Shaker Heights Landmark Homes require special care, as well as special artisans, to keep them in mint condition.
By Michael Peters
The pace of home building in Shaker Heights was accelerating in 1924, with the spring building season starting in earnest by May. But the plans for five houses that landed on the building commissioner’s desk on the first of the month were unusual. So were six more that followed the next day.
The first set were from the firm of Howell & Thomas. Two years earlier the Van Sweringen Company had hired the firm to design four.
“Demonstration Homes” at the intersection of Shaker and Courtland boulevards. These initially served as model homes to jump-start lot sales in the area while setting expectations about quality, and were sold to homebuyers in early 1924.
Hoping to build on the booming economy and the recently completed Rapid, the Van Sweringen Company took the Demonstration Home concept to four more areas. The plans submitted in May – and what made them out of the ordinary – called for clusters of homes on Parkland Drive at Norwood Road, and on Van Aken Boulevard at Southington Road.
The second set – the Van Aken homes – was designed by Bloodgood Tuttle, predominantly in the Tudor Revival style (although he snuck in a Colonial). Tuttle was having one of his busiest times as a noted residential architect, designing an additional five homes for the Van Sweringen Company in July and August of that year; all are on Van Aken in two clusters, the first near Southington and the second between Kenmore roads and Parkland.
In total, the Van Sweringen Company built 21 houses in 1924 at a cost of over $16 million in 2020 dollars. The Bloodgood Tuttle and Howell & Thomas homes cost generally $20,000 to $25,000 to build, or between $525,000 and $650,000 today. Yet another cluster of homes was designed by Philip Small for South Woodland Road at a cost of $50,000 each, or $1.3 million today.
All of these 1924-era houses are on the Shaker Heights Landmark Properties list, along with seventeen others. The designation is made by the Landmark Commission after it receives a nomination from the homeowner or from the City with the agreement of the homeowner. The nominees must meet criteria that demonstrate the “special historical, community or aesthetic interest or value” of the property, which can also be commercial, governmental, or a work of art.
The designation recognizes the importance of the property to the community and reinforces the role of the homeowner as the property’s steward.
“It’s an honor and responsibility if you are fortunate enough to live in a Landmark Home,” says Cleveland Restoration Society President Kathleen Crowther. “It’s like living in a monument, so you want to pass it on better than you received it.”
This special status also comes with additional resources, as well as requirements, to protect the historic features. Free technical advice is available from the Cleveland Restoration Society. (Every Shaker Heights homeowner with a house that is 50 years old or older can access these services.) Moreover, the Landmark Commission keeps a list of contractors who specialize in the materials and services a landmark homeowner needs to maintain the status. Exterior changes to a landmark property are reviewed by the City’s Landmark Commission, a group of architects and historians who work with the homeowner to ensure the work is consistent with the historic nature of the house. The City’s Architectural Board of Review assesses and approves the plans.
The Demonstration Homes are nearing their centennial, and time and the elements continue to exact their toll. The plaster, roofi ng, and wrought iron artisans are fewer and harder to find. Homeowners, looking to balance historic integrity with modern convenience, search out resources on the internet or from their neighbors and friends, and then have to navigate often conflicting advice and wildly different prices.
This was the situation Julie and Eric Henry found themselves in after moving to Shaker Heights in early 2015. Nearly two years earlier one of the Bloodgood Tuttle-designed Demonstration Homes on Van Aken went into foreclosure. After sitting empty for a year, it was purchased by a private equity fi rm at a discount from the bank, and sold to the Henrys after the housing violations were resolved.
The Henrys’ approach echoes Kathleen Crowther’s thinking.
“We’re stewards of the home,” says Julie during a tour of the multiple upgrades she’s overseen. She started with the heavily overgrown side yard (all of the Van Aken homes originally were double lots).
Working with the City’s Forestry Superintendent and Arborist Charles Orlowski, the Henrys cleared many of the neglected and rotting trees and stumps.
“I stopped counting after 200,” says Julie, standing near the fire pit that has become a neighborhood COVID-friendly gathering space.
This past summer saw the completion of the most ambitious of the upgrades: the repair and replacement of the wooden timbers and stucco around the exterior of the house. While some areas only needed repair, the stucco on the entire front of the house was removed and replaced.
Stucco replacement, especially using the traditional multi-part method, including period-style texturing, is one of those rare trades that is in high demand in Shaker Heights but very few other places in Northeast Ohio. Fortunately, the list of specialized contractors kept by the Landmark Commission includes the contractor the Henrys used, Jurrus Plaster and Stucco, operated by the third generation of this family-owned business.
Leaded glass windows also fall into the rare-trade category, and, perhaps more than any other feature distinguish many Shaker Heights homes, including the Demonstration Homes. While any number of window replacement companies would be happy to put in new windows, all homes in Shaker Heights need Architectural Board of
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Review approval for window replacements. Those on the Landmark Properties list are strongly encouraged to repair existing windows, which often is less expensive than replacement and keeps the historic look and feel.
The Henrys contracted with Northern Lights, a stained and leaded glass studio in Solon, to repair the windows and to add interior storm windows. The interior storms have a very small frame and only need one side affixed to the window frame. Approvals are not needed for this quick and easy upgrade, and they reduce drafts, deaden sound, and are easy to remove for cleaning. They also maintain the exterior look of leaded glass, especially the slight variations in reflections that are a hallmark of the diamond-shaped panes.
The home has striking ornamental plaster mouldings, especially in the living room and study. Fortunately, these remain largely intact. Plaster mouldings are one of the distinguishing features of a Bloodgood Tuttle interior, and in some houses hand-carved decorations are sculpted directly into the textured plaster. Many Shaker Heights homes have this ornamental moulding, although many homeowners aren’t aware that it’s plaster, and it’s often covered in layers of paint.
It’s likely that most of the plaster moulding in Shaker homes came from The Fischer & Jirouch Company, which is on the City’s specialized contractor list. Fischer & Jirouch has been located at 49th Street and Superior Avenue in Cleveland for nearly 120 years, and is one of the last ornamental plaster moulding companies in the country. Amazingly, it has saved nearly every cast it has used to produce its mouldings. Clients can snap a picture of a section of moulding, email it in, and a quote will arrive. Often it’s comparable to the price of wood trim and can be installed by any carpenter. The best part of plaster moulding is that it doesn’t shrink or expand like woo due to seasonal changes in humidity.
Of course, all of this comes at a price. However, relatively low-cost financing is available through the Cleveland Restoration Society’s Heritage Home Program Loan.
The Henrys took advantage of the program for several of their projects, including a new concrete driveway. The loan is coordinated through the Heritage Home Program and made by either Keybank or Third Federal Savings & Loan, with an interest rate as low as 1.4 percent. The Heritage Home Program then administers the loan, helping homeowners qualify contractors and then pay the invoices upon successful completion of the work.
“They have been very helpful with the contracts and have been quick getting contractors paid,” says Eric Henry. “It was the first time our painting contractor worked through the Heritage Home Program and he commented on how smooth the payment process was.
The entire process has clearly been centered around the homeowner’s control of the work and making sure the work meets our expectations and complies with sound standards.”
While owning or living in any Shaker Heights home can be an adventure, the cadre of architects, builders, and craftspeople who created the City left a legacy that continues to attract new residents while keeping a hold on those who grew up here. To preserve, maintain, and grow that legacy, all homeowners must be stewards, whether of a Landmark Property like the Henrys’ or an ordinary house that a family has landmarked as its home.