Erieview was one of the largest downtown urban renewal projects in the United States, stretching from East 6th to East 17th streets between Chester Avenue and Lake Erie. Cleveland’s city fathers took advantage of federal redevelopment financing to purchase and clear the 163-acre blighted area, filled with delipidated housing, warehouses, and light industry, and then sold the land in parcels to private developers. Pei’s master plan called for the phased redevelopment of office buildings, public buildings, clustered apartment towers, a hotel/motel, shopping center, grade school, and simplified street network, all combined in a comprehensive strategy for going forward (rather than piecemeal development here and there). The centerpiece was a 40-story office tower at the foot of a long reflecting pool, framed by low-rise buildings. More than half of the total land area was to be given over to open greens, tree-lined malls, and parks. Most significant was a grassy terrace built over the railroad tracks to bring people in close contact with Lake Erie, Cleveland’s prime asset, from which the city was previously cut off along the north.
Erieview includes signature elements from a long series of master plans prepared by Pei in the 1960s, notably Southwest Washington Urban Redevelopment and Society Hill in Philadelphia. The general process, perfected under William Zeckendorf, called for preliminary analysis of a city based on map studies, informal visits, and basic reconnaissance to determine development potential. If the prospects were favorable, an official inspection would be scheduled: Zeckendorf, Pei, and team members would arrive en force by private plane to meet with city officials and local media. A tour on foot was a critical part of the see-the-city ritual. Next would be a formal presentation to business and political leaders, all covered by the newspapers, outlining what a given city could, and should, become. Zeckendorf would then try to secure a Memo of Understanding, granting him certain development rights. Next, still at no cost to the would-be client, Pei and his team would analyze the city in detail and prepare an illustrated report of their findings, including site planning and preliminary building design, very often with bird’s-eye perspectives by the facile renderer Robert Schwartz (like this one for Erieview). Next a large 3-dimensional model of the city or district would be built by Pei’s in-house professional modelmakers. Depending on the outcome, the architectural concept would then be developed, leading ultimately to construction documents and the executed building.
Pei’s vision for Erieview was one of a series of master plans prepared for Cleveland. It was realized, in part, by other architects in fits and starts over a long period of time, thwarted by suburbanization and a perennial lack of funding. In 1973, Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times architecture critic, declared Erieview Tower “a monument to everything that was wrong with urban renewal thinking in America in the 1960s.” The tower was the conceptual hub of Pei’s plan, but it was designed and built by another architect in isolation from the cohesive whole. Pei himself built nothing. However, his early analysis of Cleveland served him well 30 years later when he designed the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum just blocks away from Erieview, at North Coast Harbor on Lake Erie.