But owning one of Northeast Ohio’s architectural treasures is a love affair worth the trouble. From cracks in the foundation to slate roofs that need repairs to the Achilles’ heel of older homes — windows — it’s often one dollar after another.
The payoff is you’ll live like royalty. “Older architecture allows you to feel like you’re living beyond your means,” says Sara Hobbs, an associate director with the Cleveland Restoration Society, which is located in a rehabilitated 1883 brick Queen Anne on Prospect Avenue. We’re sitting in the society’s conference room surrounded by 5-foot-high wainscoting made from old-growth wood. The floors beneath us are constructed of quarter-sawn oak, with a long, uniform grain. These details elevate the room and provide an intangible boost to anyone in it.
The aura-altering effects of an older home are true whether you live in a 1,500-square-foot bungalow in Lakewood or a sprawling Tudor in Shaker Heights, though it’s the older, high-end homes we’re highlighting here. ￼
And there are a lot of them in Northeast Ohio. At the beginning of the last century, we were the sixth largest city in the nation. “Cleveland was very prosperous during the time that the homes were built,” says Kathleen Crowther, executive director of the Cleveland Restoration Society. “We have an outstanding legacy of architecture, and much of that is on a significant scale.”
While the Prairie School movement of architecture may have been catching on elsewhere, here in Cleveland we looked to the past when building our new homes, embracing the Tudor, English and French Revival styles. Instead of following Frank Lloyd Wright, we had our own inspiration — the Van Sweringen brothers, who as the developers behind Shaker Heights are ostensibly responsible for a good quarter of the homes that make our list. And the Vans, as they were known, liked the look of old.
When ground was broken, it was critical that from the shingles to the floors, materials and artisans recreated the look of the finest homes across the Atlantic.
To be sure, there are people who are duplicating this level of quality and craftsmanship today. They, too, have hand-carved wood everywhere and stone from the Old County. But they have last names like Wolstein and Lerner. And they didn’t spend a million or two on their new Hunting Valley estates. They spent many, many millions.
As any aficionado of older architecture knows, it’s extraordinarily expensive to duplicate touches such as slate roofs and plaster walls — features that were simply standard in many older homes.
You can spend a fortune to make your new home look old. Or you can simply search the likes of Shaker Heights, Lakewood or Gates Mills for the real deal. “I guess people see it as trying to gain these details in an economical way,” says Hobbs.
While readers got to see the inside of plenty of new palaces with batting cages, climbing walls and indoor gyms, they missed out on many of the architectural masterpieces that line roads like South Park Boulevard in Shaker Heights and Lake Rd. in Lakewood.
So this time we changed the rules, including only homes built in 1940 or before. There is not a single home on these pages from Westlake, Solon or Aurora. The result is a list of 200 that lags behind in appraised value (the No. 1 home comes in at about $2.8 million, as opposed to $8.5 million when we last included new homes) but contains decades worth of stories.
Dan Ruminski, a businessman whose passion is the Row, gives lectures throughout Northeast Ohio about the heyday and demise of what was once called the grandest street in the United States. Of the 500 such mansions that he estimates once lined Euclid Avenue, only a handful are left today.
The evacuation of Euclid Avenue began as Cleveland grew more commercial. As industry and businesses crept closer to the mansions, so did the soot and dirt. Once the automobile was invented, moving to the country while maintaining business interests in the city became viable.
“These people were early adapters,” says Ed Pershey, director of special projects for the Western Reserve Historical Society. “They could afford these big, expensive machines. There were lots of automobiles on Euclid Avenue.”
The exodus of Euclid Avenue began around the turn of the century and continued until the Great Depression. “The captains of industry, the owners of companies lived on Euclid Avenue and migrated east,” says Crowther.
But with the death of the Row, some of Northeast Ohio’s most exclusive neighborhoods took root. “The biggie,” says Ruminski, “was Hunting Valley.” Almost simultaneously, about 15 families left Euclid Avenue for the undeveloped land around the Chagrin River. Other families migrated toWickliffe, Bratenahl, Waite Hill and Shaker Heights.
So while Millionaires’ Row is all but gone, the neighborhoods to which its wealthy residents moved dominate much of our list and are still as exclusive as ever.
A notable exception is the Beachcliff neighborhood in Rocky River, that lakefront stretch of land where 23 homes make our list. Most of the homes there were built in the 1930s, the work of developer Daniel Eells, who made a very smart hire. “The seminal event occurred when Eells hired a British landscaper,” says Rocky River Historical Society president Phil Ardussi. That landscaper was responsible for the meandering streets, the famous clock tower and the popularity of the English Tudor look in the neighborhood.
House No. 4, owned by Sylvia Korey, is one of the most historic estates in Northeast Ohio. Built in 1924 by the Van Sweringen brothers, the sprawling Daisy Hill mansion is believed to have originally contained 54 rooms but was reduced by a subsequent owner to make it more manageable.
Still, it’s huge. From third-floor turret rooms where the homeowner’s children liked to hide to a sunroom and terrace overlooking a tennis court to an indoor pool, this home lacks nothing. It is currently for sale for $6.4 million. (For a look inside the Van Sweringen brothers’ other home, see page 69.)
Other notable homeowners include Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, whose 1920 Hunting Valley estate ranks No. 15; car-dealership superstar John Lance, who lives in house No. 27 on Avalon Drive in Rocky River; and Eaton Corp. CEO Alexander “Sandy” Cutler, who lives in house No. 83 on Berkshire Road in Gates Mills.
In fact, if you want to do what’s called a “historic rehabilitation,” you can’t really add anything, says Heather Rudge, the historic preservation manager for Sandvick Architects and a member of the Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board. You have to work within the existing footprint.
If you must have more space, your project is then classified as a “renovation.” Still, there’s a huge range of workmanship, and anyone who loves old homes should strive for a “sympathetic and compatible” addition, Rudge says.
Easier said than paid for. When you walk into an old home, it feels solid and graceful, with plaster walls, thick wood trim or mantels carved out of limestone. Then there are the details, which are often sensed more than observed.
Doors are a great example. Say there are four in your project. Go cheap and they’ll cost you a total of $350, estimates David Ellison, an architect specializing in quality additions. They’ll be hollow, and the hinges will have sloppy, rounded corners — but it’s a door, right? A great place to save money.
If, however, you go the route that your house deserves, one solid-core door alone would cost you $335. The hinges, with expertly machined corners, would cost you $180 per door. Then there’s the knob and lock. You could spend up to $1,500. To get what Ellison calls a “passable” door, you’d spend $1,000 total. For a great door, you could double that.
So for your four doors, you could spend $350 or you could spend $8,000. By looking at them from across the room, you couldn’t tell a difference. “But it’s the tactile experience,” Ellison says. “It feels like the whole place is more substantial.”
In each project, there are dozens of decisions like that. How thick is your drywall? What level of finish is used on it? How many coats of paint does a room have? Is your new wood floor plain-sawn, rift-sawn or quarter-sawn?
And then you have windows. Skimp on those and your addition is a disaster. You can get away with the best lines from Pella or Marvin. Is there a level higher than that?
“Yes,” says Ellison. “Custom.”
The brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, came from nothing. “When they first started Shaker Heights, they weren’t well-known,” says Sabine Kretzschmar, executive director of the Shaker Historical Society. “They started off dirt-poor. But they really gained fame quite quickly when they moved here.”
The brothers weren’t builders. Their job was to develop streets and sell the lots to builders. But it was their creative control over the city, their list of restrictions, that gave the city the look it has today.
“They have this remarkable set of architectural standards,” Kretzschmar says. They specified that they did not want bungalow homes but preferred such grander styles as Colonial Revival, French Normandy and Tudor Revival. They specified building materials as well as the minimum that should be spent on a home.”
But even if all of their standards were met, they could still axe a home plan —just because they didn’t like it. “The language is just a riot,” Kretzschmar says. “It’s all subjective. They compare home-building to a well-dressed man, where everything has to work together. They wanted everything to be of good taste.”
The first part of the city to be developed by the Vans was South Park Boulevard, which, with 17 homes on our list, makes it the grandest street that runs through a single city in Northeast Ohio. They created buzz by hand-picking a list of prominent Clevelanders to live in the neighborhood, offering great deals if necessary to get the development going.
They then advertised, printing the names of the residents who were moving to South Park — Halle, Grasseli, Arter, Clapp and even a niece of John D. Rockefeller. The ad, according to Kretzschmar, read: “If you move to Shaker Heights, these are your neighbors.”
The Vans themselves built a home on South Park (see page 69) and property values soared, propelling the development of the city. Ultimately, Kretzschmar estimates they were responsible for one-half to two-thirds of Shaker’s homes. “Shaker Heights’ urban design is remarkable,” she says. “It is such a large community and has such a concentration of high-quality homes.” Of the 200 homes on our list, 52 are in Shaker.
But while the Vans’ garden suburb was thriving, people were increasingly drawn to the country as car travel became easier. Often, like the Vans, they kept their Shaker estates after building second homes in places like Hunting Valley and Gates Mills, which have 19 and 23 homes on our list, respectively. (As their third lodging choice, the brothers also had an apartment in Terminal Tower.)
“Pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Cleveland social register was getting these big homes out there and having their full country estate,” Kretzschmar says. “The roads were getting better, and as soon as the wealthy in Cleveland could buy that big country estate, they did.”