The Empires of Cleveland's Van Sweringen Brothers
By Herbert H. Harwood Jr.
This is a book that will appeal to you if you are interested in Cleveland history, the building of the railroads, city planning, or business and life in the early half of the 20th century.
Most Clevelanders know that the Van Sweringen brothers built the Terminal Tower. Some will know that they also designed and built Shaker Heights.
But there is much more to their story and this book gives a detailed look at their lives and how they intertwined with the growth and development of the city of Cleveland.
Oris Paxton (O.P.) and Maris James (M.J.) Van Sweringen, commonly called "the Vans," grew from poverty to great wealth and power - not just in Cleveland but in the growing country.
Cleveland was different in those days. As the book begins, "Cleveland, Ohio, at the turn of the twentieth century was a booming, wealthy city but not a particularly pretty one. Being pretty was not its business."
The book details how the growing European immigrant population worked the mills and factories as rail lines carried iron ore and coal and other ingredients and products of the industrial times. The time was right for innovation and speculation and the Van Sweringens had the ideas and entrepreneurial characteristics to create a Horatio Alger type real life story.
The book has some great photos and maps - many of the streets and buildings will be very familiar to Clevelanders, as they still exist today. One need only look at Shaker Heights with their unique rapid transit system to see the vision of the Vans. Not to mention the 52-story Terminal Tower which they built along with the Hotel Cleveland (now the Renaissance Hotel) on one side and Higbees on the other.
Their vision for expansion in the city went way out to the wilderness of Beachwood and Pepper Pike and beyond. They controlled the largest railroad system in the US, almost coast-to-coast. They would have completed the coast-to-coast connectivity (still elusive even in 2005) had not the Great Depression set in.
They certainly knew their geography and what to do with it. Someone asked O.P who his favorite authors were. He answered 'Rand and McNally."
It's a fascinating book that tells how they fought the "uptown" building craze all the way up 12th and then 17th and Euclid with their Public Square ventures. Kinsman, Shaker, Euclid, Superior, East 34th and on and on - Cleveland readers will really enjoy this.
The book also tells some of the little known history of the two men - the "invisible giants" who were so private. It's interesting to note that as you travel the city you won't see a Van Sweringen building or tower or statue or anything else.
In fact, if you go to Lake View Cemetery where they are buried you won't see the opulent monuments like those for John D. Rockefeller, James Garfield, John Hay, Mark Hanna or others. You will see a simple slab that has their names and dates and the one simple word "Brothers."
Truly they remain "invisible giants."
Reviewed by Dan Hanson
Additional thought from Fr. John McCarthy
The Book I wanted to write, March 22, 2004
I grew up on the border of Cleveland Heights/Shaker Heights off Fairmount Blvd.A gradeschool classmate was Bernie Bernet. As a boy I rode my bicycle over to Shaker Blvd. to watch the Rapids go by. At CWRU a colleague was Ian Haberman and my fellow members of NORM are Tolman and Wayne Hayes.
I walked the East Cleveland Rapid line when it still stood empty. I was making notes for this history in about 1950.
Except for the buying and selling of the various railroads, this book is a part of my life. I know every inch of it and except for a very few very tiny slips (in the maps mostly)it is a masterpiece.
And the very book itself, without the contents, is a first class production.
Top of Page
Back to Books for Cleveland Seniors and Baby Boomers
Photos from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck