By SARAH JAQUAY
I won’t belabor the adaptive behaviors this pandemic has required. Most of them are odious at best. And I’m not a Pollyanna when it comes to hard times. They are arduous. But focusing on visible structures in lieu of the microbial world can yield hidden pleasures and treasures. Noticing and savoring our built environment is something we’ve been doing a lot of as we seek to escape isolationist routines and hope to find something new or under-appreciated.
“People know architecturally significant neighborhoods when they are in them, whether it’s Beacon Hill, Georgetown or Richmond’s Fan District,” local architect Robert Gaede once said at a lecture about Terminal Tower (who knew it was built on sand?!) And that’s what I know every time I drive through Rockefeller Park’s Cultural Gardens to connect with Interstate 90.
John D. Rockefeller gifted approximately 200 acres of parkland along the valley created by Doan Brook on the occasion of Cleveland’s centennial in 1896. He also donated $300,000 for its “beautification and upkeep.” This cocooned parkland extends from Gordon Park on Lake Erie southward to Shaker Heights. The most popular part is the winding route along Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Drive that hosts Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens (another topic for another day), tennis courts, playgrounds, a greenhouse, plus a bike and walking trail.
What transports me along this two-mile stretch are the romantic stone bridges with arched underpasses and curvilinear staircases. There are four of them that move traffic over Rockefeller Park at: Wade Park Avenue, Superior Avenue, St. Clair Avenue and the most northerly one hosts Conrail Railway tracks.
And while no one would mistake the built environment around the Cultural Gardens for Notre Dame or the Louvre, driving under these bridges evokes memories of drifting down the Seine on one of the Bateaux Mouches: that is, being surrounded by centuries of thoughtful (albeit deteriorating) architecture. The other idyllic place that Rockefeller Park reminds me of is Boston’s Back Bay Fens (a.k.a. the Fens.) The Fens is an “urban wild” parkland designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to serve as a connector in that city’s park system, the original Emerald Necklace. It’s a sylvan parkway that connects Cambridge to Jamaica Plain. Driving through the Fens always reminds me of driving down the old Liberty Blvd. to get to Cleveland’s Shoreway, complete with interesting stone bridges. In fact the iconic Boylston Street Bridge was designed by famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
How did Cleveland acquire these four graceful bridges over its urban wild park? Fortunately, the city attracted architect Charles Frederick Schweinfurth in the early 1880s. Schweinfurth practiced in New York City and worked in the office of the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury for several years before he moved here to build some of the most elegant mansions along Millionaire’s Row, including for financier Sylvester T. Everett, political king maker Marcus A. Hanna and homes for Samuel Mather that are still standing, Cleveland State University’s Mather Mansion and Mather’s Shoreby residence in Bratenahl.
Before being curious about Rockefeller Park’s bridges, I’d never heard of Schweinfurth. Yet he was one of Cleveland’s most prolific Gilded Age architects. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History’s entry about him, Schweinfurth designed the four Rockefeller Park bridges between 1897 and 1900. He also worked on Old Stone Church (1884), Calvary Presbyterian (1890) and Trinity Cathedral (1907). His productive relationship with Samuel and Flora Stone Mather led to designs for the Union Club (1905) and several buildings on what is now Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU’s) campus: Harkness Chapel (1902), Hadyn Hall on Bellflower (1902) and the old Backus law school on Adelbert (1896.)
I worked on CWRU’s campus for seven years. And I could feel when I was in an architecturally significant portion of it. Most of the time I was standing in front of a Schweinfurth-designed building. So until it’s safe to visit Paris or Boston again, check out what Chuck built for generations of Northeastern Ohioans to enjoy and admire, including a drive through Rockefeller Park to see Schweinfurth’s “fab four” bridges.