The Spitzer-Dempsey House: From opulent to austere, to renewed grandeur

It is highly unlikely that any other private home in Cleveland can match the history of the Spitzer-Dempsey House, located at 2830 Franklin Blvd. in Ohio City.

Once a venue of wealth and privilege, and later the site of one the city’s most tragic murders, the house has been a boarding house and law offices, with a strong link to one of Cleveland’s longest lived and most renowned law firms.

The Spitzer-Dempsey House in 1995 at 2830 Franklin Boulevard was built in 1879 for C. M. Spitzer, a Cleveland banker.Built to the highest standards, it went on to suffer the depths of neglect, only to be restored to its past glory.

It has known fame as well as notoriety.

Its story begins in the late 19th Century, and the details of its origins are far from clear. Persistent rumors claimed it was built for a Cleveland mayor in the early 1870s, but the date and the attribution both have been discredited.

What is known definitely is that the house was built before 1880, in an architectural style that defies concise description. It contains elements of various styles current at the time, and has much in common with a Coburn & Barnum designed house built on Case Ave. (present day East 40th Street) several years earlier.

The Spitzer-Dempsey building borrows from the Gothic, Queen Anne, and Stick Style. The structure is a frame building of two-and-a-half stories and more than 4,000 square feet of living space.

The original owner of the house was Ceilan Milo Spitzer. His tenure was very brief. Before he could even move into the brand-new home in early 1880, it had to be sold to satisfy creditors in connection with a failed bank he operated.

On July 28, 1880, the house was purchased by John Dempsey, yet another Irish immigrant success story. Having fled the Irish Potato Famine in 1848, he made his way to Ohio’s Richland County where he found success as a merchant.

In common with all other Americans, Dempsey’s life turned upside down in 1861 with the onset of the Civil War. Commissioned as an officer, he was a Lt. Colonel in an Ohio infantry regiment by war’s end.

John Dempsey circa1880He returned to Richland County where he proceeded to make a fortune in banking and the wholesale grocery business. Having grown wealthy, he then devoted himself to his avocation of raising horses.

Finding early retirement not to his liking, Dempsey moved to Cleveland to seek wider opportunity. He moved into the house on Franklin Avenue with his wife, three daughters, and a son.

His son James was a student at Kenyon College in Gambier. After completing his undergraduate work, he studied law at Columbia University.

Licensed to practice law in Ohio in 1884, in 1890 he joined Andrew Squire and Judge William B. Sanders in founding Squire, Sanders, and Dempsey—a partnership destined to become one of Cleveland’s most influential law firms in the 20th Century.

Dempsey bequeathed the house to his daughter Mary Katherine and her husband Ernest Cook. While Mary Katherine died early, in 1898, her husband remained in the house until his own death 30 years later.

By then Franklin Avenue had been renamed Franklin Boulevard, but the elegant name couldn’t stop the street’s slide into obscurity.

By 1930 the once grand residence was a boarding house accommodating four families. By 1940, nine families were listed as living in the house. By 1945 the number had risen to 11.

The mid-20th Century was hard on the house, which eventually stood empty by 1980. This led to the house’s lowest point.

Present day image of The Spitzer-Dempsey House In the autumn of 1980, 14-year-old Tammy Seals disappeared one morning in the course of delivering newspapers on the street. In February 1981, her body was discovered in an upstairs bedroom at 2830 Franklin.

Chico Morales was arrested and convicted of Seals’ murder—maintaining his innocence 40 years later in a prison cell from which he will likely never emerge.

From this low point the house had nowhere to go but up. It changed hands and was carefully restored to match its original appearance.

Visitors today can see a private residence that its 19th Century inhabitants would immediately recognize—once again a showplace on a street that is becoming revitalized with many once-neglected 19th Century gems springing back to life.

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.