Bright spots of the Depression: Severance Hall and the former First Church of Christ, Scientist

During some of the darkest years of the Great Depression, apparently unrelated forces converged to create two of Cleveland’s most lasting and memorable buildings.

The two forces were business and religion—the Standard Oil Company and Christian Science. Both entities were destined to have a major impact on American life, and they were created in the same time period. The two buildings are Severance Hall and the former First Church of Christ, Scientist.

John Long Severance at the November 14, 1929 groundbreaking signaling the start of construction of Severance Hall. Standard Oil formed the basis of immense fortunes for its early Cleveland investors while Christian Science is a rare example of a religious denomination founded in the United States.

One of the early investors in Standard Oil was Louis Severance. He became the company’s first treasurer and saw his share in its profits grow immeasurably. His son, John Long Severance, born in 1863, was destined to grow up to be one of Cleveland’s greatest patrons of the arts.

Standard Oil was founded in 1870, just four years after New England native Mary Baker Eddy
 created the concept of Christian Science.

After suffering a serious back injury from a fall on the ice in Lynn, Massachusetts and enduring a lengthy recovery, Eddy developed the philosophy of Christian Science as an approach to natural healing. Her new religion gathered momentum quickly, with branches created in Cleveland by the late 1870s.

John L. Severance began his career with Standard Oil after graduating from Oberlin College in 1885. Moving quickly on to other ventures, he began creating the basis of a substantial personal fortune. With the coming of the 20th Century, Severance found a new interest: The newly created Cleveland Orchestra. Founded in 1918, the orchestra performed in several different local venues, notably the Cleveland Grays Armory on Bolivar Road and the Masonic Auditorium on Euclid Avenue.

In a long-remembered and jarring pair of incidents, proposed Cleveland Orchestra concerts at the Armory had to be rescheduled to avoid conflict with a concert series scheduled by Cleveland Music School Settlement, Musical Arts Association and Cleveland Orchestra founder Adella Prentiss Hughes. A permanent home was clearly needed.

Cleveland Orchestra, 1946

Severance and other leaders had their eye on property at the intersection of East Boulevard and Euclid Avenue. This was an ideal spot for the proposed music venue, but there was a problem. Western Reserve University bought the land from the Catholic Church and the Christian Science Church in 1927, but both groups were determined to build on the land.

Severance quietly paid $600,000 to acquire this real estate, an enormous sum of money in the late 1920s.

The congregation was then able to acquire the Howell Hinds House, positioned in a commanding location on four acres of land on the west side of Overlook Road at the top of Cedar Hill as a site for their new church. Built in 1898, a memorable fragment of the demolished house survives in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art’—a beautiful stained-glass window produced by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

HInds House Tiffany stained glass windowA collaboration between the church congregation and the orchestra ensued, with noted Cleveland architects Walker & Weeks providing the plans for both building projects and construction proceeding in lockstep.

The buildings share many outward similarities. Clad in limestone and resembling the Pantheon in Ancient Rome, they are unmistakably work of the same architects.

All this was a very unlikely turn of events, as Cleveland’s economy was in a state of virtual collapse with major banks failing and an unemployment rate of 42%.

It took guts and vision to pull this off, not once, but twice, in the face of such terrible obstacles. In the end both parties had reason to feel pleased with the outcome. The Cleveland Orchestra got a permanent home with Severance Hall that has served it well for 90 years, and the Christian Scientists got the first $1 million church ever constructed in Cleveland.

The years were kinder to the orchestra than to the church.

Beginning with 1,000 members in 1931, 80 years later the congregation had dwindled to fewer than 100, making the continued occupancy of the magnificent building untenable. It was put up for sale in the early 2000s and had a narrow escape from developers who wanted to destroy it and build condominiums in its place.

Purchased by innovation firm Nottingham Spirk in 2003, over the next two years the former Christian Science church was carefully adapted to serve the needs of its new owners. Modified subtly, and only to the extent necessary, the building is an outstanding example of the adaptive reuse of an aesthetically significant historic structure.

Severance Hall and the former First Church of Christ, Scientist stand today as a tribute to their designers and the craftsmen who built them, as well as the responsible stewards who have lovingly cared for them both for nearly a century.

Read more articles by 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.