If these walls could talk: History of Cleveland Police Department headquarters

In the early 1920s, Cleveland Police Department (CPD) management faced a crisis. Based in the Champlain Street Station for 30 years, the police headquarters was about to be demolished to make way for the proposed Terminal Tower.

A location at East 21st Street and Payne Avenue was chosen, with the new building designed by Cleveland architect Herman Kregulius.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Police First Precinct and Headquarters located at 97 Champlain Street in 1893, just before the building was demolished.</span>Cleveland Police First Precinct and Headquarters located at 97 Champlain Street in 1893, just before the building was demolished.Critics felt a replacement station was long overdue. The old station was designed by Lehman & Schmitt in 1893 and had definitely seen better days. The 1893 structure was a large complex that included stables, courtrooms, and a jail, in addition to administrative offices.

Little nostalgia was expressed for it.

The new Central Police Station was flanked by the Cuyahoga County Criminal Courts Building—concentrating most department and legal functions at the new East 21st Street location.

First occupied in 1926, the station was destined to be the stage for plenty of CPD history. The department’s operations included radio-dispatched patrol cars—a first in the late 1930s. The patrolmen’s work was monitored from the radio room on the building’s fifth floor, with a forest of antennas announcing its function to the outside world.

The Central Station was a busy place, and quickly started to display signs of wear. The Station was the butt of jokes in later years, due to its resemblance to the station in the 1970s “Barney Miller” television series. The Central Police Station adopted that Barney Miller look long before there was any such thing as television.

In a great irony, by the mid-1970s the station at East 21st Street and Payne Avenue was subject to many of the same criticisms leveled at the Champlain Street Station 50 years earlier. It was with some relief that that CPD headquarters moved to the newly constructed Justice Center in 1976.

In another irony, 46 years later the Justice Center at 1200 Ontario St. is regarded as outmoded, and a replacement is now being contemplated.

<span class="content-image-text">Second Central Station and Patrol Station #1</span>Second Central Station and Patrol Station #1The old Central Police Station may have been seen as obsolete in 1976, but its service to the city was far from over. Redesignated as Third District headquarters, the station soldiered on. The building was repurposed as EMS headquarters and continues to serve in this capacity. Beginning its life in the Roaring Twenties, when gangsters and prohibition dominated the news, and callboxes and patrolmen walking beats were the norm, the station witnessed the Torso Murders and the transition from precincts to districts.

As the old saying goes, “If these walls could talk....”

Ninety-six years after it opened, the Central station remains in daily use. Not only the oldest police facility in Cleveland, it is one of the oldest in the entire country. The strong likelihood is that it will survive its replacement.

How’s that for irony?

About the Author: Tom Matowitz

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.