Nela Park: A century of lighting innovation and tradition

Nela Park in East Cleveland has a rich history in lighting innovation, not to mention the vision of National Electric Lamp Company (NELA) and General Electric (GE) to build the 1913 campus to become the country’s first industrial park.

Although GE Lighting sold the 23-building, 93-acre campus in March 2022, GE Lighting continues to operate a portion of its business on the site, and the annual holiday lights continue to grace the grounds today, as they have for 99 years.

Nela Park can be traced back to Cleveland native and 1878 arc light inventor Charles F. Brush, whose Brush Electric Company became NELA, which eventually became the lighting division of General Electric.

Cornerstone Ceremony, 1913 -Dignitaries gather for the dedication of Nela ParkCornerstone Ceremony, 1913 -Dignitaries gather for the dedication of Nela ParkThe concept of an industrial campus for NELA was first envisioned in 1910 and a wooded site with vineyards started by German immigrants—known as Panoramic Heights—was chosen for the park between Noble and Terrace Roads.

Renowned landscape architect Frank E. Wallis was commissioned to design the original campus, which was completed in 1913 to mimic early 20th-century academic campuses—with four buildings constructed in Georgian Revival style around a quadrangle. The buildings around the quad are made of red brick with terra-cotta columns and Baroque detail that mirror the country houses and public buildings of Georgian England.

The four original buildings on the quad are made up of the Engineering Building, which has two facades; the Advertising Building at the east end of the Quadrangle; the Lamp Laboratory, which is the largest building of the group; and the Institute, which is the newest and most elaborate building, with a 72-foot-high bell tower.

The initial finished product became the first-ever industrial park, costing about $400,000 in 1913. Most of the campus was built before 1921, with Willis designing most of the buildings to provide a uniform look.

Today’s campus has 20 larger buildings, smaller utility buildings, and an employee camp that houses recreational, assembly, event, and dining facilities.

Holiday Light Display at Nela Park, 1928Holiday Light Display at Nela Park, 1928All of the Nela Park structures are in Georgian style, in red brick, but they each have slight variations in design. The exterior trim of the buildings erected before 1915 is ivory terra-cotta, while some of the later buildings have sandstone, artificial stone, or limestone.

The entire campus is landscaped according to the original plans, with the roads lined with trees and plants. The original brick roadways were resurfaced with asphalt in the early 1940s. A walking path with rustic stairs and rails was developed along a ravine on the property.

The campus buildings are connected by a system of underground pipe tunnels, carrying lines for heating, gas, compressed air, steam, and hot and cold water. Some of the buildings are connected by underground pedestrian subways.

In 1975, Nela Park was added to the National Registry of Historic Places

For almost a century Nela Park has been known locally for its brilliant Holiday light displays—illuminating the entire campus and showing off what GE Lighting is known for. Even though the property was sold last year, the light show continues its tradition with its 99th Annual display, with almost one million LED lights, displays, and the traditional replica of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C.

The campus will be illuminated around the clock through Tuesday, Jan. 2.

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Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.