The long history of the Colston house provides a lesson in how the City preserves the character of our neighborhoods.
By Michael Peters
When the brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen conceived of Shaker Heights, the idea was to sell lots for the development of high-quality homes.
Noted architects would design the houses for families who would pay to build them, across a range of sizes and approved styles. To demonstrate the type of homes they envisioned for the community, the brothers commissioned noted Cleveland architects Howell and Thomas to design four homes at the intersection of Courtland and Shaker boulevards. This intersection is one of the most iconic in town, with Manchester and Montgomery roads diagonally cutting through to Shaker Boulevard, creating four pie-shaped lots encircling the Rapid station. Howell and Thomas designed a “demonstration” home on each lot to show potential lot buyers what types of housing would be developed in the mostly empty neighborhood.
Just two years earlier, in 1920, the Van Sweringens had connected the former trolley line on Shaker Boulevard to downtown over the route it has today, making the formerly 45-minute trip through Cleveland Heights a “rapid” 20 to 25 minutes. This greatly enhanced the appeal of the new development, as did other amenities like the Shaker Heights Country Club at the southern end of Courtland Boulevard.
Like many other Van Sweringen initiatives, construction of model homes was uncommon at the time. But the brothers had earlier success building speculative homes on Fairmount Boulevard and would go on in 1924 to build additional homes on South Woodland Road, Parkland Drive, and Van Aken Boulevard. Most of these homes are now on the Shaker Heights Local Landmark List; 22 of the 46 individual properties were demonstration homes.
The Colston Era
In September of 1922, builder W.W. Jepson was issued a building permit to construct a $30,000 home on behalf of The Van Sweringen Company on Courtland where it intersects with Manchester. After serving as a demonstration home for about a year, the house was sold to Colonel William A. Colston, who had recently moved to Cleveland to serve as vice president and general counsel of the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad. The Nickel Plate, as it was commonly known, had been purchased by the Van Sweringens from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central in 1916 (with the help of New York Central president Alfred Smith, who was born in Cleveland) in large part because it provided the most direct rail connection between Shaker Heights and the Van Sweringens’ downtown terminal, soon to be the site of the Terminal Tower.
The Colonel, who retained that title long after serving in the Kentucky National Guard, along with his wife Cora, pregnant with their first daughter, moved into the house in February 1924. A second daughter was born shortly thereafter and by 1930 the family was joined by Colston’s mother and Mrs. Colston’s younger sister.
By 1932 the four-bedroom home may have been straining to provide sufficient space for the household, so a $2,000 alteration added bedroom space, followed the next year by the $3,000 addition of Colston’s vaulted-ceiling library above the garage.
The library has become the most defining feature of the home. Unlike most homes, where the grand rooms are on the ground floor, the second floor library is accessed through a narrow and winding stairway near the kitchen.
Although there is also an entrance from one of the second floor bedrooms, the lack of a more formal entry could indicate the library was the Colonel’s private retreat rather than a room for entertaining guests. There is also a third-level balcony that opens to the library, reminiscent of a theatrical stage set.
The library’s striking interior features stained glass windows, one containing the Colston family crest, and a large carved stone fireplace. Large grills on either side of the fireplace allowed air to circulate from the heated garage below.
The Colston family lived in the house for over 26 years, selling it in November 1950. Colonel Billy, as he was known to friends, had died unexpectedly at the age of 61 in November of 1934. By 1949 the Colonel’s two daughters had left for college and married, and within a year Mrs. Colston sold the house. She remained a resident of Shaker Heights until her death in 1969.
The 1950s would see four different owners of the house, most for less than two years. In 1958 the house was purchased by an owner who saw it through the 1960s, and after another two-year ownership period the house was purchased in 1973 by a family who cared for it for nearly as long as the Colstons. In 1992 a small addition added a breakfast room to the kitchen, and in 1998 the house was sold again.
A decade later Shaker Heights, along with the rest of the country, experienced a housing crisis not seen since the Great Depression. The Colston house was a victim of this crisis, entering a 10-year odyssey that would eventually involve the City, the non-profit Cleveland Restoration Society, and a developer, Palmieri Builders.
Legacy to the Rescue
The 1920s were an instrumental period in American history, and this coincided with unparalleled growth in Shaker Heights. In 1920, the Village of Shaker Heights had a population of just over 1,600 residents. Aside from a few farmhouses, there was nothing east of Warrensville Center Road and only a few dozen houses east of Lee Road. By 1930, the “village” had grown to nearly 18,000 residents – a 1,000 percent growth rate in just 10 years.
The bigger issue for both the homes (and neighbors) is outright neglect. Or worse. The Colston home saw a period of piecemeal deconstruction when the owner started selling fixtures and the radiators directly out of the house. The resulting lack of heat led to water damage, mold, and decaying plaster that could have resulted in demolition.
Without the legacy of planning, historic preservation, architectural guidelines, and quality materials and workmanship, the Colston House would be a vacant lot today. Fortunately, over the past several years there have been successful examples of similarly neglected homes being restored. Several, including one on Parkland and another on South Woodland, went on to win numerous accolades, including the City’s Preservation Award and the annual AIA Cleveland/Cleveland Restoration Society Historic Preservation award.
Today many of the homes built during that period of extraordinary growth are about to celebrate a 100-year anniversary. While some communities might see aging houses as a liability, in Shaker Heights it is one of our greatest assets. As Thomas Jorgensen, the chief operating officer of the Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS) explains, “What ties everything together is city planning and architectural guidelines,” providing a legacy that will continue to make Shaker Heights a community of choice for future generations.
This legacy extends to the quality of materials and workmanship in the houses built during this era. It is not an exaggeration to say that many Shaker Heights homes could not be replicated today and play an important part in the character of the community. While many homes have been well maintained and will easily keep their owners warm, safe, and dry for another century, not all are so lucky. Small lapses in maintenance, like exterior paint and caulk every few years, can eventually lead to significant issues.
The Cleveland Restoration Society, however, does far more than present awards for preservation. It takes an active role in advocacy and actual projects in numerous communities, including Shaker Heights, with free technical assistance to homeowners and access to low interest loans for renovation work. Consistent with its mission, CRS can also petition the court to become the receiver of neglected property, which is what it eventually did for the Colston house.
While the City kept a watchful eye on the house for several years, it was limited in the scope of what it could do to save it. The highest level of protection is provided by being listed as a local landmark; demolition or exterior alterations then require the Shaker Heights Landmark Commission’s approval. However, the Colston house was not listed as a landmark at the time.
Fortunately, City Council can afford a property certain protections through a moratorium that effectively gives the City the ability to treat it like a landmark while the property goes through the process.
The landmark listing can be viewed not just as a tool for the protection of a particular home, but for the character of Shaker Heights as well. As City Planning Director Joyce Braverman and Principal Planner Ann Klavora explain, it allows for the “caretaking of our historic resources which creates the neighborhood.”
Several City departments worked with the Planning Department to ensure that the house could earn landmark status. The work had been given added urgency by an out-of-state mortgage lender who inquired about a demolition permit. Given the state of disrepair of the house, along with an order by City building inspectors that the house was no longer fit for occupancy, perhaps the news of the home’s condition was not surprising – but still shocking – to those who knew the house and its history. But by late 2013 the City began working with CRS to become the receiver, or caretaker, of the house. This allowed CRS to legally make the necessary repairs to stop the deterioration; by late 2014 CRS was officially the owner of the house.
CRS, which has several renovation and restoration experts on staff, oversaw the stabilization work over the next several months. This included completion of a full slate roof restoration, repair or replacement of the copper gutters and downspouts, removal of the damaged interiors to prevent further deterioration from moisture, and installation of a temporary heating system. Once the structure was stabilized and watertight, the house was sold to Palmieri Builders of Solon in early 2016 for a comprehensive renovation. The house was sold to new owners soon
after being offered for sale.
Today the completed house honors the past without sacrifice of any of the comforts of a contemporary family home. Modern systems and finishes essentially create a new home within the historic exterior. The resulting authenticity could not have been replicated by new construction, nor would a new home likely contribute to the character of the neighborhood.
That character was of paramount importance to the Van Sweringens, resulting in what CRS’s Jorgensen wistfully calls a “gem of city planning.” Due to this legacy and the tireless work of the City and CRS, the Colston house is ready to see another century of prominence on Courtland Boulevard.