The Powerhouse

The Brush Electric Light & Power Co., prior to its absorption into C.E.I., developed the equipment used for Cleveland’s first electric streetcar line that operated under the East Cleveland Railway Co.  A Brush-developed generator powered this same streetcar line.  In response to such rivaling efforts, Marcus Hanna commissioned the building of a new powerhouse to generate power for his own electric streetcar line, the Woodland & West Side Street Railway Co. (W&WSSR).  The Powerhouse was built in 1892 on the west bank, across the Cuyahoga River from where Moses Cleaveland first landed in 1796.  C.E.I., who powered the east-side line rival of Hanna’s west-side line, responded by building the Canal Road Station in the Flats in 1895.  Together, these two streetcar powerhouses were the only such facilities of their kind in Cleveland, situated just across the Cuyahoga River from one another in the Flats.  Today the Canal Road Station is the main provider of thermal energy to Greater Cleveland under the control of Cleveland Thermal, while the Powerhouse has been reanimated over the years.

Hanna granted the commission for the Powerhouse to architect John N. Richardson, formerly of the renowned firm Cuddell & Richardson.  The Scottish-born, Cleveland-based architect was regarded as one of “the most important and innovative architects in Cleveland during the 1880’s.”   As part of Cuddell & Richardson, he designed many of Cleveland’s architectural gems including the Franklin Castle, St. Joseph’s Franciscan Church, the Perry-Payne building, and the Bradley building.  Richardson designed the Powerhouse in the Romanesque revival style; built to resemble the European factories of the time with gabled roofs, arched windows, and thick window sills made of stone.  The original structure designed by Richardson was built in 1892, and was the first power plant dedicated to providing electricity to streetcars in Cleveland.  However, the 1898 absorption of Hanna’s W&WSSR into the Cleveland Electric Railway Co. (CER) resulted in a significant 1901 addition, nearly causing the Powerhouse to double in size.   Despite this expansion to meet the demand of more streetcar lines, the Powerhouse did not thrive long thanks to the rapid rise of the automobile.  Cleveland’s streetcars officially gave way to the automobile in 1920 when the CER permanently ceased operation, and the Powerhouse closed.  Today, there still exists the original inscription of the building’s name and date of construction on a sandstone block of one of the gables.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the Powerhouse acted as a turnstile for several comedy clubs, restaurants, and even retailers, but as of 2012 the 70,000 square-foot edifice serves as a mixed-use entertainment complex still rooted in its foundation as an industrial facility.  The most recent addition to the Powerhouse is the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.  Funded by Jacobs Entertainment at a cost of $33 million, it was designed by the New Zealand-based company Marinescape, which has a reputation for refurbishing preexisting structures as aquariums.  Paying homage to the Powerhouse’s industrial past, the aquarium incorporates exposed brick walls, coal tunnels, smokestacks, and steel girders into its décor.

Streetcars on the Viaduct

This photograph from June 1912 shows a bustling Superior Viaduct during the heyday of the Cleveland Electric Railway.  The Powerhouse can be seen in the upper-right corner, not to mention the streetcars that it powered along the viaduct. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

The Powerhouse, 1975

After the CER left the coal-burning Powerhouse, the building continued to create steam for municipal uses until it was finally abandoned in 1926.  Three years later, the Globe Steel Barrel Co. (GSB) made use of the building to recondition barrels.  The building didn’t change hands again until 1970, when the Cleveland Metal Products Co. (CMP) obtained the Powerhouse for use as a warehouse. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Development Plans, 1975

After many years of abandonment, the Powerhouse became the physical base for VSM Corp.’s proposed $5 million development project.  The project intended to transform the edifice along the lines of the Cannery-Ghiradelli Square development in San Francisco and Trolley Square development in Salt Lake City, by placing a theater, cinema, restaurants, and office spaces inside the old edifice. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Interior of Model for Proposed Renovations, 1975

This model of the Powerhouse shows the multi-level construction planned for converting the then 84-year old structure into a $5 million entertainment-amusement-shopping-office complex. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Exterior of Model for Proposed Renovations, 1975

This model of the proposed Powerhouse development in the Flats shows the designer’s intention to blend the contemporary annex, foreground, with the pre-existing Romanesque Revival design of the original 1892 structure. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

A Shell of Its Former Self, 1975

Despite Cleveland’s gloomy economic outlook during the time a Cleveland State University urban studies professor had optimistic projections for the Powerhouse renovation project.   Unfortunately, a lack of funding caused the project to fold amidst initial sandblasting repairs a mere four years later, leaving the building abandoned and a literal casing of its former self. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

The West Bank, 1979

Not until 1988 would ground be broken for another $17 million renovation project to reopen the Powerhouse in 1989; this time at the hands of the Flats Development Inc. and Jacob Investments for inclusion in the Nautica entertainment complex.  Today, it is home to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

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5 Responses to The Powerhouse

  1. Avatar of Mark Souther Mark Souther says:

    I’m not sure about your image title “Revolving Door.” It seems that the building’s usage was pretty stable for a half century in the 1920s-70s.

    The Von Eckardt reference might make more sense to readers if coupled with something specific he said. Otherwise, I’d remove his name.

    Can you obtain an aquarium image to replace the 1979 view? I’d be fine with an image from the aquarium if you can obtain one. (The aquarium will ultimately need to have its own app site that also includes the story of the old aquarium in Gordon Park.)

  2. Avatar of elkaiser3 elkaiser3 says:

    Great site, well written. Some biographical information on the Hanna’s might be interesting as the family was prominent in Cleveland. Also pictures of the present day flats and plans for its redevelopment could add interest. Overall very well done.

  3. Avatar of cciullafaup cciullafaup says:

    Fantastic detail. Well written. Terrific images, including the image of the design and model. Personally, i love the picture of the West Bank 1979 perspective. I’ve always loved the area.

  4. Avatar of rjprice88 rjprice88 says:

    It’s very interesting to learn about the early days of the Powerhouse. I was not aware of the rich history it contained in Cleveland by providing power for all those years with the Canal Road Station. I think of the Power House today and it’s purpose as more of an entertainment complex with a few bars inside and concert venues and now with the new aquarium. However it’s great to see the history and importance of this historic Cleveland building. Great, in depth information and I really like the photo of the West Bank in 1979, it looks so much different today.

  5. Lisa R says:

    Does anyone remember the name of the sports bar that was in the PowerHouse before the Game Room came in? Was it Champions?

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