Warner & Swasey building: A factory with a rich history, chance at a new purpose

Ambrose Swasey and Worcester Warner met in 1869 while both men were working as machinists for Pratt & Whitney in Hartford, Connecticut. The two mechanical engineers formed a partnership in 1880, Warner & Swasey—a machine tool shop in Chicago before relocating to Cleveland a year later because the bustling city had a larger pool of skilled mechanics.

In the early 1880s, the company built a three-story, brick 19th-century revival-style building at 5701 Carnegie Avenue near the corner of East 55th Street for their machine tool shop, which specialized in turret lathes to make brass plumbing parts and other precision instruments. 

Because Swasey had a passion for astronomy, the company also began producing telescopes, including building the telescope for the now-abandoned Warner & Swasey Observatory in East Cleveland. Machine tools always made up the more profitable side of the Warner & Swasey business, however.

In 1904, Warner & Swasey was so successful that the founders tore their original building down and hired renowned architect Arnold Brunner to design a five-story, 220,000-square-foot brick factory with a sawtooth roof. That building, completed in 1910, is what stands today.

Warner & Swasey building circa 1941 from the westWarner & Swasey building circa 1941 from the westWarner & Swasey also had offices in the newly constructed 1903 Caxton Building while their new factory was constructed.

The company saw success during World War I, making gun parts. By 1928, Warner& Swasey had earned a worldwide reputation as the top manufacturer of lathes, and during World War II produced half of the turret lathes in the United States with 7,000 employees.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the company expanded into making parts for the bicycle, sewing machine, and automobile industries, and continued to expand through its diverse manufacturing base and acquisitions.

But by 1965, the Warner & Swasey employee base had dwindled to 2,000 staff. The company moved much of its manufacturing to Solon and relocated its headquarters to University Circle.

By 1980 Bendix Corp. bought Warner & Swasey, which ultimately launched the abandonment of the Carnegie building in 1985, followed by large layoffs, several acquisitions, and eventually the close of Warner & Swasey’s remaining facility in Solon in 1992.

Meanwhile, the massive factory at 5701 Carnegie has sat vacant, now owned by the City of Cleveland, for almost 40 years. The building has become a canvas for many street artists. The building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.

Now, MidTown Cleveland is working with Philadelphia-based Penrose on a $66 million plan to renovate and develop the property into mixed-income housing and commercial space.

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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.