150-year-old Ohio Awning moves, leaves historic building in good hands

Earlier this month, Ohio Awning and Manufacturing, which was founded in 1865 by Civil War veteran James Wagner, moved from its historic 78,000-square-foot factory at the corner of Scranton Road and Auburn Avenue in Tremont to 5777 Grant Avenue in Slavic Village.

Ohio Awning vice president William Morse says of the company's former space, "it's just a gorgeous building with hardwood floors and big redwood beams and tons of windows. It's also incredibly inefficient," he adds, citing the drafty windows and the structure's antiquated four-story layout. With welding on one floor and sewing on another, there was much inefficient labor usage, including hand-carrying materials and finished products up and down stairs.

"To bring a 40-foot awning down the stairs really got to be inconvenient," says Morse. "It’s a couple hundred pounds. It took six to eight guys."

Hence their new 110,000-square-foot single-floor space makes life a lot easier, although they're only occupying about 65,000 square feet of it. They intend to lease another 40,000 square feet and also plan to open a 4,000-square-foot showroom mid-summer, where customers can view awning samples, touch and feel different fabrics and see an electronic rendering of their future awning, provided they bring a photo of their home.

"We'll have the ability to put it up on a television and add the awning to the picture," says Morse. "We can design your awning in our showroom."

The company purchased the Grant Avenue property last November for $1.05 million. Chase Optical built the structure in 1960 and expanded it in 1978. The last occupant began a build out, but then vacated the property, fortuitously leaving it in move-in condition for Ohio Awning.

The company's old digs will continue on as a landmark in the historic South Scranton neighborhood, with a stunning transformation that will make the 1893 structure, well, brand new. The group that brought the Fairmont Creamery project to fruition, Sustainable Community Associates, secured a $1.7 million state tax credit, which will help to realize more than 50 apartments and 10,000-square-feet of office space in the old Wagner factory. Vintage photos and project updates are available at the Wagner Awning Building's Facebook page.

Morse's father, Andrew, purchased the company in 1995 shortly after the name had changed from Wagner Awning to Ohio Awning and Manufacturing. While Morse has no flashy plans to celebrate the company's 150th birthday, he notes the history that's unfurled over the years, including a slew of military contracts going back through both World Wars and even to the Civil War. There were gentler events as well.

"We've got a bunch of old scrapbooks with old pictures of the tents we used to put up in the  '30s and '40—for the Hanna wedding and the Ernst wedding and somebody's debutante ball and this party and that party … just gorgeous old tent structures."

Some of the dance floors that went inside those tents have been transformed into desks in the company's offices and even a conference table for Ohio Awning's new location.

"The amount of history, all the different things we've been involved in," says Morse, "it's a little bit overwhelming to think of all the things we've done."

And while Ohio Awning and its employees will miss the Scranton Road location, Morse is happy to know it's headed for a new incarnation.

"It is in good hands. The character and just that nice feeling of the building will be maintained. I think it was a little wasted on us just because people were too busy working. A whole lot more people will be able to enjoy it."

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.