I happened to be up in Cleveland recently and got a chance to visit a classic building — Cleveland’s Arcade. Opened in 1890, The Arcade is one of those remnants of a bygone era when American culture and business were striving ever upward.
The Arcade cost $875,000 in 1890 dollars. I don’t know what that would equate to in 2010 dollars, but it is hard to imagine such a building even being constructed now. It is too ornate, too gilt-edged, with distinctive touches that would be cut out of the plans by some cost-conscious 21st-century project manager. When The Arcade opened in 1890, however, America was still a young, robust, growing country. American businessmen were willing to take risks, to try things that were new and “modern” — like a multi-level indoor shopping area — and astonishing buildings like The Arcade were the result. Compare it to one of the soulless concrete and blue tile fountain malls you can find in every suburb and you get a sense of some of what has been lost in America.
When you walk into The Arcade, the effect is stunning. Sunlight streams through the glass ceiling overhead and lances down, glinting off the brass railings and bronze fixtures and highlighting the soft white stone floor below. The dimensions are just right, of a human scale yet aspirational. The pedestrian area is bookended by graceful staircases, each different in design and form yet well-matched. The connecting walkway features a beautiful clock and an inlaid ceiling underneath.
It is a fantastic building, and yet when I was there at 5:30 on a Thursday evening it was virtually deserted. One can imagine Victorian crowds thronging along the walkways, and now it is a lonely place, populated only by bored shop attendants and the ghosts of the long-ago days when Cleveland was bursting with energy and bursting with people. It made me fear for the future of a great city.