The 29-story shaft of black granite, with its distinctive grid of precast concrete window frames, was originally constructed in 1971 near the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East Ninth Street, in the city’s financial core. Its hefty Modernist mass became a strong visual backdrop and counterpoint to the five-story 1908 Italian Renaissance bank-as-temple of architect George B. Post at its base. That classic structure had served as the headquarters of Ameritrust Bank (under its former name of The Cleveland Trust Company) until growth demanded a much greater consolidated downtown presence. Breuer in fact designed twin 29-story towers for the bank’s continuing growth, but the second tower — intended to the east of the original temple —was never realized.
Hungarian-born in 1902 of Jewish descent, Marcel Breuer — ‘Lajko’ to his friends —first studied, then later taught at the Bauhaus through the 1920s. Breuer was gifted not only in architectural design, but also in carpentry and in the fabrication of tubular steel assemblies. Perhaps his best-known work is that early Modernist classic, the Wassily chair (so-called because the painter Wassily Kandinsky was an early fan and recipient of the chair).
Breuer fled Germany in the 1930s, settling in London, where he developed furnishings of bent and formed plywood. He later relocated to Harvard, teaching at its school of architecture, and partnering with his Bauhaus colleague Walter Gropius in residential design. By 1941, he had relocated once again, forming his own architectural firm in New York City.
By the early 1950s, Breuer was capturing significant commissions, most notably the 1953 Paris headquarters of UNESCO, and New York’s 1964 Whitney Museum of American Art. His early concepts for a Grand Central Tower in New York led to his being selected by Cleveland Trust Company officials to design their new headquarters.
Today, the former Ameritrust Tower sits vacant and in limbo. The Ameritrust banking empire was acquired by Society Bank, now folded into Key Bank, which has as its headquarters the 57-story Key Tower adjacent to Cleveland’s Public Square. Breuer’s tower and the adjoining bank properties were acquired from a private developer by the Commissioners of Cuyahoga County for use in consolidation of county offices. That plan, however, has run afoul of the recessionary economy and downtown Cleveland’s development malaise. In all likelihood, the grand tower — with a too-small floor plate, deteriorating physical conditions, and substantial amounts of asbestos — will eventually be demolished.