The legacy of Oswald Kamm: The story of how one grocer shaped a CLE neighborhood

Oswald Kamm ran a popular grocery store and post office, at the main intersection of what is today known as Kamm’s Corners. He was an influential and popular figure in the early history of West Park, with a legacy that has carried his namesake throughout generations—though few know his entire story.

Situated on the southwest corner of Rocky River Drive and Lorain Avenue, the Kamm Building has been the staple of the Kamm's Corners neighborhood for more than 100 years.

Oswald KammOriginally built in 1900 for Oswald Kamm’s lucrative general store, and later used as a post office, it has been home to many businesses—mostly restaurants—during its 120-year life.

In the past few years, the Kamm Building has become vacant and is struggling to find a permanent use. The building is a key component in local history, as Kamm served as a popular town figure and played a role in the development of the Kamm’s Corners neighborhood in West Park.

Kamm was a Swiss immigrant who came to the United States sometime in the mid-19th Century, and in 1875 he bought a four-acre property at the corner of Lorain Street and Rocky River Drive. At this corner, he set up a grocery store (Kamm was previously a grocery clerk in the Clark-Fulton area).

It’s likely that the Kamm family for some time used the second floor of the new store as their living quarters.

According to a 1962 “Plain Dealer” article, Kamm was approached by township officials to become an official post clerk during President Grover Cleveland’s administration in the late 1800s. This new venture required Kamm to wake up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. every morning and walk to the Nickel Plate Road Rail Station (in present-day Rocky River) to pick up the mail and return to his store by 6 a.m.

This routine eventually led to the coincidental naming of “Kamm's Corners”—which has since become one of four neighborhoods within West Park. Many old plat maps refer to the southwest corner of Rocky River Drive and Lorain Street as “Kamm’s Ohio,” and that name was written on any mail sent to Kamm’s post office.

The West Park area Kamm and his wife, Louise “Lena” (nee Klane), would call home for nearly four decades changed rapidly during their time. When Kamm arrived at what would have been considered part of Rockport Township, it was little more than farmland and a few stately homes.

As Lakewood, Rocky River, and Goldwood (Fairview Park) split from Rockport Township and formed townships and eventually cities, West Park also became an independent city of about 12.5 square miles. There were several name changes to the neighborhood throughout Kamm’s lifetime—Rockport Hamlet, West Park Township, the Village of West Park, and eventually the city of West Park in 1921.

Passenger car of the Cleveland, Southwestern, & Columbus Interurban Railway, ca. 1920. In the early 1900s, when West Park began rail service, Kamm’s post office became an interurban stop of the Cleveland, Southwestern, and Columbus Railway Co. (CS&C), which was the second largest operator of interurban railways in Ohio at the time. In the early 20th Century, streetcars and rail lines were a main source of public transportation. Kamm’s stop linked to nearby Puritas Springs Park and ran south toward Berea.

CS&C eventually discontinued operations in 1931, due to stock market failure, unprofitable lines, and growing automobile ownership. In 1913, A streetcar known as the “Cleveland Green Line” ran down Lorain Avenue from Public Square west and stopped at Kamm’s Corners. These rail lines shaped the early development of the West Park area. By the 1920s, subdivisions and commercial development had significantly increased in West Park.

Kamm’s Green Line streetcar stop played a major role in the commercialization of Kamm’s Corners. He was a well-known businessman and postal clerk among community members and farmers from surrounding areas. Despite Kamm’s role, little was written about him while he was alive.

By the early 1900s, a three-story home to the west of his store faced Lorain Street. The house house was moved in 1925 to 17134 Fernshaw Ave., directly behind where it stood before. It still stands today as a private residence.

In 1909, Kamm constructed a rowhouse-style apartment building known as “Kamm’s Terrace” at 3890 Rocky River Dr. It today exists as an office building. Kamm’s daughter Lena and her husband Fred A. Colbrunn, great-grandson of the largest landowning family in the village, lived in a smaller home directly to the north of Kamm’s Terrace and the couple owned the apartment building until the 1950s.

The Colbrunn family owned the Rockport Racing Track at the northeast corner of Lorain and Rocky River Drive and worked as local contractors and businessmen. The Kamm and Colbrunn families were close in business, and it is possible they assisted Kamm in the construction of his buildings. Both families were involved in the Lorain Greenhouse Co., one of many greenhouses at the time in the former Rockport area. Despite this connection, it appears there is no known architect for any of Kamm’s buildings.

Oswald and Lena Kamm raised their family in West Park, and had four children—Jacob, Fred, Lena, and Dora. Sadly, Oswald outlived all but one of his children. When his wife Lena died in 1917, the village of West Park had a variety of businesses and about 8,000 residents.

One year after Lena’s death, his oldest son Jacob (born in 1874) died from a murder-suicide, committed by an uncle after a dispute. The crime occurred at a home owned by the uncle further north on Rocky River Drive.

Kamm himself died on November 17, 1922—10 days after the city of West Park voted to allow the annex into the city of Cleveland. The residents of West Park chose to become Clevelanders, largely due to promises of five-cent fares and extended streetcar services.

After Kamm’s death, his surviving daughter, and various relatives—including Colbrunn family members—split up the properties that Kamm had owned. Kamm’s store was converted to a lunch hall and candy store known as Rockport Kelly’s (a son of a local politician is said to have run the shop).

During the early 1940s, it was home to Benders Cafe, a short-lived dance hall. It then became perhaps what most present-day West Parkers know it as: Tony’s Spaghetti House, and later Tony’s Restaurant (operating under different ownership).

Tony’s lasted just over 50 years before a fire destroyed the interior of the building in the 1990s. Kamm’s Corners Development Corporation (now West Park-Kamm’s Neighborhood Development) and a local architect teamed up to restore the building in 1997.

The Kamm Building is situated on the southwest corner of Rocky River Drive and Lorain Avenue today. Renovations included new windows and an exterior color scheme that matched the original paint. An addition was made to the back side of the building, allowing for a large bar and outdoor patio. After the renovation, the building housed Alfonso’s Tuscan Grill for just over 10 years, and later became Panini’s Bar and Grill. When Panini’s closed, it sat vacant for around two years. Ironwood Cafe began operating out of the building in 2015. They eventually changed the name to Kamm’s Cafe, honoring the Kamm name once again. However, Kamm’s Cafe closed within a year of the name change, and the building has been vacant since.

The future of the Kamm Building may still be bright, but it has yet to be reinvigorated as the gem of the community that it once was. It is under no imminent threat but does face the challenge of being a large commercial space in a tough market.

Perhaps the neighborhood can come together and work with city leaders, community officials, and the owners to ensure this historic building is properly recognized—locally as well as nationally. Past efforts to preserve the building have proven successful and it can once again serve as a beneficial landmark to the neighborhood of West Park.

This article originally was published by Cleveland Historical as “The Kamm Building: Kamm’s Corners and the Legacy of Oswald Kamm.”

Read more articles by Nate J. Lull.

Nate J. Lull is currently studying urban planning at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs, seeking his bachelor's degree. Lull grew up in the West Park neighborhood and is a community activist and historic preservation enthusiast. He has also done work for Documenters.org, a civic-led initiative at promoting transparency and accountability of local government.

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