from saw horses to seahorses: new aquarium taking shape in old building

As MOCA's new museum rises in University Circle, and the med mart, convention center and casino promise to breathe new life downtown, the Flats, too, is set to undergo a rebirth of its own. Construction of new retail, office and green space is in full swing on the East Bank, while across the river on the West Bank plans are taking shape for the brand new Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
Jacobs Entertainment, Inc. is pumping $70 million into the world-class aquatic facility, which is set to open early next year and draw upwards of 480,000 annual visitors. The watery attraction will employ 40 people while generating an economic impact of roughly $27 million per year. But since this is Cleveland, where everything unfolds with a twist, the new aquarium will be housed in a very old building: The Powerhouse.
In 1892, Marcus Hanna commissioned local architect John N. Richardson (Perry-Payne, Bradley and Worthington buildings) to design a structure to house the coal-fueled steam engines that would power his fleet of streetcars, and the Powerhouse was born. Over the next century, the iconic red-brick building with towering smokestacks would serve as a barrel reconditioning plant, a warehouse, and an entertainment mecca with restaurants and comedy club.
Turning the stalwart Powerhouse into a giant fish tank is no easy feat. Tasked with converting the 70,000-square-foot space is Marinescape, a New Zealand-based company that has designed and built aquariums all over the globe, including Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.
To that end, the site currently is bustling with activity. Construction workers labor over saw horses in spaces that soon will be dotted with seahorses. Plumbing stubs that will feed more than 40 display tanks poke through the floor of what is well on its way to becoming the most unusual aquarium in the country. Because rather than conceal the building's industrial past, the designers are embracing it.
"We're recycling our building," says aquarium GM Tami Brown. "The building itself becomes an integral part of your experience here."
Visitors will walk into one of those iconic smokestacks and gaze skyward at a tank suspended above them. As guests amble through the century-old coal distribution tunnel they'll view illuminated displays. A touch pond -- what amounts to an aquatic petting zoo -- will teem with manta rays, starfish and a host of other touchable creatures. The pond will be the centerpiece of the Coastal display, which is nestled among giant steel structural beams in the belly of the building.
A freshwater ecosystem display will celebrate Northern Ohio's lakes and waterways. Mike Hutchinson, Marinescape's Project Aquarist who hails from Scotland, is tasked with the challenge of acquiring the aquatic life. Oddly enough, Northeast Ohio's native fish are posing more of a challenge than larger oceanic animals.
When asked about the most difficult aspect of his job, Hutchinson responds, "Getting the species of fish from the lake and the rivers and streams. It’s just like fishing; you never know what you're going to catch or if you're going to catch anything at all. Sharks are probably easier to catch than a small, designated fish. It's easier to see a big shark than trying to catch a little fish that's swimming about in a lake."
Hutchinson is working closely with local fisheries, wildlife experts, and organizations like the Metroparks to determine what sort of significant indigenous species to highlight in the aquarium's exhibits.
"One of the big stories is the Ohio brook trout," he says, adding that this unique native fish was all but wiped away thanks to 20th-century development. "Over the years, Ohio fisheries started a reintroduction program and it's been very successful." The Ohio brook trout will be featured in a display that will simulate a flowing river.
As for the sharks, they'll travel from Florida in a truck outfitted with a filtered tank. Three specialists will monitor the animals while two dedicated drivers alternately man the steering wheel. Once they arrive, the sharks likely will become the stars of the dazzling SeaTube display. Submerged within a 250,000-gallon tank, visitors will enjoy panoramic views of sharks, eels and other species indigenous to coral reefs from the dry safety of a 145-foot long acrylic tube.
Hutchinson is still planning what other animals will occupy the display, but human divers definitely will be a part of it as they interact with the animals and perform maintenance on the habitat.
With the nearest competing venue being the Newport Aquarium in Cincinnati, the Cleveland attraction will be the only large-scale aquatic display within a four-and-a-half-hour drive. But what sets this project apart from the rest is its poetic irony and subtle nod to this town's checkered environmental past.
A year before the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, the waterway was pronounced all but dead during a Kent State environmental symposium. Over the past five decades, Northeast Ohio has revived the Cuyahoga and life indeed has rebounded. Now, one of the structures that defined the gritty industrial past -- and likely contributed to the degradation of the local waterways -- will celebrate aquatic environments far and wide. Families, students and visitors of all ages will discover Cleveland's past, present and future in one brilliant venue.
"To be able to have an aquarium that's focused on bringing back things like the Ohio brook trout in light of what so many people remember about our river?" says Brown. "I think is a great story about the progress that Cleveland has made."

Photos by Bob Perkoski except image 13, The Sea Tube, provided by the Greater Cleveland Aquarium

Read more articles by 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 for complete profile information.
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