A relic of retail
Call me crazy, but Cleveland has always been a city that I’ve wanted to visit. I’ve always had a thing for older cities supposedly past their prime like Saint Louis and Pittsburgh, so I knew that I would like the “Mistake by the Lake” also. Besides being home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s also The Christmas Story House museum as well as some of the finest late nineteenth century and early twentieth century retail architecture in the country.
Known for The Arcade on Euclid as well as the Fifth Street Arcade, much of downtown is dominated by what once was the old Higbee’s building and the Terminal Tower. And all of it is situated right over one of the other mainstays of downtown retail and entertainment, Tower City Center.
Owing to its prominent location to the southwest of the Cleveland Public Square as well as its archetypical, mid-century appearance, its nostalgia inducing form served as the backdrop to the opening scene of the holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Though the camera crews as well as the old Higbee’s are long gone, the city built quite the handsome public gathering area just under the tower and over the downtown Rapid station.
The main retail portion is a three-level complex of shops and entertainment venues mainly positioned across Prospect Avenue from the Terminal Tower. Having visited the weekend after Cleveland hosted the NBA All Star Weekend in 2022, many of the activities for the event still stood under the central atrium, while upscale eateries and the Ritz Carlton Hotel dominated the surrounding mezzanine. As the structure also serves as the entrance to the Rapid station, it is open all hours that the trains run, giving one an opportunity to explore the corridors even outside of traditional shopping hours.
Tower City Center was first built as the Cleveland Union Terminal and was officially dedicated in 1930. Its neighbor to the northeast, the Terminal Tower, opened in 1928 and through the mid-60s was the tallest building in North America outside of New York City. Other buildings were raised as a part of the massive project, which, at the time, included excavation work that was second only to the construction of the Panama Canal.
Higbee’s moved their main store to the art deco monolith in 1931 and became the hub of Cleveland’s downtown retail. It and the surrounding businesses soldiered on through much of the twentieth century, but by the eighties the area was seeing quite a bit of decay. As the rail terminal itself was never as popular as envisioned, in the late part of the decade much of the platform was demolished to make way for the three-story urban retail center, Tower City Center.
The Avenue, as it was called at the time, opened in 1990. Its main tenants were high-end retailers such as Barney’s, Gucci and Versace. There was even a Neiman Marcus proposed for the site. But it soon became clear that the facility was struggling against more upscale and accessible suburban developments such as Beachwood Place. Eventually, these exclusive stores were replaced with nameplates more obliging to Cleveland’s largely blue-collar population.
In the ensuing years, the Higbee’s property was taken over by Dillard’s who closed the iconic store in early 2002. It was then opened as Horseshoe Cleveland Casino in 2012 before becoming Jack’s Casino Cleveland in 2016. Much of the main tower has been converted to apartments and offices, and the looming spire, though it lost its title as Cleveland’s tallest in 1991, still stands majestically over the Public Square.
There are plans to further evolve the retail space by adding more entertainment options. It’s proximity to the Rocket Mortgage Field House, home of the NBA Cavaliers, and Progressive Field, home of the MLB Guardians, provide a boost of traffic, though mainly only on game days. Either way, the entire complex is a true gem in a city full of treasures.
Landing into a wintry Cleveland.