Public Auditorium: A century of history and entertainment

Just over 100 years ago, Cleveland Public Auditorium, often called Public Hall, was built on Lakeside Avenue—the largest convention center in the country when it was completed in 1922 and helped the city win a successful bid to bring the 1924 Republican National Convention to Cleveland, when Calvin Coolidge was selected as the nominee.

In its nearly 102-year history, Public Auditorium earned a reputation for its spacious and well-designed convention center, has hosted two Republican National Conventions (the second one was in 1936), drawn countless industrial and trade shows, and has served as the perfect venue for rock stars ranging from The Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and The Who (performing with Joe Walsh and the James Gang), to David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix, to the Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath, and Sting.

Public Auditorium was part of the Cleveland Group Plan of 1903, which laid out plans for The Mall and seven Beaux Arts Neoclassical buildings downtown. A bond issue approved the financing, and planning for the fourth building in the Group Plan began in 1916,

Balcony at Music Hall built next door to the larger Public Hall, finished in 1927Balcony at Music Hall built next door to the larger Public Hall, finished in 1927City of Cleveland architects J. Harold MacDowell and Frederic H. Betz, with renowned Cleveland architect Frank Walker of the firm Walker & Weeks consulting, were brought on to design the facilities.

The cornerstone was laid on the Neoclassical building in October 1920. The dedication of Public Auditorium occurred on April 15, 1922.

Influenced by the grand opera design of the 19th Century, the interior was lavish. The original auditorium was designed without columns—to provide unobstructed views of the stage—and had 10,000 removable seats on the main floor and the balcony that faced a 14-foot stage with a 72-foot-by-42-foot proscenium arch.

Ornate Romanesque and Baroque high classical revival style elements are embossed in the ceilings and trim. The balcony is lined with color frescos.

A 10,000-pipe Magnum Opus 328 organ was built by Ernst M. Skinner—the largest pipe organ of its kind at the time—was installed on the stage.

The building has a 21,780-square-foot lobby and the basement originally had 28,500 square feet of exhibition space.

One of the early regular performance guests to Public Auditorium was New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which held its spring tour performances in the auditorium between 1924 and 1986. The Met set an attendance record at Public Hall in 1946 with “The Barber of Seville”—drawing an audience of 8,583 for one performance, then hitting a weekly attendance record of 72,690 guests.

Interior of Public Hall from 1977Interior of Public Hall from 1977The facility hosted some big names in rock music before the musicians were selling out stadiums, including Queen in 1976, Madonna with the Beastie Boys in 1985, and R.E.M. in 1986, to name a few. In 2009 and 2014, it hosted the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

In the 1980s, Public Auditorium was occasionally used as a home court for the Cleveland State Vikings men's basketball team.

In December 1993, the Cleveland Orchestra held its 75th anniversary concert in Public Auditorium.

Public Auditorium has undergone significant changes in its history—undergoing updates and additions to accommodate a growing demand for space as performances, larger conventions, and exhibits came through Cleveland.

The first additions were made in 1929 with a 600-seat Little Theater and the 6,500-square-foot Music Hall. The 3,000-seat Music Hall, designed specifically for musical performances, was built with elements of Romanesque and Baroque high Classical Revival styles.

The space is adorned with marble, travertine, and textured plaster walls and ceilings. The floor has decorative patterned carpet, terrazzo, and painted concrete. Plaster acanthus leaves and scallops accent the proscenium arch.

The Music Hall stage and the larger auditorium stage sit back-to-back, which allows the two stages to become one big stage for larger events.

In 1932, an underground exhibition hall was added beneath the north end of the Mall and connected to the auditorium.

1932 Cleveland Auto Show at Cleveland Public Hall1932 Cleveland Auto Show at Cleveland Public HallThat same year the Cleveland Auto Show was first held in the auditorium and in 1941 the Greater Cleveland Home and Flower Show held its first show at Public Hall and saw more than 100,000 visitors its first year. The event continued to be held there for decades, until the National Home and Garden Show debuted at the I-X Center in 1991. The two shows became one in 1993, the Cleveland Home and Garden Show.

Plans for a new convention center adjacent to Public Auditorium were first drafted in 1956. Voters twice rejected the bond levy to finance the plan before ultimately approving the plan in November 1963.  

In early 1964, a $17.5 million construction project began under The Mall on a new underground convention center with 26 meeting rooms within more than 424,000 square feet of space, and additional car parking. The entire Mall area was excavated for additional convention space and car parking.

A glass and metal grand entrance and atrium to the convention center and Public Auditorium were added to The Mall side of the facility, which opened later in 1964.

A $28 million renovation project on the Cleveland Convention Center was completed in 1987 with a reconfigured layout but was ultimately demolished 23 years later to make way for the $465 million Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, which opened in 2013.

As part of the new convention center, Public Auditorium also went through a $3.9 million renovation and restoration. Perspectus architecture firm restored the damage done from a rooftop HVAC failure that flooded the building and caused severe damage.

In addition to repairs, work included new historically appropriate seating and carpeting, recreated from historic photos, restoration of the plaster walls and ceilings, a new orchestra pit, and adaptations to meet ADA requirements and modern technology needs.  

Perspectus’ work earned the firm Cleveland Restoration Society’s outstanding reinstatement of a historic interior award in its 2021 Celebration of Preservation awards.

Cleveland Restoration Society - LogoCleveland Masterworks is sponsored by the Cleveland Restoration Society, celebrating 50 years of preserving Cleveland’s landmarks and cultural heritage. Cleveland Restoration Society preserves houses through the Heritage Home Program. Experience history by taking a journey on Cleveland’s African American Civil Rights Trail.Become a member today!

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.