Monday, September 12, 2011

The Oldest House in Cleveland?

Astor House
Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project

In his History of Cleveland, Ohio, Samuel Orth describes this building,

Said to be the oldest house in Cleveland and to have been used by Astor's Fur Company before Cleveland was surveyed. There is great doubt as to this. Alfred Kelley locates a Trading House on the west side, on his map of 1814, giving date of house as 1786. This may be the house here shown. The house was built of hewn timbers, later covered with sidings. Joel Scranton owned it for a number of years and sold it to Robert Sanderson in 1844. It was moved to Frankfort street from its original location on the flats near the river.

Astor House
Courtesy of the Photograph Collection, Cleveland Public Library

By 1920, in an effort to preserve it, the house was moved to Edgewater Park. However, on October 14, 1922, on the orders of mayor Fred Kohler, it was demolished.


This front page headline announced the loss of the Astor House. The story read:
A large gang of city ash wagon drivers yesterday laid irreverent hands upon the old Astor house, the city's most venerable landmark, reduced it to small pieces, loaded the pieces into city trucks and carted them off to the municipal dump.

The work started at 10 a.m., and at 3 p.m. only a barren spot on park land just off Bulkey boulevard N.W., near the American Shipbuilding Co. plant, remained to mark the spot where the house had stood.

The ash wagon drivers acted under direction of J.W. Morris, deputy street commissioner, who, in turn, said he got his orders from Mayor Fred Kohler.

"I don't know much about it," said Mr. Morris, "except that the mayor came into my office this morning and said, 'Go out and tear down that old fake.' I'm doing it."

Morris said he considered the house, supposed to have been built in 1787, decidedly unsafe. School children have made pilgrimages to the house and he feared the building would collapse on them. The mayor shared that view, he said.

The ash shovelers worked manfully, yanking off the tar paper roof in great chunks and tearing out the walls with the aid of a motor truck and a log chain.

Wreckers are Unmolested

Nobody appeared on the scene to voice even the slightest protest. Every indication was that the mayor had stolen a march on his enemies, striking quickly and without advertising his intentions. Members of the patriotic societies and others who have tried repeatedly to induce the city to maintain the old house for its historic interest and assocations knew nothing of the mayor's action, and today they'll have to look for their treasured heirloom on the lake front dump.

While the last remnants of the house were being carted away, the mayor was enjoying himself at the Maple Heights races.

Stanley L. McMichael, when secretary of the Cleveland Real Estate Board, induced John T. Feighan, vice president of the Cleveland Trust Co. and the last owner of the house, to turn it over to the city.

Mr. McMichael said he had been assured by city officials at that time that the building would be put into repair and maintained, possibly as a historical museum. No action was taken by the city, however, and a week ago, in a sarcastic leter to Park Director G. A. Ruetenik, Mr. McMichael suggested that the house be burned in official ceremonies while the police band played the dead march from Saul to signalize the death of the city's civic pride.

No Logs Found.

The mayor countered with the suggestion that McMichael cart the house up on Prospect avenue and live in it or use it as a real estate office.

"The old shack is a fake, anyway," the mayor said. "The Astor house was a log cabin, history says, while there isn't a log in the whole of this shack. Besides, who gives a hoot for the Astor family, anyway? They don't live here."

No logs were found in the house when it was torn down yesterday. The upright supports were of very heavy timber, perhaps six inches wide by four inches thick and morticed together at the edges, but there were no logs.

Mr. Morris also was sure yesterday that as a historic relic the house was a fake.

"I've lived here forty years, with the exception of a few spent in Chicago," he said, "and I never heard of this ruin until just recently. If it were genuine it seems to me that something would have been said about it before this."

The men and women who tore down the house were born in Italy, Austria, Poland, and various other places, with a sprinkling of native born, and none of them knew who John Jacob Astor was and what's more, most of them said they didn't give a darn who he was.

They did know they had signed as ash shovelers and that house wrecking wasn't in the contract. Some grumbled at the job, but not for sentimental reasons.

Generations Occupied House.

The house is supposed to have been built fully seven years before Moses Cleaveland came to the Western Reserve and founded the city that bears his name. It was located near the old mouth of the Cuyahoga river at the foot of what is now W. 58th Street.

It was said to have been a fur trading post for John Jacob Astor, who built up what at one time was considered the greatest fortune in America.

Later the house was moved to Whiskey Island. When the government opened the present outlet of the river the officers in charge moved the house to the new pier. Then it was toted to the foot of Superior avenue.

It has been moved many times since then, each time receiving patches and additions. Whether the structure torn down yesterday bore any resemblance to the original Astor house is a debatable question, but it is certain that it was one of the oldest houses in the city, if not the oldest. Generations of Clevelanders have lived and loved and died in it.

But it had become a natural target for vandals. The plaster had fallen away, even laths were missing in spots and the windows had long been boarded up.

(Plain Dealer, October 15, 1922, pages 1 and 12)

Was this house really built in the 1780s, or perhaps even earlier? On Wednesday, I'll offer an in-depth look at the history of the Astor House.

1 comment:

  1. I've always wanted to know more about the Astor House. I know Encyclopedia of Clvlnd Hsty. supports argument that Astor is from late 1700s, pre-Moses Cleaveland days. A little off the subject- but this deserves to get some attention: One of the oldest houses in Shaker Heights, the William Kewish house at 19620 Chagrin Blvd. is on market. I'm hardly an expert, but the house is said to be in much more in period (1840s) than nearby Asa Upton house from that era that recently sold. For more info. on Kewish, visit