Friday, February 3, 2012

URGENT! Langston Hughes House is Being "Demolished"

UPDATE (4:00 pm, February 3, 2012) The situation is not completely as I understood it to be - and I apologize for the confusion. The porch is going to be rebuilt - it was removed due to the failure of the foundation. The woodwork is still all being removed, to be replaced with identical - it's an issue of lead abatement - and it is still in the dumpster. There will be an in-depth follow-up on Monday.

Langston Hughes, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, had his first works published while a student at Cleveland's Central High School. At this time (his sophomore and junior years) he lived alone, in the attic of 2266 East 86th Street, in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood.

When I learned that the house had been forclosed upon and was sitting vacant, back in 2009, I worked to bring public attention to the structure. These efforts resulted in coverage on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The structure was made a designated Cleveland Landmark. All these efforts led to Fairfax Renaissance assuming ownership and management of the rehabilitation, with the intent of offering it to a low to moderate income family at a reasonable mortgage - an idea solution.

Progress was being made. The plans for the renovation were approved by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and it looked as though things were proceeding well.

Then, yesterday, I drove by the house, and was shocked at what I saw.

Langston Hughes house - under renovation
A look through the window openings this morning confirmed my worst fears: the house had been gutted to the studs, with all traces of the original building material, save for the staircase, gone. Where has it gone? Likely to the two large dumpsters, full to the brim, in the vacant lot next door.

Detail of a photograph, used courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Archives.
The most obvious loss is the front porch, which was original to the house.

Langston Hughes residence
Most of the components of the porch remained, in good condition, when I last photographed the house. It was to be repaired, not removed - and I'm sure that the Landmarks Commission will do whatever is necessary to ensure that it is rebuilt. The staff of the commission will be meeting with Fairfax Renaissance next week to discuss replacement window options, and the porch will be addressed at that time. Of course, it will be much harder to do this if the lumber that made up the porch is in the aforementioned dumpsters, which I fear will be emptied soon.

Langston Hughes house - living room
Unfortunately, the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Commission is limited to the exterior. Original doors, crown moulding, and trim, shown here, have all been removed.

Langston Hughes house - stairs
Note how nicely the crown moulding and trim around the doorway complements the stairs - the only remaining bit of original woodwork - and imagine what pictures might have hung from the integral picture rail.

Langston Hughes house - den and living room
The trim and the doors here, too, are gone.

Hot air vent, Langston Hughes house Gas light fixture, Langston Hughes house
And then there are the little things, the furnace hot air vent and the remains of an old, disused gas light fixture - these are the details make a house unique.

What can you do?

My primary concern - is that the fabric that makes this house special will be lost, and most likely soon - as the dumpsters look due to be emptied.

How much use do the barely accessible spaces in your attic get? Very little, most likely. They seem, to me, the perfect place to store historic building materials until their importance can be realized.

Got some free time this weekend? Consider visiting the site. Ask the construction workers present for permission to remove some of this significant historic material from the dumpsters. With their permission, take it home. Make note that it came from this house, so that you or someone else will be able to return it here when more sensible minds prevail.


  1. What is Fairfax Renaissance's explanation for this? Didn't they have to submit plans for design review?

  2. What I also find sad is the comparison to the old b&w photo of the house vs. the current condition. In the current photo, there seem to be no houses next to this one.

  3. If anyone can get the stuff, I will be happy to store it... I have plenty of room for it. I am going to be out of town until Sunday night, however, so feel free to get in touch with me.


  4. Wow, how sad is that? Dumpsters? Does Cleveland have an architectural salvage resource for buying/selling/trading building materials? Some great examples if someone wants to start one are: Urban Ore in Berkeley CA, and The Rebuilding Center in Portland OR

  5. This is a perfect example of the sad state-of-affairs of Cleveland "Landmarks". Everything we have all thought was true regarding design review and restrictions stated in the Landmarks ordinances has all been nothing but a charade. And, when organizations like neighborhood development corporations are involved, they are automatically exempt from such matters. The City Of Cleveland is desperate to see any sort of improvements going on with existing housing stock and is not going to let Landmark designation get in the way. This is conducted behind-the-scenes and they don't want anyone to know about it. Removing and discarding all the original exterior and interior woodwork because of lead paint is not only an act of insensitivity to the history of this house but also an act of laziness. The paint (only) should have been removed. This has been done many times, nationwide, on similar projects. But, this is too "work-intensive", isn't it? And, most important of all, history does NOT matter here -- not only to the government of Cleveland but, sadly, to the better part of the general population. If the 'majority opinion' was on the side of true Historic Preservation in this city, things like this would most likely not occur.