hidden cle: the coolest things in plain sight you've likely never seen

While the West Side Market, Terminal Tower and cultural masterpieces of University Circle glitter center stage in Cleveland's architectural scene, what about the hidden gems, the wallflowers and the untold stories? With CityProwl podcaster and veteran architect Jennifer Coleman as our trusty guide, we discover one treasure after another, from a tiny neighborhood worthy of Dickens to bouquets of flowers fit for a giant.
"It's something you don't see until you see it"
When you do see this grouping of buildings at the unassuming corner of E. 36th and Prospect, your eyes will widen and you'll catch your breath.
"There are these absolutely stunning stone homes -- townhouses," says Coleman. "It looks like someone scooped them up from New York City and dropped them down in Cleveland."
Noted on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Prospect Avenue Row House Group was built between 1874 and 1879 by wealthy Clevelanders. The Ohio Historic Places Dictionary describes the complex as "an extremely rare group of five architecturally distinguished rowhouses… in a combination of High Victorian, Gothic, High Victorian Italianate, Eastlake and Second Empire styles."
"They harken back to a different era," Coleman notes of the quietly charming collection. "Even though they're on Prospect, they're really a remnant of our Millionaire's Row era." She recalls touring one of the homes, noting the pearlescent marble floors, high ceilings and ornate woodwork. "They are absolutely incredible spaces."
And while they're not public spaces, the westernmost unit is home to the Brownstone Inn Downtown, so the splendor is not entirely out of reach. Until a special occasion worthy of a stay there comes up, a stroll by this little known jewel is absolutely free.
"It's something you don't see until you see it," says Coleman.
"It has a history of some rock stars that used to stay there"
A stone's throw north, fronting Euclid Avenue, is another enduring architectural relic. Built in 1898, the Esmond was designed by John L. Eisenmann, co-architect of the Old Arcade. The building's secrets are hidden by a thick grove of trees and knotting of ivy vines that festoon its brownstone exterior.
"You pass by and you wouldn't even see it," says Coleman, noting that as soon as you do notice either the neon or stone carved sign announcing the Esmond, you've come across a collection of "small gracious apartments" that were a magnet for a certain demographic in the mid 1900s.
"They were kind of like bachelor pads. If you were a young man working downtown and you wanted to live close by, there were these kinds of buildings that were small and very pretty, very nice buildings."
Located literally next door to the Agora, the still-active apartment building is a designated Cleveland Landmark.
"It has a history of some rock stars that used to stay there short term," says Coleman.
One mayor, two statues
While Eisenmann probably never envisioned the shenanigans of bachelors and rockers playing out in his humble apartment building, he did work for Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson, compiling the city's first comprehensive building code. The Mayor was busy as well championing municipal ownership of utilities, battling monopolies and establishing public projects such as the Mall.
"As one of our mayors that did a lot for the city and produced a lot," explains Coleman, she recommends you "pass by and wave at him a little bit" when you encounter Johnson's statue in the northwest quadrant of Public Square. If you're at University Circle, however, you can say hello to a much lesser known statue of the distinguished mayor that is located near the rear entrance of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
"Say, Good job," suggests Coleman.
Courtyard dreams, urban ruins
Enter the door of 700 W. St. Clair and you'll find yourself in the Hoyt Block Building atrium, a gorgeous and airy space that's open to the public and perfect for coffee breaks and brown bag lunches. And while this multi-storied space, with it's exposed brick walls, greenery and windows that peer into adjacent offices, is inviting on its own, the confounding space showcased in its rear windows is one of the oddest things you likely will encounter downtown (intoxicated asphalt Romeos and Juliets notwithstanding).
Call it a space that dreams of one day becoming a courtyard.
"It's like a donut hole," says Coleman. "All of the buildings on the block encircle it." A grand set of stairs leads nowhere in this space that's open to the sky, but nothing else. A brick wall crumbles in one corner. Boarded up windows tell no tales.
"It almost has a European ruin feel to it."
Coleman adds, "It’s a really interesting urban space because all the buildings face away from it. There are all these different rear facades. It's half greenery and half concrete. It’s just a very provocative space. It looks like something happened and didn't quite happen all at the same time, like there was a design for the space that never quite got finished. It's just fun."
While there are murmurs about upgrading the space as part of a larger project, for now the mysterious courtyard is essentially inaccessible.
"It's very difficult and possibly illegal to enter that space."
No worries. Coleman has other quirky outdoor ideas, starting with a pocket park in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood.
At the intersection of contrast and history
Art and Soul of Buckeye Community Park is a big name for a nifty little space.
Occupying a corner lot at the intersection of E. 118th Street and Buckeye, this green space includes a 16-foot-tall sculpture "Trumpet Man" and a friendly dog watching him. Colorful murals featuring musicians and gospel singers round out the space and surrounding area.
"In the past couple of years, Buckeye has been branding itself as a musical -- specifically jazz -- type area. It's a wonderful example of the community's vision of the arts," says Coleman of the postage-stamp sized space, which also serves as a mini festival ground.
The park is nestled amid storefronts both active and vacant, all of which are full up with visual commentary and interesting architectural details.
"Buckeye is really kind of a special street, a pedestrian/person scaled street. It's narrow. Most of the buildings are two-story with a couple of wonderful exceptions."
Two buildings adjacent to the park epitomize the neighborhood's contrast. The elegant Weizer Building, built in 1927, has been restored to its original grandeur and currently houses a social services agency. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with the Moreland Theater, which sits shuttered across the street.
Guarded by fierce howling gargoyles, the Moreland also was built in 1927 as a Vaudeville and movie theater with some residential space. Echoes of the original marquee remain, as does a sign indicating the space was once used as a church. Plans for renovation are ongoing.
"When you get into neighborhoods," says Coleman, "the story gets a little bit more about people and what happened in different buildings. You get more of how people came through and how they used the neighborhood and the interesting things that happened."
Special delivery
For the last stop, a Cleveland epiphany: What is it about those swirling concrete planters lining Euclid Avenue and E. 9th Street that makes them so … je ne sais quoi?
Coleman muses on artist Mark Reigelman's (Cold Front, Reading Nest) enchanting design. "It's a little bit urban," says Coleman. "The idea was to evoke someone who has just bought flowers at a stand and has them wrapped in paper, like they're bringing them to somebody. The design is very unique to Cleveland."
Indeed it is. After all, where else can a thick concrete spiral deliver a gentle gift of flowers?
Jennifer Coleman has been on Cleveland's architectural scene for more than 25 years. Among other distinctions, she is Chair of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and the Downtown/Flats Design Review Committee. She also serves on the boards of LAND Studio and Downtown Cleveland Alliance. Her CityProwl audio walking tours are free downloadable podcasts that guide walkers through the history and architecture of Cleveland's storied neighborhoods and thoroughfares.

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

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 erinobrien.us for complete profile information.