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The Van Sweringen brothers envisioned Shaker Heights in Cleveland as an escape from the city’s teeming streets and polluted air.

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Brothers Build A Town To Look Historic

The Van Sweringen Brothers Envisioned Shaker Heights, A Cleveland Suburb, As An Escape From The City’s Teeming Streets & Polluted Air

Family Homes In The Shaker Neighborhood [Courtesy/Shakeronline.com]

In the early years of the 20th century, modernism was all the rage. The futuristic designs of Frank Lloyd Wright dominated architectural design, especially in the Midwest. But the Van Sweringen brothers wanted something different for their new community on the outskirts of  Cleveland.

“Our community was planned over 100 years ago,” Meghan Hays, local history librarian at the Shaker Heights Public Library, tells The Buzz. “It was built in the teens and ‘20s and was designed to look old even when new. The Van Sweringens wanted it to hark back to an earlier era, not just in appearance, but in terms of traditional values.”

The brothers, nicknamed “the Vans” by locals, established one of the first planned communities in the country with building codes and strict zoning. All homes were to be built in Colonial, English or French styles. Building materials, landscaping, and even the color of doors were all carefully controlled.

The Van Sweringens, local boys who grew up in Cleveland delivering papers for pocket change, envisioned their community as an escape from the city’s teeming streets and polluted air. Set on a 1000-foot high plateau to the southeast of the lakeside city, Shaker Heights became a quiet enclave for Cleveland’s wealthy working class.

“It’s really a beautiful city,” Meghan says. “It’s not laid out on a grid, so there are many curving, winding streets, with lots of green spaces. People don’t go zooming through. Biking and walking are very popular.” 

Family Enjoying The Day At Horseshoe Lake Park [Courtesy/Shakeronline.com]
The Shaker Historical Society Museum [Credit: Shaker Historical Society]

The Van Sweringens designed their community based on the British Garden City plan, according to Ware Petznick, executive director of the Shaker Historical Society. “In garden cities, the green spaces are as important as the architecture,” she explains. The community has over 100 homes from the Van Sweringen era, including several of the Master Model and demonstration houses of English Tudor and French Provincial design, built by the Van Sweringens to show their preferred “look.” Most are located within the Shaker Village Historic District, recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

The brothers didn’t build their community in a vacuum. The land they chose had been the site of a Shaker community from 1822 to 1899. Known as the North Union Shakers, the religious community left behind several changes to the landscape, damming Doan Creek to power their mills. Two lakes formed behind the dams and today both are among the most beloved features in Shaker Heights.

Horseshoe Lake is the focus one of the city’s most popular parks, with nature trails, playground and picnic areas. Lower Shaker Lake, connected to Horseshoe by biking and walking trails, is home to the nationally recognized Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. The location of the original Shaker community is commemorated at Shaker Gate Park on Shaker Boulevard.

However, the Shakers bequeathed more than a couple of lakes to their namesake city, according to Ware Petznick. Shaker Heights, although removed from the North Union Shakers by both time and affluent lifestyle, inherited a philosophy of inclusion that continues to the present day.

“The Shakers were all about equality,” Ware says, “equality of religion, of the sexes. They were inclusive and welcoming, hard-working and took stewardship of the land seriously. They were against slavery and in favor of all humankind. The people of Shaker Heights, who grow up here, have been hearing about these Shaker traditions for generations.”

Ware attributes the city’s remarkable record on integration to this Shaker legacy. “In 1957, our neighborhoods took some of the earliest steps in the country to integrate our schools and community,” she says. “The Ludlow Community Association led the effort to combat blockbusting and white flight by helping people who wanted to move their families up from Cleveland get financing to buy homes. I like to think that the Shakers influenced that movement.”

The Shaker Historical Society was founded in 1947 to preserve the history of the North Union Shakers. Now housed in a Van Sweringen era mansion across the street from Horseshoe Lake, the society has expanded its coverage. “We now tell a complete and fuller story of Shaker Heights, what happened throughout its history,” Ware says.

Children Doing The Shaker Way in The Early Times [Photo Credit: Shaker Heights Public Library]
The Rapid Transit At Drexmore Station In Shaker Heights [Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons]
Early Painting Of The Shaker Heights House [Photo Credit: Shaker Heights Public Library]

In addition to exhibits on the Shakers and the development of Shaker Heights, the society’s museum houses a gallery of local art, and, in the garage, the community’s first fire truck. It also rents bicycles and offers occasional bike tours of the historic district, as well as a popular annual garden tour.

“The history of Shaker Heights is full of exceptions and exceptional stories,” Ware says. “It’s incredibly beautiful and diverse, with a fascinating history.”

The Van Sweringens left behind yet another legacy that continues to add to the quality of life in Shaker Heights. The brothers wanted a fast and easy route for commuters to travel from their homes in the Heights to downtown Cleveland so in the early 1900s they installed electric streetcars down Shaker and Van Aken Avenues. The Vans went on to become railroad barons, and built Terminal Tower, one of Cleveland’s great landmarks, the tallest skyscraper outside New York City in 1929.

The streetcar line evolved into the high-speed Shaker Heights Rapid Transit, designed by the Vans to reach speeds of 50 miles an hour. Today the Rapid survives as part of Cleveland’s RTA Rapid Transit system, and continues to provide much appreciated service to Shaker Heights.

“The Rapid is still an important part of our lives,” says Meghan Hays. “It’s great to be able to get on public transit and go downtown, where there’s a really vibrant scene along the waterfront, or to University Circle, where so many of Cleveland’s museums are. And I can walk two blocks from my home and get on a train that takes me directly into the airport for $2.50. It couldn’t be easier.”


Renee Wright 

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

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