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Why is Shaker Square in Cleveland, not in Shaker Heights?
Bruce T. Marshall

Shaker Square soon after construction,  Cleveland State University Collection

It’s puzzling: Why is Shaker Square located within the Cleveland city limits, not in Shaker Heights? And why is the Shaker Square section of Cleveland in the Shaker Heights school district? Shouldn’t it be served by Cleveland schools?

The mystery deepens when we learn that the Shaker Square area was originally part of Shaker Heights. Furthermore, the developers of Shaker Heights—O. P. Van Sweringen and M. J. Van Sweringen — also created Shaker Square to be a high-end retail center as well as a location for luxury apartment buildings. And yet, the Van Sweringens turned over the Shaker Square area to Cleveland, voluntarily. After creating one of the premier shopping centers in the nation to serve the residents of their new city, Shaker Heights, they gave it to Cleveland.

How come? From our perspective, it makes no sense.

The key to understanding this bewildering act of generosity is to put ourselves back into the era when Shaker Heights was created, the early 20th century. Before that time, the best address to have in Cleveland was Euclid Avenue. “Millionaires Row” it was called because of the concentration of wealthy families that lived in the mansions that lined this street. Cleveland was booming then, and money flowed into the city: oil refining, steel manufacturing, and shipping created vast wealth for a few people. A residence along Euclid Avenue offered a genteel life apart from the grime and noise of the factories as well as announcing that you were a person of prosperity and influence.

Today’s Euclid Avenue in Cleveland retains only traces of that bygone era. There is little indication that this street was once home to more millionaires than any in the nation. Of course, it is quite common for city neighborhoods to change. A desirable location for one generation loses its polish in subsequent years, but the decline of Euclid Avenue was dramatic, brought on both by the wealth of the area and its lack of zoning. Wealth mattered because there were commercial uses for such prime real estate. Lack of zoning was also a factor because there were few restrictions on what could be built. Soon a variety of non-residential entities appeared along Euclid Avenue—retail, service businesses, even factories—and then this neighborhood wasn’t a quiet, pleasant place to live anymore.

In promoting Shaker Heights as a haven for Cleveland’s wealthy and well-to-do families, the Van Sweringen brothers faced several challenges. One was transportation. Shaker Heights was located in a region considered too far from downtown Cleveland to be a viable residential community. It was accessible by streetcar but only after a long, slow, jerky trip of over an hour and a half. To address this concern, the brothers created the Shaker Rapid, which cut the downtown commute to 21 minutes. (In the process of establishing the Shaker Rapid, the Van Sweringens unexpectedly found themselves in the railroad business and went on to own or control more miles of railroad track than anyone in the nation—but that’s another story.)

However, solving the transportation problem was not enough to insure the success of a community of the scope that the Van Sweringens envisioned. The memory of what had happened to the mansions of Euclid Avenue was still fresh among Cleveland’s wealthy, the initial market for homes built in Shaker Heights. What would protect this community from a similar fate?

This is where we finally find the answer to the question: Why is Shaker Square in Cleveland, not in Shaker Heights? The Van Sweringen brothers promoted Shaker Heights as “forever.” It wasn’t going to change. You could buy your dream home in Shaker Heights, secure in the confidence that it would be protected from encroachments like those that altered the character of Euclid Avenue.

Shaker Heights was to be a community of homes, parks, schools, churches, country clubs — but no businesses, no factories, no retail. Apartments were restricted as to size and neighborhoods, with residences intended for several families constructed to look as if they were single-family homes. To guarantee that change would not alter the character of the community, Shaker Heights homes came with 99-year deed restrictions setting standards for how this property was to be used.

A 1926 advertisement placed by the Van Sweringen Company states the issue plainly,

“Euclid Avenue of twenty years ago — with its fine homes of leading families, its broad lawns, its quiet seclusion has given way to South Woodland Road in Shaker Village. But South Woodland can never give way to business as Euclid has done, for Shaker Village homes are forever protected by carefully-drawn, farsighted restrictions.”

The following newspaper advertisement makes the same point: Shaker Village (as Shaker Heights was sometimes promoted in its early years) was “forever.” This community, “because of the carefully-drawn Van Sweringen Company restrictions, shall never pass away.”

Shaker Village: Yesterday, Today and Forever, Cleveland State University Collection

In the early 1920s, what is now Shaker Square was known as Moreland Circle, and it served as a junction of the two lines of the Shaker Rapid. A local entrepreneur, Josiah Kirby, planned a luxury apartment development in the area that would also feature offices and stores. The project came to a halt when Kirby went bankrupt, but it was taken over by the Van Sweringens, who recognized the need for retail stores that would serve residents of Shaker Heights.

Stores? Offices? Apartment buildings? Was this the beginning of the decline of Shaker Heights, almost before it got started? Was it Euclid Avenue all over again? To maintain the integrity of Shaker Heights as a city of homes — and probably also to reassure residents and potential buyers — the Van Sweringens gave the Shaker Square area to Cleveland.

Today as communities struggle for tax dollars to support services to residents, this might seem a short-sighted decision. Maybe it was. (Certainly in subsequent years, Shaker Heights has allowed — even encouraged—businesses, retail stores, and apartment buildings.) But the Van Sweringens were in the business of selling real estate. Their judgment was that the houses they were selling in Shaker Heights had a better market when buyers felt protected from the changes that might be brought by other uses.

It might seem strange that the Van Sweringens did not reserve a section of Shaker Heights for retail stores from the beginning of development. But again, we need to put ourselves into the frame of mind of those living in the early 1900s. The desirability of nearby shopping centers may be obvious to us, but it would not have been to those living a century ago. For major shopping, residents went to downtown Cleveland where the major stores were concentrated. Everyday needs such as dairy and bakery products were delivered to the homes. And the Van Sweringens assumed that anyone with the wealth to buy a Shaker Heights homes would also have a car — note the ample garages featured in even the oldest Shaker Heights homes. For local shopping it would have been an easy drive to neighboring communities, such as Cleveland Heights. The risks of commercial development within Shaker Heights seemed greater than the advantages.

The Shaker Heights School District, which extends into the Shaker Square area of Cleveland, comes closer to maintaining the original boundaries of Shaker Heights. It appears that when the city boundaries of Cleveland and Shaker Heights were changed, the school district boundaries were left alone. We can engage in some educated guessing as to why.

School districts and municipalities are separate entities. The boundaries usually coincide but not always. When the Cleveland and Shaker Heights municipal borders were changed, it was not necessary to also change the school districts — and there would have been reasons to leave them where they were. The Shaker Heights schools would continue to receive school tax support from the Shaker Square area, and those students already enrolled would not be required to change schools. Cleveland would also benefit because children of officials required to live in the city would have access to Shaker Heights schools, already known for the quality of education they offered.

Hence the reason for Shaker Square’s location within the Cleveland city limits: to protect the value of the homes in Shaker Heights. Given the history of other wealthy neighborhoods, even high-end retail and luxury apartments could be a threat to the stability of this new community. However, there were advantages to keeping the school district boundaries where they were. Shaker Heights benefited from the school taxes paid on Shaker Square properties; Cleveland benefited from being able to offer Shaker Heights schools to the children of city officials. So even though the city boundaries were changed, the school boundaries were not.

A postscript: looking at the Cleveland/Shaker Heights boundary, we encounter another odd section. Some streets in the Larchmere area adjoining Shaker Square are in Shaker Heights, when logic would suggest that they be in Cleveland. The reason? When the boundary was re-drawn to remove Shaker Square, that section along Larchmere was also slated to be given to Cleveland. But then the mayor of Shaker Heights, William J. Van Aken, pointed out that this section included his property. It wouldn’t do to have the mayor annexed out of his own city so a jagged boundary was drawn to keep him in. That boundary stands to this day.

Haberman, Ian S. The Van Sweringens of Cleveland: the Biography of an Empire. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1979.

Harwood, Herbert H. Jr.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers.

The Heritage of the Shakers. Cleveland: The Van Sweringen Company, 1923.

Molyneaux, David G., and Sue Sackman, ed. 75 Years: An Informal History of Shaker Heights. Shaker Heights: Shakers Heights Public Library, 1987

Peaceful Shaker Village. Cleveland: The Van Sweringen Company, 1927.

Richter, Cynthia Mills. Integrating the Suburban Dream: Shaker Heights, Ohio. University of Minnesota, Ph. D Thesis, 1999.

Shaker Village Standards. Cleveland: The Van Sweringen Company, 1928.

Toman, James. The Shaker Heights Rapid Transit. Glendale, California: Interurban Press, 1990.


About the author, Bruce T. Marshall

Bruce T. Marshall is author of Shaker Heights (Arcadia Publishing, 2006).

In his professional life, he is both an ordained minister (Unitarian Universalist) and a writer. As a minister, he has served congregations in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Maryland. As a writer, he has published articles primarily in the realms of history and spirituality and has also created a series of audio travel programs for the Museum of the Open Road. He is now working on a fourth book which draws on the history of Washington DC.

Bruce is married to Amy Dibner, an architect working in Washington. They have four children who are all either in college or graduate school. Bruce and Amy live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Copies of Shaker Heights are available in area bookstores or by mail order through  Autographed copies are available through his website:


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