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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Terminal Tower is a skyscraper at Public Square, the central plaza area of downtown Cleveland in the state of Ohio in the United States. The building stands 708 feet tall and has 52 stories. For several decades, it was the world’s tallest building outside New York City.

The building was constructed by two railroad baron brothers, Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen. They were active in real estate speculation in Ohio from about 1909 when they bought land near Public Square to build a station for their rapid transit rail line to nearby residential area Shaker Heights. The original plan was to include shops and restaurants but not an office tower. When a tower became part of the plans, it was going to be only 14 stories. This was to change to a 52 story, 708 foot skyscraper.

The brothers announced plans to build the Terminal Tower on top of the station in 1923. They wanted something comparable with the Woolworth Building in New York City built in 1913 which, at 57 stories and 792 feet, was the world’s tallest building until 1930. The Terminal Tower became the centerpiece of the complex. In terms of design, the tower is based on the New York Municipal Building, using the Beaux-Arts and art deco architectural styles which were popular in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Architects for the tower were Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

Work on the complex started in 1918. Some 2,200 buildings were demolished and several streets eliminated to make way for it. Excavation began in 1922. It soon became the world’s second largest excavation project after the Panama Canal. About 2.5 million cubic yards of rock and earth were removed from the site. Construction of the Terminal Tower and the rest of the complex began in 1926. The design had to withstand vibrations from the trains underneath. Sixteen caissons were sunk 200-250 feet into the ground to provide the foundations for the building. Structural work was finished in 1927.

Construction was complete in 1928, the year before the start of the Depression. The rest of the Cleveland Union Terminal, as it was originally called, opened in 1930. It included the Terminal Tower, the Cleveland Union Station, shops, restaurants, and three other office buildings, also built in the art deco style: the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Building, and the Builders Exchange Building.

At time of completion, it was world’s second tallest building, surpassed only by the Woolworth Building in New York. It was North America’s highest building, except for a number of skyscrapers in New York City, until 1964 when the Prudential Center in Boston, Massachusetts was built. A 63 foot flagpole on top of the building took its overall height to 771 feet. The tower is 90 feet square and has a floor area of 577,000 square feet or over 13 acres. It cost $179 million to build. The first tenants moved into the building in 1928. Cleveland radio station WHK was a tenant from 1931 and built antennas on the roof to improve the range of its then 1390 kHz signal.

The Terminal Tower was a spectacular site at night with hundreds of floodlights. It had a strobe light on top which rotated 360 degrees, flashing on and off. This was used as a navigation aid by ships in Cleveland’s port, as well as by airplanes coming into Hopkins International Airport. The light was replaced in the 1960s by more conventional warning lights for aircraft. The only time all the lights went out on the building was in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, a power outage affecting 55 million people in the US and Canada. The outside lights at night are gold in color but these can be altered to reflect the season, such as red and green at Christmas. For a while after 11 September 2001, the colors used were red, white, and blue.

The building opened with an “Observation Porch” on the 42nd floor and a “Soda Grill” on the 43rd. The observation deck was to be used by Goodyear as a terminal for airship travel to New York City. When this was found to be unfeasible, it became an overlook for tourists. You can see 30 miles on a clear day. Direct access to the 42nd floor was removed in 1976 when a Vietnam veteran stormed the conference room. He had been fired by tenant Chessie Systems, a holding company that owned a number of railroad companies. After that, visitors had to travel to the 33rd floor before taking another elevator to the 42nd. But the deck was only open at weekends, so it wouldn’t disrupt a law firm with offices on the 33rd floor.

Direct access to the observation deck was restored when Chessie left the building after it became part of the CSX Corporation in 1980. However, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the deck has been closed again. A proposal to reopen the deck, including renovating it and putting in an express elevator to the 42nd floor, was put before the building’s owner in 2007.

The entire Cleveland Union Terminal complex was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The station was demolished in the 1980s and a new one built. The old station site became a shopping center and food court, plus a parking garage. Plans in the 1980s to build a taller tower, BP Tower, in Cleveland were rejected by the local government, who wanted the Terminal Tower to remain the tallest. However, the nearby 57 story, 947 foot Key Tower became the city’s tallest in 1991.

The complex was renamed as Tower City Center in 1991 after the current owner, real estate company Forest City Enterprises, bought it. There were high vacancy rates at the time. The new owner brought in upmarket retailers, although more recently, these have been replaced by some less expensive stores. Two new office buildings were added in 1991.

From 2003 to 2006, an annual staircase climbing race from the plaza level to the observation deck level was held for charity. The tower has appeared in a number of movies, including The Fortune Cookie in 1966, The Deer Hunter in 1978, A Christmas Story in 1983, Major League in 1989, Proximity in 2001, and Spiderman 3 in 2007. Cleveland band Pere Ubu called their 1985 album Terminal Tower.

The building remains the centerpiece of Tower City Center, which also includes several other interconnected office buildings, a shopping mall, and two hotels. The station is used by all three of the city’s rapid transit lines. Terminal Tower is currently undergoing renovations and is still the second tallest building in Cleveland. It is the city’s most recognizable building.

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