The rebirth of a Beaux-Arts landmark in Cleveland

BY ARNOLD BERKE

WHEN THE U.S. POST Office, Custom House, and Court House opened here in 1910, it was meant to show off this city’s growing economic and cultural prowess-as well as the power of the federal government. That steel, car manufacturing, and other industries had made Cleveland the nation’s sixth largest city was reflected in architect Arnold W. Brunner’s gray granite structure in the high Beaux-Arts style, its four facades lavished with columns and pilasters, balustrades and brackets, and other classical essentials. Brunner capped each corner with a pair of stern American eagles, anchored the main façade with two Daniel Chester French sculptures- Jurisprudence and Commerce -and encased the long vaulted lobby in marble. Private offices and two luxuriously ornamented courtrooms were decorated with murals depicting history, the law, even the delivery of mail.

This architectural marvel would eventually be joined by a series of other impressive civic monuments clustered around the Mall, a large rectangle of park devised as part of a 1903 City Beautiful-era plan by Brunner and architects Daniel H. Burnham and John M. Carrère. All of the structures were of similar scale and design: the county courthouse (1912), city hall (1916), auditorium (1922), public library (1925), and board of education headquarters (1930). “Buildings that are excellent in themselves are ineffective unless properly placed,” Brunner declared in 1910. Now, after years of deterioration and changing tenants-the post office, for example, moved out in 1934-the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has restored and modernized Brunner’s landmark building, reopening it in June 2005 as the Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, after Ohio’s former U.S. senator.

The $45 million venture renewed the exterior and interior-from ornamental ceilings to walls, murals, fixtures, and doors- adapting the space for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the new main tenant. The U.S. District Court will continue to use the two ceremonial courtrooms. “They’re strong, breathtaking rooms in the way they communicate the importance and dignity of the justice process,” says Paul E. Westlake Jr., managing principal of the Cleveland firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky, the project architects. “It’s architecture as a tool and a symbol.” To provide public access and secured private circulation, the central light court was converted into a covered atrium linked to the main lobby. And in accordance with GSA’s commitment to environmental responsibility, the project recycled materials, whether concrete from an earlier phase of the project or pieces of original marble long stored in the basement, for use on-site or elsewhere.

A story within the story began in the elegant postmaster’s office, which once featured 23 murals by Francis D. Millet illustrating mail collection and delivery worldwide, from the wintry Dog Sled Post, Alaska to the sandy Camel Post, Arabia to the sprinting mailmen of City Delivery, India. Removed in 1955, the murals were shunted from building to building for storage. “The most damage was caused by their rather hasty removal,” says Robert G. Lodge, president of the McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio, which has restored the panels in a project funded by GSA’s Fine Arts Program. Conservators removed loose adhesive and plaster from canvas backs before remounting the murals onto aluminum panels, cleaning the surfaces, and painting in missing areas. This “inpainting” alone, says Lodge, “demands continuous focus, sitting still, and sometimes concentrating on one small area six hours a day.” In May the panels were reinstalled just off the main lobby of the courthouse, their first time ever on public view.

Reprinted with permission from Preservation, the magazine of the national Trust for Historic Preservation, July/August 2005.

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