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Breuer Office Tower Facing Demolition in Cleveland

Sat June 09, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Thomas J. Sheeran - ASSOCIATED PRESS

CLEVELAND (AP) An architecturally acclaimed but mostly unloved office tower that sits empty has become a battleground between county commissioners determined to demolish it and preservationists and architects who want the Marcel Breuer building renovated.

Breuer, a modernist architect, was awarded the 1968 Jefferson Foundation Medal that cited him “among all the living architects of the world as excelling all others in the quality of his work.” But few seem to like his brooding 29-story Cleveland building with its honeycomb of dark recessed windows.

The issue could be resolved when the Cleveland Planning Commission meets June 1 and June 8 to listen to both sides on whether to raze the former home of the old Ameritrust bank or renovate it for Cuyahoga County government offices.

In a rare show of dissension among the three county commissioners, all Democrats, Jimmy Dimora and Timothy Hagan voted to demolish the county-owned building and replace it with a new structure. Peter Lawson Jones voted against demolition and has championed supporters of the building. Demolition and building a replacement would require approval by the city planning commission, director Robert Brown said.

The building, located in the heart of downtown two blocks from the Jacobs Field ballpark, was designed by Breuer. His credits include the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the UNESCO building in Paris and the 1971 wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Hungarian-born Breuer taught in Germany’s Bauhaus school and fled Europe with the rise of the Nazis. He died in 1981.

The commissioners have differed over whether it would be more costly to raze and demolish the asbestos-laden building and replace it or to renovate it. In either case, commissioners have agreed to preserve an adjacent landmark, the 1908 Cleveland Trust rotunda.

The Breuer building has supporters, but few willing to admit loving the boxy, unadorned style. Even Jones takes a long pause before sizing up his position.

“Aesthetically, it doesn’t move me,” he said.

The architect community has pressured commissioners to save the building, in part because of its Breuer origin and as an energy-saving gesture with the thought that it would be less costly energy-wise to renovate.

Lawrence Lumpkin, a planning commission member, toured the building in advance of the public hearings and said he was undecided on its future.

“It definitely has some historical significance, but I also wonder if it has the ability to meet the needs of the county services that are being planned for it,” he said May 15.

David Niland, an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati, said it would be a shame to tear it down.

“In Cleveland, it’s a significant building and the architect himself is one of the icons of the so-called ’modern movement’ in this country,” he said by phone from Cincinnati. “He had a profound influence on many, many architects.”

Tony Hiti, 43, an architect and fan of the building, joined a recent sidewalk protest outside the building to support its renovation and predicted the structure would be missed if demolished.

“I think it’s a fine example of modern architecture,” he said.

Still, Hiti said, “I understand why it doesn’t have wide appeal,” lacking ornamentation and familiar details like columns, arches or sculpted facades.

“This is a very important building by one of the pioneering architects of the 20th century,” Hiti said as fellow protesters handed out leaflets to fans headed to a Cleveland Indians game.

Dimora and Hagan, who lost a campaign for governor in 2002, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the dispute. Hagan said earlier that he didn’t want to be lobbied on the issue and had made up his mind.

Hagan has said the government for Ohio’s most populous county deserves a signature building. As for Breuer’s design, “If it was a great building, it wouldn’t be vacant,” he told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

The plan backed by Dimora and Hagan would include demolition and a new building to house 2,000 county employees scattered in rented locations around the city.

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