The Hilton by the Mall is the prescription for a healthy downtown Cleveland: J. Mark Souther
Plans for a $260 million, 27-story, 600-room Hilton hotel overlooking the city’s “medical mart,” if put into action, would accomplish what a similar effort failed to do 55 years ago. In 1958, downtown Cleveland had gone three decades without a new hotel. City voters had just rejected two successive bond issues in 1957-58 to expand what once had been a state-of-the-art convention center. Cleveland had been the nation’s third-ranking convention destination, but rival cities built newer, larger facilities.
With convention planners passing on Cleveland’s antiquated Public Auditorium and hotels that even the president of the Cleveland Development Foundation derided as “the local flea bags,” a small group of Cleveland boosters, with Mayor Anthony J. Celebrezze’s blessing, brought Conrad Hilton to town and asked him to envision a soaring convention hotel on the southern end of the Mall. The Cleveland Press got the scoop on Christmas Eve in a pro-hotel editorial titled “Don’t Muff This Chance.” On Christmas morning, The Plain Dealer responded with an editorial with the header, “Not on the Mall.”
Thus ensued a yearlong battle over whether Hilton’s plan to lease part of the Mall was good or bad for the city. Hotel backers claimed the $20 million, 25-story, 1,000-room hotel would revive Cleveland’s convention trade and transform the Mall, which one booster called “a dark hole in the center of Cleveland.” They pointed out that the hotel would likely furnish hundreds of thousands of dollars in lease income and real estate taxes annually. Opponents, however, fixated on the fact that Hilton, who planned to spend $4 million and mortgage $10 million, expected Clevelanders to finance $6 million of the construction cost -- and give up precious public space. They argued that with so many nearby downtown buildings in various stages of decay, downtown revitalization would be advanced more by demolishing any of a number of nearby buildings in various stages of neglect.
Ultimately, the questions of whether the Mall was hallowed ground and whether public funds should be spent to attract Hilton cost Cleveland an opportunity to recapture lost ground as a convention city. After favorable votes on the project by both the City Planning Commission and City Council, hotel backers formed the Committee on Civic Progress solely to “sell” the hotel to voters, who would have to approve the city’s leasing Mall land to Hilton. In November 1959, 51 percent of voters rejected the “hotel on the mall.” Four weeks later, Hilton opened a similar convention hotel in Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.
Now we have another opportunity to attract a Hilton. For all its potential to be the centerpiece that “City Beautiful” planner Daniel Burnham intended more than a century ago, the Mall remains an underutilized space. Unlike in 1958-59, when the Hilton plan followed the failure to expand Public Auditorium, today’s Hilton plan builds upon a newly expanded convention center and freshly minted Global Center for Health Innovation. As was true then, without adequate hotel and meeting space, Cleveland will not realize its potential to rebuild a largely lost pillar of its downtown. This time around, we have the opportunity to build a Hilton — not on but by the Mall. However distasteful public subsidies — particularly those approved without a public vote — may be, let’s not “Muff This Chance” to realize Burnham’s vision of a Mall that might become something more than a windswept waste.
J. Mark Souther, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history and director for the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.