second time around: restoring cleveland's past, one building at a time

Dick Pace can recite the history of the Baker Electric Building like a well-versed poem. Pointing out the exposed brick, tile floors and wood paneling in the main lobby, he recalls the building's start as the original showroom for Baker Electric Motor Cars. Built in 1910, the building at E. 71st and Euclid now houses Pace's real estate company Cumberland Development, plus numerous high-tech start-ups.

A smile spreads across his face as he offers a tour of the fully occupied building, once a beacon of Cleveland's manufacturing prowess and now a symbol of the city’s high-tech renaissance.

But to say it was love at first sight would be a lie. When Pace was first shown the vacant building in 2002, he politely passed. "At that point, there was very little around here," he explains. "Everything was vacant, boarded up." Despite his love of the building’s architecture, he decided the building wasn’t in the right location.

Fast-forward four years and the neighborhood was beginning to change.

"In 2006, I came back and looked at this building again and the Euclid Avenue Corridor was beginning construction, and at that point the Cleveland Clinic was expanding west," adds Pace. With rumblings of a new market beginning to emerge and the city making an effort to better connect businesses to workers via public transportation, Pace decided, "Now the time is right."

Shortly after the acquisition, the first tenants began to move in. It wasn’t long before the building was completely leased. Although he was drawn to the building’s architecture, the interior was in dire need of repair. "We had to totally rework it," he says. "We did it with environmentally friendly restoration in mind as opposed to gut and rehab."

Historic tax credits and support from the county made the year-long renovation project possible. While private investment certainly played a key role, Pace’s experience with local government goes completely against the narrative Clevelanders are used to.

"That was the first time I went after government money and I thought it would be very hard and painful and too much paperwork and drag everything out," he recalls. "The money came in faster than anybody else. I was very impressed."

Lucky for Cleveland architecture fans, other businesses have rescued and renovated historic city buildings. Law firm Calfee, Halter & Griswold has ties to downtown dating clear back to 1903, when Robert M. Calfee opened an office at the Old Arcade. Today, the firm has grown to become one of the largest corporate law firms in the state, representing Fortune 500 companies. Last year, Calfee moved nearly 300 employees into the previously vacant East Ohio Gas Co. building at E. 6th and Rockwell.

Built in 1916, the building -- now on the National Register of Historic Places -- has been given new life thanks to the law firm. Now, in addition to being a beautiful piece of Cleveland architecture, it also meets sustainability standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Green features include water-conserving fixtures throughout the building, controls that raise and lower the lights in response to daylight levels, sensors that switch off lighting in areas not in use, and a new white roof that reduces heat gain on the building and lessens the building’s overall energy needs.

Creating an environmentally friendly building was important to Calfee, as was developing a special kind of atmosphere for the employees.

"The firm was very involved in crafting the working and collaborative spaces, customizing it for the 21st century practice of law," says managing partner Brent Ballard. "Multiple collaborative spaces, as well as a conference center, were built into the design of the space to foster creativity and efficiency among our people in delivering quality work product and service to our clients."

The response, naturally, has been joyous.

"This historic building is a point of pride for our attorneys and staff, many of whom have brought clients, families and friends to tour the space," boasts Ballard. "It is close to clients, the downtown courthouses and offices, and downtown attractions. It’s a wonderfully energized location that promises to become even more exciting in the future."

That energy is precisely why the firm never once considered fleeing to the suburbs.

"Every business must make decisions based on their own particular circumstances and plans. Calfee is delighted to have played a part in restoring and reviving a previously vacant building in the heart of downtown Cleveland. Our city has a tremendous legacy of beautiful, useful buildings that can be part of the business, residential and recreational revival of downtown," says Ballard.

That legacy stretches beyond downtown -- across the Cuyahoga and into Ohio City -- where new investment has been pumping life into many of the neighborhood’s historic gems.

Nationally acclaimed chef Steve Schimoler took a hands-on interest in Cleveland architectural history when he relocated Crop Bistro from the Warehouse District to the former United Bank building at W. 25th and Lorain -- a short hop from the 100-year-old West Side Market.

"I first toured the building about four years ago," Schimoler recalls. "But the minute I saw the space I immediately knew I had to do something here. I am fascinated with historic buildings and this represents a slice of the roaring '20s and the opulence and grandeur of the time."

Grandeur, indeed. When it opened in 1925, the nine-story, $1.5 million building was the tallest and largest commercial building on Cleveland’s West Side, according to Cleveland Historical. A look up at the ceiling’s ornate flourishes conjures images of a grand European cathedral.

Schimoler says the response has been positive and he believes the city should make every effort to continue revitalizing Cleveland’s historical architecture for the businesses of today and tomorrow.

"I think we should always go the extra mile to utilize historic buildings as well as keep the integrity of the original designs," explains Schimoler. "It’s virtually impossible to replicate much of the craftsmanship from 80 to 100 years ago."

While Calfee and Crop certainly have played a profound role in preserving the city’s past, Baker Electric, perhaps, offers the best glimpse of Cleveland’s future. Inside the high-tech incubator are 14 innovative startups beginning to draw national attention. Volcano Corporation, for one, develops devices to facilitate endovascular procedures, enhance the diagnosis of vascular and structural heart disease, and guide optimal therapies. Yes, that’s a mouthful, but any reader can tell that it is right at home with Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals just down the street.

"Each business is its own success story," says Pace.

Sitting in his office with blueprints for a potential historic renovation of a downtown building spread across his desk, Pace is confident that the days of mass demolition (eg. the Warehouse District) are behind us. He believes investment in Cleveland from a multitude of businesses, like Cumberland, Calfee and Crop, have had a psychological impact on investors.

"Right now, there’s a very positive buzz about Cleveland nationally. Maybe it’s not as easy to see for people who are living here in Cleveland, but if you travel or go elsewhere, the reputation of Cleveland is really growing," reports Pace. "This is a market people can succeed in."

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1 - 6: The Calfee Building
- Images 7 - 9: The Baker Electric Building
- Images 10 - 14: Crop Bistro

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.