1. The Context of the Circle: Community, Philanthropy, and Planning

This book traces the history of University Circle in Cleveland with reference to three fundamental themes in the development of urban America: community, philanthropy, and planning.[1] They bear on University Circle in particular because it is a collection of nonprofit institutions, created and sustained by philanthropy, and brought together in the 20th century by a series of plans that reflect certain visions of community. Leading institutions in the Circle such as Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Museum of Art, Musical Arts Association (Cleveland Orchestra), Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland Music School Settlement, and University Circle, Inc. have evolved in the context of over a hundred years of philanthropy focused on one urban space.

Philanthropy and planning in University Circle have been largely under the control of the wealthy elite of Cleveland, a class which emerged in the second half of the 1800s as Cleveland experienced vast and profitable growth in commerce (especially railroads and lake shipping) and industry (especially iron and steel, machinery and electrical products, chemicals, and textiles). This elite created and developed the Circle because, on the one hand, they believed that with wealth came civic responsibility and, on the other, because they wanted to create institutions that would sustain their values in the midst of what they saw as the chaotic, disintegrating forces of urban America. Initially, at least, Cleveland’s elite reached toward creating a set of institutions that would be a bulwark of what they thought of as community. Like most Americans, for Cleveland’s elite the concept of community has been defined as a group of people who share a way of life and have common social and cultural concerns.[2]


In American history the idea of community has been both elusive and compelling. Early European settlers were sometimes able to recreate entire villages or religious communities, but more often the chances of migration and settlement threw together a variety of people who had to create a new community for government, religious observances, commercial transactions, and occasionally mutual defense. Over time Americans learned how to create community by various forms of association that could be extended or dissolved as populations mushroomed or declined.[3]

These learned processes of community development attracted much of Alexis de Tocqueville’s attention as he described American culture in the 1830s. He believed that American community was based on the rough equality experienced by white, male citizens, derived from those face-to-face contacts in the home and market that were possible in a largely agricultural society, and that were based on a commitment to creating and supporting local institutions, especially manifested in local government, schools, and churches. These institutions were supported largely by the freely given efforts of citizens, including those, such as women and African-Americans, who did not have all the benefits of citizenship. As one historian has noted, “volunteerism was the social currency which bound antebellum communities together.”[4] This kind of community was found (to the extent that such a community could be found anywhere) in the mid-nineteenth century village of Doan’s Corners, which was centered adjacent to (and broadly overlapped with) the future site of University Circle.

Doan’s Corners was dominated by residents of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and most adults were self employed as craftsmen, merchants, or farmers. In many ways self-reliant, the village functioned as a large extended family. This form of American community was challenged after mid-century by massive influxes of foreign-born immigrants, and by rapid industrialization, particularly in villages on the periphery of urban centers like Cleveland. These new factors forced a reevaluation of the ethnic homogeneity and intimacy that seemed to many Clevelanders to be fundamental to American community, a reevaluation that called forth a variety of responses.

The response of the wealthier citizens throughout the United States, whose residences in the latter nineteenth century grew increasingly separate from the homes of working-class immigrants, was to form new institutions and initiate reforms that would sustain or recreate their idea of community, in part as a means of exercising hegemony over an increasingly fragmented city. Historian Thomas Bender has described this response as “[defining] for themselves and for others a public culture that looks very much like their group values writ large.”[5]

The wealthy elite of Cleveland, for example, favored parks in their city that would encourage the allegedly healthful and morally improving effects of walking or riding through a faux-rural landscape; and they promoted the temperate use of alcohol (or better yet, total abstinence from it) because they believed that liquor broke up families and permanently scarred children; they planned heavily-regulated residential areas (often suburbs) for themselves in order to preserve Anglo-Saxon dominance (again, in faux rural settings); and they wanted to establish institutions that either ameliorated the evils of the industrial city or that diffused the assumed benefits of higher culture (art, music, literature and science). In Cleveland these responses to late nineteenth century urbanization found a focus in University Circle.[6]

In the latter 19th and early 20th century different feelings of community developed in the areas adjacent to University Circle. Neighborhoods known as Murray Hill and Hough emerged, with self-conscious identities and a willingness to create local institutions (such as churches) that focused community relationships. Like many American urban neighborhoods, they were characterized by high degrees of ethnic or racial homogeneity.[7] The wealthy elite often viewed these districts, filled with people from regions of southern and eastern Europe (or, beginning in the 1910s, African-Americans from the American South), as reservoirs of un-American attitudes and values. These new urban neighborhoods certainly were different than the remembered experience of Cleveland before 1860 or villages such as Doan’s Corners, but they had in common developing senses of community that were seldom recognized or appreciated by Cleveland’s elite.


Philanthropy as we understand it today has its roots in the Christian evangelical revival, political reform and social uplift movements of antebellum America. Evangelical movements of the 1820s and 1830s were closely connected to the birth of the antislavery, temperance, and Sunday school organizations. These were strong in Cleveland and accustomed its church-goers to participating in the creation of voluntary institutions focusing on social causes, like the American Anti-Slavery Society or the Cuyahoga Total Abstinence Society, as well as to donating money to support such traditional direct-aid charities as hospitals, poorhouses, and orphanages. In the early 1860s the creation and operation of the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian agency which unified several competing efforts to provide medical care and other aid to Union soldiers during the Civil War, drew on the antebellum reform experience, but also demonstrated clearly the possibilities of nationwide organization and professional leadership. In the decades after the war wealthy citizens in several American cities, including Cleveland, created Charity Organization Societies to centralize the fundraising efforts of traditional charities. The process of philanthropic centralization paralleled the growth of centralized business organizations and monopolistic business practices in the latter 1800s.[8]

New reform organizations also sprang up at the same time, particularly as urbanization proceeded rapidly, and cities experienced both levels of poverty and needs for cultural organization that never had been approached previously in America. Settlement houses, parks, orchestras, and missions to the most needy immigrants were responses to the possibilities and problems of gathering hundreds of thousands of Americans into urban foci. Such organizations were communal efforts with widespread support which, in the view of urban elites, helped to counter the apparently splintering tendencies of urban life.

Some, though certainly not all, of the wealthiest Americans responded strongly to the new opportunities for philanthropy. One outstanding example was John F. Slater, a New England industrialist, who in 1882 put $1 million into a relatively new form of philanthropy, a charitable foundation, and directed its efforts toward education for black Americans in the South. Clevelanders were well aware of this new approach: the Slater Fund’s first president was Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, former president of the United States, and a trustee of the Western Reserve University, which had just moved to Cleveland.[9]

The most advanced position on the nature of philanthropy was articulated by Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh iron and steel entrepreneur. In 1889 he published an article entitled “Wealth,” which argued that wealth carried with it the unavoidable responsibility for using it to promote social welfare. Not only is “Wealth” usually regarded as stating the credo of late Victorian philanthropy in America, but Carnegie modeled his ethic by giving away virtually all of his fortune.[10]

Yet most major philanthropists, including Carnegie and the leading Cleveland industrialist, John D. Rockefeller, found that the possibilities for the distribution of their wealth were not only endless, but difficult to assess, and began to seek means of ensuring the effectiveness of their gifts, and the long term stability of the nonprofit institutions they favored. For a very few super-rich Americans it was possible to hire a personal staff of philanthropic advisers. Others began to expect (or demand) that charities and other nonprofits hire professional staffs, create endowment funds to provide perpetual income support, and establish boards of trustees (on which the wealthy would be liberally and, if legally possible, permanently represented) to provide overall supervision. Certainly, the institutions that gathered at the Circle from the 1880s onward usually were established or controlled by boards composed of wealthy Clevelanders, employed professional operating staffs, and established endowments at an early point to reduce heavy annual calls on trustees.

As these institutions grew in programs, collections and staff, additional support had to be raised, but in new ways. In general, by the mid-twentieth century the age of a few wealthy donors had passed in Cleveland, and fundraising had begun to be a professional activity, reaching out to all who could afford to donate a few dollars. There is a revealing contrast between the 28 pledges that raised a $2,000,000 endowment for Severance Hall (home of the Cleveland Orchestra) in 1928, and the thousands of donors who by the beginning of the 21st century supported the Orchestra’s sustaining and endowment fund campaigns. The newsletters, receptions, appeal letters and special exhibitions engendered by this broadened fund-raising have been one means of engaging a larger number of Clevelanders in the support of the Circle, even while trusteeship tends to be vested in the actual or social-stratum heirs of the original philanthropists.[11]

Government funding has been a relatively minor theme most views of the Circle, although without the cooperation and collusion of the city, state, and federal government the Circle would have been a vine without a trellis. The Circle’s emergence as an entity may be traced back to 1882, the year the city of Cleveland purchased Wade Park, and government has provided the Circle with the infrastructure of streets, sewers, water, and police and fire services fundamental to urban life. But even the most active city administrations have failed to affect the character of the Circle’s institutions, and municipal funding for them has been inconsequential. Even the city’s planning function has been consistently usurped by the elite and their agencies.[12]


The planning of the Circle,  generally the forethought about the future siting of buildings and about their architectural design, and the altering of the landscape and the layout of streets,  began with Jeptha Wade’s Victorian-era vision for the park which is named for him. But throughout much of the first century of the area that became the Circle (1796-1896), there was no overall scheme to direct Cleveland’s growth, which derived far more from the real estate speculations of entrepreneurial citizens rather than government foresight. Street and landownership patterns of residential and commercial areas surrounding the Circle were crazy-quilts of parcels based on hundreds of individual real estate investments and speculations, with only those few straight avenues and township boundaries that had been laid out by the early surveyors of the Western Reserve to provide some visual coherence.

In the Progressive Era some headway was made on planning for the future, first with the creation of the city’s Park Commission in 1893. It had powers which made it nearly inaccessible to normal democratic processes, and quickly obtained the confidence of the elite. Business leaders John D. Rockefeller and William J. Gordon, donated land, or funds to purchase land, to make a park corridor along the entire Doan Brook valley that ran through the heart of the Circle. That was the first major park system in Cleveland.

In the first two decades of the 20th century the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce took leadership in planning. The Chamber initiated the studies which led to the Group Plan (1905), a coherent ordering of new public buildings on a site northeast of Public Square, the traditional focus of Cleveland’s public life. (Histories of the Group Plan do not note that it was based in part on the real estate legacy of Leonard Case, who was also the founder of Case School of Applied Science.)[13]) In the next decade the Chamber attempted to initiate a similar process of coherent planning in University Circle based on the focus created by the new Art Museum (1913), and they had some effect on later decisions. But equally significant was the creation of a real estate holding company, the University Improvement Corporation, by leading Circle philanthropists. The company bought land to create a buffer zone to the west of the Circle which it sold off to institutions such as Epworth-Euclid Church, Wade Park Manor, and Fenway Hall. This pattern of leadership by private forces, especially the business elite, has continued in Cleveland. As a 1990s critique described it, “In Cleveland’s tightly coupled framework, the concentration of business and government forces occurs informally, with the public sector in a sustaining but subordinate role to the corporate board.”[14]

Underlying the planning of the Circle and indeed the entire rationale for it, was the Progressive Era fascination with order and efficiency. Other cities, notably Chicago, attempted in the same era to bring cultural institutions together, usually in or adjacent to parks, with the idea that they could be mutually supporting and would be conveniently accessible to city dwellers. Few cities, however, had a site as well located and spatially adequate as Cleveland’s University Circle, and few cities carried out the Progressive reform dictates of order and efficiency as thoroughly as did Cleveland.[15]

Other planning was carried out with more limited objectives. Wade Allotment (1905), a residential subdivision next to the Circle, was carefully designed to appeal to Cleveland’s elite. The Garden Center (1930) took control of the horticulture bordering the Wade Park lagoon. Western Reserve University added a medical complex to its campus in the 1920s, and tried to recognize the interrelationships of its various units by appropriate design of its buildings.

After World War II there were renewed attempts at government planning. But neither of the two largest scale attempts, the municipal Comprehensive Plan of 1946 or the federal University-Euclid urban redevelopment plan of the 1960s, had a significant effect on the Circle. Instead, elite planning for the Circle emerged in a newly coherent form with the creation of the University Circle Development Foundation (1957) and its successor, University Circle, Inc. (1970). Focusing on limited but critical issues such as parking and coordinating expansion plans, they proved effective in helping to stabilize the Circle during an era of rapid social and economic change.


By the beginning of the 21st century University Circle was widely recognized as a remarkable oasis of culture, education and potential innovation that was all the more remarkable because it was within a Midwest city that since mid-century had been characterized by declining population and significant losses of jobs in its traditional industrial base. The Circle seemed firmly established, with an enviable philanthropic heritage, and many of its institutions in recent years had added to their traditional wealthy donors a broad base of support among Cleveland’s citizens and corporations.

With all of its alterations over the years, visitors to University Circle at the beginning of the 21st century could barely see evidence of the varying forces that had shaped it. Wade Park, at the heart of the Circle, barely retained its nineteenth-century aspect as a source of beauty and relaxation for strollers, and the secluded glens and winding paths were hinted at only in the nooks preserved by the Garden Center (now the Cleveland Botanical Garden). Instead, Wade Park and Rockefeller Park were primarily landscapes for institutional buildings and were thoroughly interpenetrated with city streets. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, connecting the Circle with the shore of Lake Erie to the north, not only was a major traffic artery, but could be recognized by an astute observer as marking the boundary between the Circle and the Hough neighborhood to the west.

Visitors found more businesses had appeared in the Circle in the early 21st century than had been there for several decades. It is a paradox that the philanthropists who were largely were responsible for creating the Circle had made their money in large-scale commercial occupations, yet did not at first favor the intermingling of commerce with culture. Cleveland’s leaders never lost their adherence to the ideals of social reform, and their fear that urban vices came along with unbridled business. From the 1870s when temperance advocates cleared Doan’s Corners of its taverns until the 1960s when the University Circle Development Foundation purchased and closed down numerous shops and eateries in the name of development, the forces that have controlled the Circle often have been skeptical of free enterprise at the local level.[16]

The Circle has been far more accommodating to the automobile. While the Circle was conceived prior to the automobile’s development, its streets have been bent to serve the automobile’s needs. While the Circle has not sacrificed substantial parts of its parkland for accommodation to the car, finding places for the automobile was the motivating force in 1957 that initiated sustained cooperation among the Circle institutions. Even an infrequent visitor to the Circle recognizes the ubiquitous signs for University Circle, Inc. that indicate the location of parking lots.

But the signage is one of the few evidences that one is located in the Circle. While the perspective from Euclid Avenue to the Cleveland Museum of Art is striking (and reproduced frequently in promotional publications), the Circle is not a clearly delineated district: no central monument provides focus, no single avenue provides frontage for the institutions, nor is there significant geographic change. In part this lack of identity is a problem that Cleveland has in common with other sprawling mid-western cities, but it is also a matter of the self-definition of the Circle. The founders of the Circle, and after them the institutions, have been concerned to keep control of the land on the boundaries of the Circle, both to make sure that its uses are consonant with theirs, and to allow for future expansion. That control has created a buffer zone around the Circle which not only has created a gray area for visitors, but also has made the adjacent neighborhoods unsure of the institutions’ intentions.[17]

A final measure of University Circle that may be apparent to the visitor is the population using it. During the daytime there is an exuberant mix of students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional), some of whom may also live in the Circle; music and art students, some of whom may be children, and some of whom may be senior citizens; visitors to the several museums; busloads of public school students arriving for special concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra; families taking loved ones home from the University Hospitals; and employees of the Circle institutions scurrying to and from work. At night this scene will be radically different, as it is in so many American cities where urban life has been transformed by the automobile: only a few students will be seen on the streets; clusters of cars will be arriving for events at Severance Hall or the Museum of Art, or a film at Institute of Art; and the buses of University Circle, Inc. will be making their rounds, picking up and delivering those who do not want to transect the Circle at night.

A visitor who experiences and recognizes some or all of the dimensions of University Circle will have some insight into not only the remarkable and flawed visions of its founders, but also aspects of the dreams, efforts and mistakes of all those who have followed. In effect, the visitor will grasp a thread of that great web of people, achievements, and potential that is American history.

  1. The great urban historian Oscar Handlin stated that "the central problems of urban history are those of the organization of space within the city, of the creation of order among its people, and of the adjustment to its new conditions by the human personality." His themes are similar to, but more general than, those here. Oscar Handlin, "The Modern City as a Field of Historical Study," in Oscar Handlin and John Burchard, eds., The Historian and the City (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press and Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 2.
  2. Paul Meadows, "The Idea of Community in the City," in Melvin I. Urofsky, ed., (Perspectives on Urban America, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 23; Park Dixon Goist, From Main Street to State Street: Town, City and Community in America (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977), pp. 35; Alex Marshall, How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads not Taken (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000), pp. 197-207.
  3. A classic description of antebellum community creation is in Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), esp. pp. 49112. The conscious creation of community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has been examined by several scholars. For intellectual and social history approaches to the topic, respectively, see: Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), and Anthony F.C. Wallace, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town's Experience with a DisasterProne Industry (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987), esp. ch. 7.
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Phillips Bradley, ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1945), 1:57-60, 180, 298330, 2: 109128, 17880; Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment In American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 3839; Kathleen D. McCarthy, Noblesse Oblige: Charity & Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago, 1849-1929 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), p. 4 (quote).
  5. Thomas Bender, "Metropolitan Life and the Making of Public Culture," in John Hull Hollenkopf, ed., Power, Culture, and Place: Essays on New York City (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988), p. 265. Italics in original.
  6. On elite institution-building and reform in nineteenth-century Cleveland see David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, eds., Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1986) and Thomas F. Campbell and Edward Higgins, eds., The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-1930 (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1988). On the broader questions of elites and institutions see Peter Dobkin Hall, The Organization of American Culture, 1700-1900: Private Institutions, Elites, and the Origins of American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1982).
  7. John C. Teaford, The Twentieth-Century American City: Problems, Promise, and Reality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 5661.
  8. McCarthy, Noblesse Oblige, p. 89. For a view of philanthropy in the Midwest generally, see: Darwin H. Stapleton, “Urban Philanthropy,” in The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp. 1225-1228.
  9. John H. Stanfield, "Philanthropic Regional Consciousness and Institution-Building in the American South: The Formative Years, 1867-1920," in Jack Salzman, ed., Philanthropy and American Society: Selected Papers (New York: Center for American Culture Studies, Columbia University, 1987), pp. 12729.
  10. Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 8068, 82884.
  11. For a general commentary on trusteeship, see: Darwin H. Stapleton, “Trusteeship,” in Helmut K. Anheier and Stefan Toepler, eds., International Encyclopedia of Civil Society (New York: Springer, 2010), part 20, pp. 1571-75.
  12. A recent critic of American cities argues that loss of government control over urban planning has been the cause of significant failures in design: Marshall, How Cities Work, pp. xii-xiii, 133-55, 213-14.
  13. The Case real estate legacy was dealt with in: Darwin H. Stapleton, “Saving a City from Itself: Euclid Avenue, Temperance, and the Charitable Impulse in Cleveland, 1870-1930,” Euclid Avenue Past-Present-Future Lecture Series, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH, November 12, 2005.
  14. Susan E. Clarke and Gary L. Gaile, The Work of Cities (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p. 122.
  15. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Culture and the City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 140, 222-225; David D. Van Tassel, "Introduction: Cleveland and Reform," in Van Tassel and Grabowski, eds., Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform, pp. 810; Margaret Lynch, "The Growth of Cleveland as a Cultural Center," in Campbell and Miggins, eds., The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-1930, pp. 20911; Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982), pp. 6162.
  16. In 1986 a critic of the Circle argued that “to an outside observer, it certainly appears that over the past 25 years the major decisions in University Circle were in effect against off-campus students and student life. The needs of Severance Hall, the museums and hospitals seem to have dominated, with the agreement of [Case Western Reserve University] officials.” Thomas Bier, “CWRU helped demolish its off-campus,” [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, 27 January 1986.
  17. Two master plans for Case Western Reserve University have confirmed the matter of indistinct boundaries. In the 1988 plan for campus development, which of necessity was a plan for about 50% of University Circle three of the plan’s reported nine goals were to develop a campus that would “feel like a community,” to “relate to the surrounding community,” and to “be legible (identifiable and easy to traverse).” CWRU: The Magazine of Case Western Reserve University 1 (Fall 1988): 4. In 2001 planners reported that “first-time visitors cannot easily discern where CWRU begins and ends”: G.M. Donley, “The Place to Be,” CWRU Magazine 14 (Fall 2001): 24.


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