-a-year paper-shuffling princes and princesses, who don't like their domains threatened. Even the city architect with the plausible Perk administration name —Zorian Horodysky—quit in January. Horodysky had designed the original remodeling plans in the mayor's office last summer.
In recent months, finance department executives have also been second-guessing the direction of the project. Purchase orders submitted by Eberling have been questioned or held up, including one to Halle's for $1,200 in costly furnishings for a women's powder room. A finance department assistant groaned:
"This guy must have carte blanche from Perk. He must have his confidence because he acts like he owns the place. But we've got rules." Eberling, with Perk's approval, had personally been making every detailed purchase.
While Eberling has had the endorsement of Perk—others at City Hall are less than enthusiastic. Some have cried about the project, but they really haven't hampered it. Michael Zone, the glib City Council finance chairman, questioned the restoration at council. J. William Petro, the mayor's street-wise executive secretary and political hatchet-man, has quarreled with Eberling. Eberling had Petro removed from his office, which has been converted into a spacious reception room where Perk's stenographers and security men now sit.
(Petro abruptly resigned last month to practice law. It was commonly known that Perk cherished Petro's political moxie but was chilled by his tough style.)
"Petro did not fit in with the new motif," said a commission member. "He should lose some weight so he goes better with the decor."
"I've got more things to worry about with Perk than some guy putting up trimmings around here," snapped Petro, shunted off to the antiseptic "Holiday Inn" area.
"The space [Petro's old office] is too large for one man," says Eberling. "I don't worry about one man. I am dealing strictly with the title of the mayor, the image of the mayor, and a proper image, and I could care less about another man who's climbing for power, who wants to be the big. . . ." Eberling says the reception room will also have V.I.P. and "peon" waiting areas, separated by a wooden railing. One commission member called it a "peasants' railing."
Gerald T. McFaul, the brusque ex-pipefitter, now city council majority leader, often foils with Petro in downtown barrooms over the merits of the Perk administration. While they haven't thrown any lists yet (McFaul once floored W. Kiely Cronin, ports director for Stokes, at a St. Patrick's Day party), their verbal confrontations sound somehing like a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier running dialogue. A fight between Petro, a bit heavier now at 250 pounds than when he was the roving linebacker for the University of Maryland (he describes himself as the nation's first "monster" back) and the brawny McFaul would be a sellout. Some mutual friends have suggested that Jim Carney, McFaul's guiding light, and Perk, Petro's "godfather," act as seconds.
McFaul, who views himself as the only real white adversary of Perk, grumbles at a mention of the preservation project. "Perk is making Carl Stokes look like an altar boy. Carl spends all this money to fix up the offices, and Perk tears them down. But what about the taxpayers?"
Referring to Petro's ouster from the big office, McFaul laughs. "It's too bad. Wasn't it big enough for him? He used to sit there like Porky Pig ... or maybe just looking like Khrushchev in the Kremlin."
"We'll probably have to salute the flag to get in to see the mayor now," McFaul says, referring to the city flag that will be draped at the entrance to the mayor's chambers.
Zone stood up at a council meeting in March and demanded to know who was paying for this restoration. In the same breath, he accused Perk of attempting to spend general purpose private donations made to the city for the preservation party at City Hall. The funds to which he referred were among $10,000 contributed by a realtor and some money donated by Perk himself. Zone said the administration never consulted the council finance committee, as required, before appropriating this money. "He's not an angel," said Mike Zone. Herbert Whiting answered Zone by saying that the city had sent him a letter outlining its intentions for the private donations.
Although Eberling is not sophisticated about the nastiness of city hall politics, he has done a remarkably good public relations job, so good, in fact, that he has been able to drop little items about the restoration's progress in the newspapers' gossip columns.
Eberling is sensitive to criticism of the restoration, and in the planning and actual work he has "tried to keep it out of politics," emphasizing that it is "not for Perk but for the people." "I feel the movement in this country and in the world is toward preservation of the buildings and monuments. City Hall belongs to the people. The mayor is merely a guest there. I get static when I say the mayor may be in until only November. If he winds up there, fine, if he doesn't, that's it. The building goes on to the next mayor, but it remains something representative of Greater Cleveland.
"The mayor's the mayor, and you could put him in the Taj Mahal and he would he no different. The only thing is, this will rub off on Clevelanders. . . . But the mayor is the first mayor in something like 30 years to have a desire to do anything with this building."
Eberling has other plans. He is cooperating with the Cleveland Area Arts Council on a contest for the design of a new city seal and flag (presumably the flag McFaul says he will have to salute), and hopes to restore other sections of the city hall. The building is scheduled for an outside spring cleaning and plans are being developed to floodlight it at night, and to light the dome and skylight.
Even a retired City Hall architect who helped refurbish the mayor's offices in the 1920s is being asked to assist in the restoration.
"It's our sincere hope that legislation will be passed so incoming mayors will not be able to destroy these things," said Eberling, who isn't sure he wants a full-time job as the paid city hall curator, although Perk this spring had been considering submitting to city council a proposal that would create the position of restoration advisor. Despite the controversial restoration, Eberling could have collected up to $20,000 for his efforts had the job not been voluntary. Yet, politics are not his "bag," and he finds vexing any suggestion that he remain.
"These things have been bantered about, and when you're around City Hall you hear so much gossip, and they make remarks and you have to laugh.... I've heard so many remarks and scares, and I have gone home and gotten grogged and taken tranquilizers and gotten up at 3 a.m. and think, for what, but it's all bullshit. Off and on people make remarks . . . but at City Hall, the people are basically great people. There's a few characters, and I have grown up a great deal there," said the 42-year-old personal interior decorator to the city's 51st mayor.
12:00 AM EST
November 29, 2007