On the morning of June 28, 1930, some 3,000 men in black suits streamed through Public Square and into the arched doorways of the Terminal Tower.
Yellow tickets hung, fluttering, from their lapels, identifying them as invited guests for the greatest civic event in Cleveland's history: the opening of the new train station — a building so huge and beautiful they almost couldn't believe it was theirs.
Stores flew flags from upstairs windows. The sun shone. The city's mood was dark that summer, sullied by political scandal and the 8-month-old economic depression. Though its industrial might was sapped, though it had just slipped from fifth to sixth among the nation’s largest cities, Cleveland had this: a train terminal bigger than Grand Central Station, capped by a tower 708 feet high, the world's tallest building outside New York.
For 11 years, Clevelanders had waited. They'd voted in 1919 to let the shy but visionary Van Sweringen brothers, the developers of Shaker Heights, build the enormous terminal complex on Public Square. Entire city blocks had been condemned and seized: flophouses filled with transients, an old building where jewelry auctioneers barked out bids and the old central police station, infested with giant rats. Ground was finally broken in 1923. Early designs had been thrown out, and legend has it that the Van Sweringens vetoed a squat little dome envisioned for the top because they feared it would remind World War-weary citizens of a German helmet.
At last, in 1926, the tower began to rise, the square gridwork growing taller and taller, then the round tower rising like a needle — higher than anything Cleveland had ever seen.
"On clear days, one can see the Terminal Tower from incredible distances,” wrote Plain Dealer feature writer Roelif Loveland, “and when fog drifts in from the lake, one cannot see the top of the tower at all, for it buries its head in the clouds."
Now almost all of the six-building Union Terminal complex was finished and ready for business. Tour guides led guests through the station, up stairways and down corridors. Photographers from the city’s three newspapers and from national picture services roamed the station, their flashes exploding with rude, popping bursts, gray smoke and white light.
The $150 million terminal was the gateway to the nation’s other great metropolises, so every detail attested to Cleveland’s status as a cosmopolitan city — the taxi stands, the baggage rooms and the signal tower where the massive network of tracks was controlled with 576 levers and monitored on an electrified 34-foot-long chart.
At 12:30, the 3,000 guests took their seats at 300 tables in the concourse and ticket room. All of them were men except one, Susan Rebhan, Cleveland’s only city councilwoman. Three hundred waiters, their white uniforms standing out in the black-coated crowd, served the ceremonial lunch: breast of chicken, baked ham, tomato and egg salad, cantaloupe, radishes and olives. The Cleveland Grays band oompahed into the concourse, blaring out John Phillip Sousa marches.
Newton D. Baker, former mayor and secretary of war and leading local attorney, served as toastmaster and apologized that it had taken him so long to seize the land for the complex in court. Despite the Depression, railroad presidents reassured the invitees — and the thousands listening to the ceremony on WTAM radio — of the resilient strength of Cleveland, the nation and the rail system. “We believe we’ve turned the corner to as great prosperity as we’ve ever enjoyed,” declared Patrick E. Crowley, president of the New York Central Lines.
Missing from the ceremony were the masterminds of the sprawling complex, Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, who listened to the broadcast at their farm in Hunting Valley in keeping with (as the Cleveland News described it) “their unalterable rule never to appear at public events.”
The terminal’s doors opened to the public around 4:30 p.m., and in the next seven hours, about 50,000 Clevelanders swarmed through the station. They browsed the drug store, billed as the world’s largest, with 400 private humidors for cigar smokers; gazed into the main restaurant, the English Oak Room, with its paneled oak walls and posts with inlaid ebony; and visited a toy store that (the Plain Dealer ’s Loveland warned) was “so cunningly arranged that no youngster could resist it.” The concourse was still filled with people as the big clock over the information desk neared midnight.
“I didn’t imagine it was so large, did you?” a woman asked her husband.
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “I knew it was a whopper.”
She reached out her hand and said it was time to head home. He was still looking around, not ready to go.
That night, the old train station on the lakefront, built in 1886, fell silent. The next morning, the News declared the Union Terminal “the greatest monument yet erected to the city’s progress” and predicted Cleveland wouldn’t need another new train station until 2000.
Only those looking the most soberly at the Depression’s omens could have imagined that the Van Sweringens would see most of their interstate railroad empire collapse by the time they died five and six years later, or that the future of transportation lay not at Public Square but at the scrubby little airfield at the city limits, or that Cleveland’s industrial power would someday shrink as the Van Sweringens’ wealth and the railroads did.
Only the pessimists of 1930 would have forecast that the Terminal Tower, the symbol of Cleveland’s reach for greatness, was built from an ambition bigger than it could fulfill. Maybe that’s why, even though it is no longer Cleveland’s tallest building, the Terminal Tower is still the ultimate symbol of the city. It evokes a goal we can’t quite achieve but won’t give up on, a faint memory of melancholy drowned out by a deeper flush of pride.