CLEVELAND — As Cleveland builds its way into the 21st century, the risk that our past will be left behind becomes all too real. Sometimes that past whispers to us, as it does at the corner of West 9th Street and Main Avenue. Six steps. A wall of bricks. They look a little out of place in the heart of Warehouse District. But providing a sense of place is exactly why this odd little piece of streetscape exists at all.
It's easy to walk or drive by the steps at the corner of West 9th and Main and and not notice them at all. But when you do notice them, you can't stop noticing them, because they don't quite fit with the adjacent parking lot.
Chuck Mocsiran, a city archivist, was on one of his morning walks with his dog Otis, who picked this spot to do what dogs like to do, he said, laughing as he retold the story. The place where his dog marked the spot alerted him to a century-old wall he never paid much attention to before.
“It caught my attention how this old stone wall and these steps just kind of popped up out of nowhere,” said Mocsiran. “It was obvious that they predated the parking lot that was right above; so, more than likely, they had to be a remnant from some older structure that used to stand on that site.”
One day he ran into the late Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka, who Mocsiran says is “the go-to guy” for the history of buildings and homes, and told him about his discovery.
“He got a big smile on his face and all he told me was that he would have something for me. Next time I saw him, he had a picture of the old lighthouse, and he pointed out the stone wall and the steps in the old photo,” Mocsiran said.
When looking at modern-day Cleveland, it’s hard to imagine that a prominent structure like a lighthouse had purpose in the middle of downtown.
Regarding the proximity of the lighthouse to the shoreline, John Grabowski, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, said, "I think that's one of the things that makes it almost unbelievable is that there was a lighthouse when we did so much change.”
The shoreline started closer to where the Main Avenue Bridge is now. At the time of the lighthouse, the East Bank Flats, fancy apartment buildings and the bridge did not exist.
The land that’s home to the Flats East Bank wasn’t there in 1829. Like Edgewater Park, the land that FirstEnergy Stadium sits on and everything behind Cleveland City Hall, it was created using landfill.
“It’s after seeing the old photos that it’s hard to believe that where there’s now the steel and concrete of the bridge with an asphalt lot below, there used to be stone stairs and walls and manicured lawns and shade trees surrounding an awesome lighthouse structure,” Mocsiran said.
The history of the lighthouse
Levi Johnson was a builder of firsts for Cuyahoga County, including the first courthouse, the first jail and Cleveland’s first lighthouse, which was erected around 1829. The lighthouse cost $8,000 to construct and the stone tower stood 55 feet tall with 11 lamps and 14-inch reflectors, according to Lighthousefriends, which did a complete history of lighthouses in Cleveland.
The lighthouse was a reflection of the times. In the 1820 and 1830s, the young city was beginning to grow because of shipping, and ships needed guidance to get into the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.
At the time, the best place to put a lighthouse was on Water Street, which is now West 9th Street, on a bluff overlooking the area where the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie converged.
“And it [the lighthouse] was there for many, many years until it was replaced with more modern lighthouses,” said Grabowski. "That's what makes those steps such a mystery because you can't imagine them going anywhere.”
Even though many questioned the usefulness of the lighthouse on the bluff, Congress appropriated $45,000 in 1869 for a new lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling. In 1873, a new lighthouse was completed at the same site.
“Built in a Victorian Gothic style, the 1873 Cleveland lighthouse is likely the most impressive lighthouse ever constructed in the United States,” wrote Lighthousefriends.com, which detailed the history of the lighthouse and others in the region.
Remembering the past for the future
Grabowski's right, because you can’t imagine those lighthouse steps going anywhere other than to its current destination...a parking lot, but there are plans to change that.
In 2019, the Ohio & Erie Canalway awarded $446,680 to 19 regional organizations for projects and programs within the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, which includes the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation.
Decades ago, in the early 1980s, there was a project called, "The Hidden City Revealed," which explored hidden architectural artifacts through walking tours. The lighthouse steps were identified as a prominent architectural feature that told the history of Cleveland.
"As we were a small village, it was the most prominent spot, so early people of means built four or five very large homes there," said Tom Yablonsky, executive director of the Gateway District, who tells the story of Johnson and the lighthouse during the "Take a Hike Cleveland Walking Tours."
A few years ago, the Warehouse District commissioned local artist Corrie Slawson for an anthology public art piece in front of the steps, which fostered discussion and eventual planning for the future home of Lighthouse Park.
Lighthouse Park will be a pocket park in the district near the site of the original lighthouse, which will be located along the property of The Archer apartment complex.
Park elements will feature a sculptural light bar, seating, swings and the conservation of the historical wall and steps that once led to the lighthouse.
Yablonsky said the park is another piece of preserving Cleveland's history and its role, then and now, in invention and innovation.
“It is extremely significant, not just for Cleveland history, but U.S. history. So in that development, it became one of the major centers of innovation, industrial development,” said Yablonsky.
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