Clarence Mack: Self-taught in architecture, yet designed 32 area homes that still stand today

Nearly 100 years ago a large group of remarkable houses was constructed in the Cleveland suburbs.

<span class="content-image-text">Clarence Mack, ca 1950</span>Clarence Mack, ca 1950Designed by Clarence Mack, they are notable for two important reasons. Numbering 32 in all, every one of the homes still exist. This 100% survival rate is a distinction none of Mack’s contemporaries can claim.

They are outstanding examples of Georgian Revival and French Eclectic styles. Mack demonstrated great deftness working in a sophisticated genre of architecture and design. This is a remarkable achievement given that he did not have a single day of formal training as an architect.

Mack demonstrated great deftness because of his imagination and flair for design, especially because he was self-taught. By the late 1920s his peers were products of formal academic training provided by college architecture programs, frequently followed by extensive training in Europe. To have a perceived amateur excel in the field without this background was an extraordinary accomplishment.

The distinctive feature of Mack’s houses is their deft execution and substantial appearance. The materials and design were of the highest possible quality, not exceeded by any contemporary architect working in Cleveland. Constructed substantially of brick, these houses have a commanding presence remarked upon to this day. The best evidence of this is their extraordinary survival rate.

<span class="content-image-text">Kingwood: The Residence of Charles K. King, Esq. , Mansfield, OH: Clarence Mack, Architect</span>Kingwood: The Residence of Charles K. King, Esq. , Mansfield, OH: Clarence Mack, ArchitectOther architects have had the jarring experience of seeing some of their finest work demolished as fashions changed and property values soared. The fact that every one of Mack’s Cleveland area houses survive after nearly a century sends a powerful message.

Born in April 1888, Mack grew up on Cleveland’s West Side and in Lakewood. He descended from three generations of skilled builders. Largely self-taught, he spent a decade studying architecture on his own—both in Europe and in Cleveland.

Mack was mentored by Theodor Kundtz, a very successful Cleveland businessman who saw merit in Mack’s ideas. Kundtz helped finance a development on Lake Avenue in Lakewood between 1922 and 1927, when the local real estate market was booming.

Coming to the attention of the Van Sweringen brothers, Mack then collaborated with them on a development in Shaker Heights.

Mack’s houses were designed in a sophisticated style, and he handled every major aspect of the process—serving as designer, contractor, and decorator. The interiors of his houses were the subject of much careful attention and noted for their elegance and polish.

Mack is also said to have lived in each the houses briefly before they were sold to new owners.

Not particularly risk averse, these grand homes were built on speculation with Mack having little doubt about their quick sale.

Despite the passage of 10 decades and multiple changes in taste, Mack’s confidence in his work was well founded. When his houses come on the market today, they command prices approaching $1 million. They appear to have been prized every day of their lives, never having been allowed to fall into disrepair.

<span class="content-image-text">13825 Edgewater Drive in Lakewood, built about 1925 and designed in the French Eclectic style for the family of Capt. Charles Hutchinson.</span>13825 Edgewater Drive in Lakewood, built about 1925 and designed in the French Eclectic style for the family of Capt. Charles Hutchinson.All this was made possible by the booming economy of the 1920s. This boom ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929, and Mack found that the market for the kind of houses he specialized in had evaporated practically overnight.

Undaunted, Mack spent the next five years traveling the world before settling in Palm Beach, Florida, where he continued to design and build until retiring at the age of 74 in 1962. He enjoyed 20 years of retirement, dying in Palm Beach in 1982 at the age of 94, more than half a century after his brief Cleveland heyday.

In addition to his remarkable houses, Mack’s plans and drawings survive in the collections of the Cleveland Public Library where they may be seen today—an extraordinary architectural legacy for someone who was not officially an architect.

Author's note: This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend Frank Kouba, a long time Cleveland architect who passed away this week at the age of 93. He was my friend for fifty years and encouraged what has turned out to be a lifelong interest in architecture.

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.