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
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
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
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
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
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
Richter, Cynthia Mills.
Integrating the Suburban Dream: Shaker Heights, Ohio.
University of Minnesota, Ph. D Thesis, 1999.
Standards. Cleveland: The Van Sweringen Company, 1928.
Toman, James. The Shaker Heights Rapid Transit.
Glendale, California: Interurban Press, 1990.