Long-standing structures overlooked, never torn down, properties sold and resold with good intentions and little action
Every great urban center has its flashy, modern cityscape: tall glass skyscrapers that reflect bright sunrises, digitized billboards advertising new swank nightclubs, and crystalline modern art pieces in the city’s main squares. Our Cleveland is no exception.
But Cleveland also has a history, the remnants of which remind us of the past lives our city has led—long-standing structures overlooked, never torn down, properties sold and resold with good intentions and little action. Urban decay takes a life of its own, becoming the occasional shelter for a city’s homeless and/or drug-addicted, serving as a canvas for street artists honing their craft, and acting as an urban jungle for citified adventurers and avant-garde photographers to explore and seek inspiration.
Victoreen Building – 10101 Woodland Ave.
The Victoreen Instrument Company was founded in 1928 by John Austin Victoreen, a local radio parts manufacturer. Nuclear medicine pioneers were just beginning to use X-ray technology and radiation treatment, often exposing radiologists and patients to severe burns and cancers. In 1925, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic called on Victoreen to manufacture a device that would measure proper radiation doses—Victoreen’s Condenser-R meter soon became a medical industry standard practice worldwide and the Victoreen Instrument Company was born.
As Victoreen expanded, it moved to its current location, a large factory off the corner of Woodland and Woodhill Avenues. During World War II, Victoreen was commissioned to develop portable radiation devices for the Manhattan Project’s ultra-classified “Operation Peppermint,” a series of preparations made by the US in advance of storming the beaches at Normandy, believing the Germans may use nuclear materials, particularly plutonium, to fight back the invasion. Victoreen manufactured nearly fifty of these devices. Though we know now the Germans had not developed nuclear weapons, the Victoreen devices would serve their purpose in measuring radioactivity during the Manhattan Project’s initial A-bomb testing in New Mexico and later, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly all of the instrumentation devices used in nuclear testing during the Cold War, particularly in the Marshall Islands, were created by Victoreen.
The building has been empty since 1978 when the Victoreen Instrument Company left, the result of several acquisitions and mergers. Victoreen is now a part of Fluke Biomedical based in Washington, which maintains it as a “legacy” brand. The building was last sold in 2009 but still stands empty. The land behind the building is scattered with giant blocks of torn concrete and metal. Office chairs, documents, toilets, even a child’s doll sit abandoned in the rubble. Inside the building, weather and age have deteriorated the concrete steps so severely, they are nearly a hill of dust—only the brave make it to the top floors. And don’t hang on to the hand rails, what remains of them. Graffiti artists, some with everything to say and others with nothing, have tagged the walls with bright colors and designs, heavily contrasted against the steel grey interior and concrete dust. It is their factory now.
East Cleveland Power House – 6061 Cedar Ave.
On December 18, 1888, the East Cleveland Railroad opened up its new power house on the corner of Ashland Road and Cedar Avenue, allowing it to extend its Euclid Avenue line service all the way into Public Square. The massive power house took up a full block, featured a 175-foot-high smokestack and several of the largest generators and boilers ever created. Several additions to the building would make it the largest power house in the United States by the end of the 19th century.
By 1912, the East Cleveland Railway Power House was operating over capacity, rolling through 60,000 tons of coal per year and nearly 50,000 cubic feet of water per day. The railway began outsourcing some of its power generation to the Illuminating Company and asked the city for money to rebuild the power house. City investigators determined it would be cheaper to continue outsourcing the power generation and the railway vacated the building in 1917. It was sold and then reused by an ice machine manufacturer, Westinghouse created electrical equipment there, and Thompson Products manufactured aircraft parts in what was the steam room. After several mergers, Thompson would become TRW, one of the largest aerospace companies in the world. In 1962, TRW purchased new property in Independence and sold the plant to a Cleveland real estate investor. It would change hands several more times—parts of the complex were still used up until 1979. The building has remained vacant ever since.
Sleeping bags and bottles are strewn about in random areas throughout the bottom floor; the outer structure of the building still appears solid and many of its inner corridors remain, providing plenty of shelter for those who need it. The second addition to the building that sits along Ashland Road is missing its roof, but the concrete floor remains smooth and complete, and graffiti artists are most likely sneaking around the joint when the weather complies. The building itself is a menacing sight, set back from the road with surrounded by unkempt grass and barbed wire fences with “Keep Out” signs and giant flues in its roof that stare down all who travel Cedar. The outer structure is the most interesting sight for urban explorers and history buffs; one can imagine what it must have looked and sounded like in 1888 when it was brand new and in full operation, and no modern power plant comes close to resembling it.
Warner and Swasey Observatory – 2010 Hanover Dr.
The old observatory on the hill in East Cleveland is the most visited abandoned site in the city. Nearly every day, amateur explorers, graffiti artists and those with just a general sense of curiosity are there climbing the stairs to the upper rooms, reading graffiti to each other, and snapping photos of the sun leaking into holes in the dome roof so they can post them on Instagram.
The Warner and Swasey Company began in 1880 when two machinists from Connecticut, Worcester Reed Warner and Ambrose Swasey, moved to Cleveland to start their own business manufacturing telescopes and turret lathes for assembly machines. They became trustees of the Case Institute of Technology and had the observatory built as a donation to the university. It opened in 1920. A second dome was added for a stronger telescope in 1941. Several important astronomical studies took place here, including a study that determined the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy. By the 1950s light pollution in the city had made the observatory nearly useless for academic research and the telescopes were relocated. The observatory remained open until 1980, providing telescope viewing for the public. It has been abandoned since.
Urban explorers love this building for it’s amazing views, both from inside the domes and from the observation decks around the main dome that look down onto the Metroparks and out toward the lake. The unusual circular shape of the building makes it more challenging and fun to explore. The graffiti here is intense, ranging from political statements to cartoon dragons painted on the rounded brick that lines the inner walls where the smaller dome rests. The concrete spiral stairs are in good shape, making for easy travel even for the amateur explorer or occasional vertigo-sufferer. You certainly don’t want to take a picnic basket up to the observation deck, but as far as urban decay goes, it’s pretty clean.
Clevelanders think we know Cleveland; we’ve hung out in every suburb, been to the lake a gazillion times, been to each of the three major sports stadiums, been to all the cool places. But some of those cool places aren’t going to have a Facebook page or send an evite. You have to invite yourself. Go explore.