SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio, Nov. 3, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The following was originally published in the Oct. 16, 2011 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, written by John Conti:
There are any number of things worth talking about in this famous and wealthy Cleveland suburb, but one large lesson it teaches those of us interested in the design of cities and buildings is that there is enduring value in having a good town plan and good architecture at the outset and then being unwaveringly resolute in preserving it.
That lesson could never be clearer than it is right now as this racially integrated town of 28,400 prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2012.
Shaker Heights was developed by two brothers — land speculators — who not only determined its layout but also kept tight control over what houses would look like. They prescribed styles, materials, the placement of houses on their lots, and they were strict about demanding good maintenance.
All of this appealed to the upper-middle classes in Cleveland in the 1920s, and the result today is neighborhood after neighborhood of stunningly good-looking houses built in the '20s and '30s. Some of these houses are mansions, some are just big, and some are modest. But all are still exceptionally attractive today.
There are, of course, somewhat similar suburbs in other cities. In our region, parts of Mt. Lebanon (which will also be 100 years old next year) and parts of Edgeworth/Sewickley are the closest parallels.
But affluent Shaker Heights, which borders the east side of Cleveland, has achieved one other distinction: It is racially integrated. About 37 percent of the residents here are African American. And while it would be Pollyannish to suggest that this is an interracial idyll, the fact is that this town's well-preserved houses are sought after by blacks and whites.
Let's try to unravel some of the history and meaning here, dealing first with the planning and maintenance and then the integration.
The brothers, O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen, began accumulating land here in the early 1900s. In the teens and '20s, they laid out lots to sell and developed a rapid transit line directly into the center of Cleveland. They also set down the rules for what the owner-built houses in Shaker Heights would look like.
And some rules they were! They were among the most detailed anywhere.
Houses were to be in the romantic Tudor, Colonial or French styles popular in the '20s. They had to be individually designed by architects. Brick and stone walls and slate and tile roofs were encouraged. Tudors had to have dark trim; only Colonials could have white. Buff-colored brick and certain colors of mortar were forbidden. Even the look of leaded-glass windows were regulated. Finally, the Van Sweringens had to approve every design.
Within that framework, they laid out lots with varying sizes, reasoning that they had to appeal to more than just the upper crust. They allowed for apartment houses and prescribed in one neighborhood a group of two-family houses that were designed to look like one-family ones. These houses are so remarkable, they make up their own historic district today.
And finally, they established a tradition of maintenance and architectural standards. Right now, the municipality still inspects the exterior of every home every five years. Peeling paint, crumbling porch steps, excessively cracked driveways or walks, sagging gutters and other defects all have to be repaired.
And an Architectural Review Board must approve any changes to the exterior of a house. They discourage replacement windows and regulate those that need repair. (Vinyl is anathema. And cheap sliding windows? No way!) If a house or public building has been designated as a local historic landmark, two approvals — one from the review board and another from a separate Landmarks Commission — are needed.
These are undoubtedly some of the toughest municipal standards anywhere in the United States. And they can cost money. Considering its top-tier school system, Shaker Heights residents pay the highest property taxes in Ohio. Yet real estate people here will tell you that — though the general real estate market in Cleveland has been abysmal in recent years — Shaker Heights houses have held their value.
These standards have held the town in good stead as it has become racially integrated during the past 50 years. With the strict standards, there were scant opportunities for unscrupulous landlords to buy houses on the cheap, divide and rent them, and then let them deteriorate. Besides that, Shaker Heights has long been given credit nationally for efforts that were started in the late 50s by white residents and blacks to promote integration and stave "white flight."
It's not possible in a column on "architecture" to fully assess cultural issues. But it's worth noting that, even with as much integration as Shaker Heights has, a few neighborhoods in town are predominantly African American while others remain predominantly white.
Still, this is a far cry from the days when most of the fanciest suburbs in the United States were built not just with restrictions on the houses, but with restrictions — often written into deeds — that kept out African Americans and sometimes Jews and the foreign-born, as well. All such deed restrictions — including some used in Shaker Heights — were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948.
Used with permission of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and cannot be reprinted without approval from Trib Total Media.
SOURCE City of Shaker Heights