Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of a City Past: More Cleveland Stories About Buildings and Food

by Mark Satola

I WANT TO RIDE PAST the Euclid Avenue mansions, stopping at the most fantastic of them to marvel at their outlandish fancy. I want spend a week in a suite at the old Hollenden Hotel on Superior Avenue. I want to see Hanlon's New Fantasm, Max Fehrman in Uncle Isaac, Imre Kiraley's Barnum Circus production, “The Destruction of Rome,” and Inside Track at the Star Theatre. I want to hear Art Tatum play stride piano down on East 105th Street and have ice cream in the arabesque dining room of Boukair's.

Well, wouldn't you?

If, of a dreary winter Friday night in Cleveland, when your cultural choices are a mass-market movie, another losing sporting event, an overpriced “fine dining” experience, or this town's favorite default funfest, pounding them back at one of the taverns that are legion in the region -- if the thought creeps up the back of your neck, as the cold wind rushes in off the inaccessible lakefront, that Cleveland was a more interesting city half a century ago and more, you're not far wrong.

Nowhere is this point more plainly or poignantly made than in Cleveland Then and Now (Thunder Bay Press, $17.95) by John J. Grabowski and Diane Ewart Grabowski, who are, respectively, a professor of applied history at Case Western Reserve University and director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and a freelance researcher, writer and editor. Working mostly with photographer Simon Clay (three of the “now” photographs were taken by Richard Palmer), the Grabowskis place, side-by-side, historical photographs of Cleveland and modern images taken from roughly the same vantage point.

More often than not, old Cleveland easily beats new Cleveland. To compare, for instance, Samuel Andrews' 100-room Victorian Gothic castle (locally derided as “Andrews's Folly” for its sheer unmanageability as a home) with the building now occupying the property, the brick cube housing WEWS-TV, is hardly fair on aesthetic or commercial grounds.
But seeing the turrets and bays and spires of Andrews's elegant pile does make you wonder why our civic forebears saw so little value in so unique and irreplaceable an edifice that in 1923 they would demolish it straightaway.

Rummaging around in the past is more than an exercise in rueful nostalgia for those Clevelanders interested in researching their family history. Vicki Blum Vigil, who has previously written about northeast Ohioans' final resting places, explores the catacombs of data available to amateur and professional genealogists, in Finding Your Family History in Northeast Ohio (Gray & Company, $17.95). Vigil peppers her detailed guide to area archives, libraries and civil record depositories with hundreds of entertaining and informative anecdotes from area ancestor-hunters, as well as articles about famous families of northeast Ohio. Her knowledge of the ins and outs of unearthing information about long-departed forebears makes this a particularly valuable resource, and her friendly style fosters an easy readability.

Recent observations that Clevelanders have achieved a measure of renown in the girth sweepstakes might or might not be entirely on the mark, but it cannot be denied that residents of our city are more than a little fond of eating. When not eating, they like to reminisce about legendary meals enjoyed in long-gone dining rooms. That's why Gail Ghetia Bellamy's Cleveland Food Memories (Gray & Company, $17.95) will probably enjoy the same sort of success as last year's volumes about Higbee's old Silver Grille restaurant.

Bellamy has done a wonderful job assembling photographs sure to throw readers' nostalgia glands into overdrive: The Penguin frozen custard drive-in in Fairview Park, the exotic Superior Avenue entrance to the Kon-Tiki restaurant, the predecessor to Bearden's in Rocky River, a drive-in called Jackson's Steak Sandwiches, the old Theatrical on Short Vincent, with its curving glass block front, and Chef Hector Restaurant, a sinister-looking doorway into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, but which led to the basement dining room of Hector Boiardi, who became famous when his name was respelled phonetically on cans of Beef-a-roni.

Bellamy's accompanying text is liberally seasoned with reminiscences by Clevelanders of their favorite restaurant, bakery (it's Hough, natch) or corner store. There will be future editions of this book, it's safe to predict, and for those, Bellamy might want to consider adding a little more historical data to her text: addresses, dates and other factoids are not always in evidence, and photo captions are sometimes less than informative. Chances are, however, that you'll be too busy reminiscing about choking down a phosphorous-colored Big Ghoulardi shake at Manners to notice.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, December 17, 2003.

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