The Diary of a Cleveland, Ohio Industrial Building

CedarAvePowerHouse by Walter C Leedy at Cleveland State Univ MIchael Schwartz Library Special Collections

The Diary of a Cleveland, Ohio Industrial Building

If buildings could have diaries, the complex of industrial structures along Ashland Road in Cleveland, Ohio would be overflowing with details on its long and illustrious history. Not much has been written about the complex, owing to a lack of information easily available, and misinterpretations based on various first-hand accounts and urban explorers. But what was uncovered was fascinating and complicated, more so than originally envisioned, and despite a wealth of materials uncovered, there are still gaps that have not yet been resolved.

Founded in 1796 near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland became a manufacturing hub due to its location along Lake Erie and along several canals and railroads that branched out like limbs on a tree. To connect its growing neighborhoods with its bustling downtown, streetcars powered by horses and mules were used, but there was a push to electrify these lines by 1890. In the spring of 1888, the East Cleveland Railroad Company, one of many streetcar  companies, began constructing a power plant at Cedar Avenue and Ashland Road to operate their lines by electricity.

The new Cedar Avenue Power House was opened on December 18, 1888 and featured three high speed engines belted to two No. 16 Edison street railway bipolar generators, the largest of Edison’s generators, which operated at 1,000 RPMs. Three horizontal tubular boilers, equipped with Murphy stokers, supplied steam to the engines. One Berryman heater, with two pumps, supplied the boilers, and a 175-foot smokestack was constructed. Also inside was a hand crane of eight-tons capacity built by Phoenix Iron Works of Cleveland. Upon the starting of the power plant, four electrical cars were in operation and the East Cleveland Street Railway extended its electric service to Public Square on its Euclid line in July 1889.

The plant was expanded in late 1889 with three high speed Armington & Sims engines of 250 HP and 200 RPM each. The new engines were twice the capacity of the first three engines, and were belted to two No. 32 Edison generators, twice the size of the originals. Four additional boilers were added, as well as a 135-foot high smokestack. Below is a photograph of the new engine. From Woodward, H.W. “The Evolution of Electric Railway Power Plant Apparatus, as Illustrated by the Cedar Avenue Station of the Cleveland Electric Railway Co.” The Engineer 39.7 (1 Apr. 1902).

The next year saw the addition with two Cooper Corliss engines belted to a large jack shaft and seven boilers. A third Corliss engine was installed two years later, and the three original engines were removed soon after – replaced with an Allis engine the same size as the Corliss, belted to two 150 KW Edison bipolar generators. Below are two photographs of the engines. From Woodward, H.W. “The Evolution of Electric Railway Power Plant Apparatus, as Illustrated by the Cedar Avenue Station of the Cleveland Electric Railway Co.” The Engineer 39.7 (1 Apr. 1902).

Yet another addition was finished in 1892 with four Cooper Corliss single cylinder engines rated at 750 HP and belted to a 500 KW General Electric four-pole generator, operating at 350 RPMs. Eventually, there were two batteries of seven and one battery of ten boilers, each being 18 feet by 72 inches and featuring 72 four-inch tubes rated at 130-horsepower. They were equipped with Murphy stokers and located adjacent to the C&P railroad tracks so that coal could be unloaded into the boiler room, directly in front of the furnace doors.

In 1893, the East Cleveland Railway Company merged with Joseph Stanley’s Broadway & Newburgh Street Railroad Company to form the Cleveland Electric Railway Company. It soon added Tom and Al Johnson’s Brooklyn Street Railroad Company and the South Side Street Railroad Company. Soon after, the Cleveland Electric was better known as the Big Consolidated.

A new boiler house was constructed in that year, consisting of ten 400 HP Babcock & Wilcox boilers. In 1897, foundations for a new power house was laid. An engineer for the company described the new plant, which would include compound engines that would supersede the single cylinder units, and multipolar direct connected generators to supplant the belted two- and four-pole machines.  At its peak, the power house featured seventeen generators of 140 to 1,000 amperes capacity each.

On January 1, 1899, a new 400-ton, 32-foot high General Electric generator – one of the largest in the world, was installed – measuring a whopping 4,363 amperes. It’s size was second only to one ordered by the Metropolitan Electrical Company of New York and a duplicate of an order by the Louisville Street Railway Company. The fly wheel attached was 25 feet in diameter and weighed 160,000 pounds alone. Steam for the new engine was provided by a battery of ten steel boilers built by the Babcock & Wilson Company of New York, and were constructed to withstand a pressure of 200 pounds-per-square-inch. The Cedar Avenue facility was the largest non-condensing direct-current plant in the United States, and was operated non-condensing because the exhaust steam was sold to a salt company adjacent at a price that made it difficult for the central station companies in Cleveland to compete with the Cleveland Railway’s power house on a per-kilowatt-hour output.

An engineer with the Big Consolidated Street Railroad discussed about the power plant’s future at that time, stating that electrical power distribution, similar to what was being instituted by the Metropolitan Company of New York, may be implemented for Cleveland. Land would be purchased at an area outside of the city, where land is cheap and water plentiful, and the current transmitted to substations within Cleveland where it would be distributed to various streetcar lines. The main wires would be laid in conduits and carry an alternating current of at least 6,000 volts. At the substations, the current would be passed through rotary converters and transformed into a direct current of 500 volts.

In mid-1901, Big Consolidated added a storage battery facility, which consisted of 216 cells with a normal rating of 4,000 ampere hours, weighing 2,500-pounds per cell. A differential booster, installed by the Bullock Electric Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, was connected to the storage battery.

In 1902, a new coal handing apparatus was installed. An entire car of coal could be brought in on a transfer table and then lifted into an elevator. From there, the coal would follow an overhead track and dumped into an overhead coal storage bin. By this point, the power house was burning through 60,000 tons of coal a year, averaging 215-tons per day during the winter months. The plant also consumed 50,000 cubic feet of water per day. Below is a cross-section of this addition, from Woodward, H.W. “The Evolution of Electric Railway Power Plant Apparatus, as Illustrated by the Cedar Avenue Station of the Cleveland Electric Railway Co.” The Engineer 39.7 (1 Apr. 1902).

On November 15, 1912, the Cleveland Railway outsourced some power generation to the Illuminating Company to offset a power plant that was over capacity. In 1916, Cleveland Railway requested permission from city commissioners to rebuild and enlarge the power plant at a cost of $345,000, stating that the equipment was obsolete. The request was made initially in July 1915 but no action was taken. The company noted that $95,000 would be taken from the maintenance fund and $250,000 be classified as capital. Street Railway Commissioner Fielder Sanders investigated the need of the improvements, and whether it would be cheaper to outsource all power generation instead of improving the existing facilities. It was later decided that the cost to upgrade the Cedar Avenue power plant was prohibitively expensive. The production value at the Cedar Avenue facility was $1.2 million, and this, deducting the salvage of machinery and equipment estimated at $115,565, could be paid off at a rate of $20,000 per month. The cost of outsourcing electric production to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company was less than 6 mills per kw. The cost of energy production in the Cedar Avenue plant was about 1 cent per kw.

After the Cleveland Railway Company left the Cedar Avenue power house in 1917, three one- and two-story structures were used by the Cleveland Ice Machine Company. Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company post-1922 used the structure to manufacture and sell circuit breakers, elevator motors and controls, fans, fuses, insulating materials, lamps, lighting fixtures, motors, panelboards, ranges, safety switches, small turbines, solar glow heaters, stokers, switchboards, water heaters, watshour meters and welding equipment. A five-story addition on the southern end of the plant, 2203-2209 Ashland Road, was completed in 1922 of reinforced concrete with a brick exterior. It contained “Westinghouse Electric” over the primary entrance.

On April 10, 1933, Westinghouse transferred its local sales and service offices to Edgewater Park, where an existing lighting products division was located.

Three years later, on January 26, Thompson Products purchased several buildings from the Cleveland Railway Company. Containing 60,000 square feet os space, it housed the company’s service division. Thompson Products originated in 1901 as the Cleveland Cap Screw Company, with their initial products being bolts with heads electrically welded to the shafts. They soon expanded to automobile engine valves and soon were the largest valve manufacturer in the United States. Some of their high-performance valves were later used in aircraft engines beginning with World War I. In 1926, the company was renamed Thompson Products after the general manager, Charles Thompson.

On January 10, 1941, Tapco, or Thompson Aircraft Products Company, was founded as a subsidiary of Thompson Products, and called the Ashland Road facility its base. Production under Tapco soared due to the escalation of World War II, and made not only valves, but new products such as booster pumps and high-altitude fuel systems.

Following victory over Japan and the conclusion of World War II, Thompson Products saw a rapid decline in defense production. During the month following V-J Day, or August 14, 1945, the company noted more than 3,000 cancelled contracts, or more than $50 million in total value. By the end of August, Tapco employed just 650, down from 12,000 at the peak of war. But by the spring of 1946, an estimated 3,600 would be hired back due to increasing demand for automotive values and parts.

On September 20, Thompson Products announced an agreement to purchase land for a Tapco plant in Euclid, which would then serve as corporate headquarters and manufacturing hub. Five days later, Thompson announced a reorganization of its Cleveland-area operations into five divisions based on product lines. Four of the five units, Light Metals – its aluminum foundry operations, Piston Ring, Parts and Accessories and Valve and Jet Propulsion, were housed at Tapco, with only the Special Products Division – automotive replacement parts and other forged-metal products located at its main plant.

Following World War II, Thompson began focusing heavily in aerospace and defense contracts, especially during the ramp up to the Vietnam War and Cold War.

A 1951 Sanborn map noted that the Westinghouse Electric plant was home to Tapco, Pump Division:

  • 2203-2209 Ashland Road was the six-story service building.
  • 2176-2203 Ashland Road were manufacturing areas, one- to two-stories in height..
  • 2151-2175 Ashland Road was a finished products warehouse, five-stories in height.
  • 2225-2229 Ashland Road was a three-story machine shop.
  • Other portions of the Thompson Products plant extended across the railroad tracks towards East 65th Street and north to Cedar Avenue.

Thompson Products merged with Ramo-Wooldridge in October 1958. An April 27, 1959 article listed the Ashland Road facilities as part of Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge’s Light Metals division. On January 27, 1961, Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge announced plans to acquire a 55-acre tract in suburban Independence for a $3 million master warehouse and headquarters for its automotive replacement parts division, which would replace their Ashland Road and Cedar Avenue facilities. The new warehouse would be located on Pleasant Valley Road east of Ohio Route 21, and include 320,000 square-feet of warehouse space and 50,000 square-feet of office space on one level. On November 1, 1962, Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge, later known as TRW, sold their Ashland Road structures for approximately $500,000 to Albert A. Levin, a Cleveland attorney and realty investor. The continued to occupy the buildings now used by the Light Metals division under terms of a five-year lease. Buildings formerly housing Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge’s replacement facilities in Independence were leased to other tenants.

After Thompson vacated, the Ashland Road plant became home to the Virden Manufacturing Company. Originally named the Howler Manufacturing Company, the business was renamed after John C. Virden, the president. In October 1919, his factory relocated to a building along Longfellow Avenue near its intersection with Longfellow Avenue.

In 1920, a two-story, 40-by-92-foot addition at Ashland Road and Longfellow Avenue, designed by E. McGeorge, was let to contract in May for $60,000. Five years later, a contract was awarded to the Griffin Construction Company of Cleveland for a one-story machine shop and storage building also designed by McGeorge, measuring 40-feet by 80-feet. Another expansion took place in mid-1936, when a contract was awarded to the Albert M. Higley Company, and again in mid-1940 when a new two-story 150-by-70-foot warehouse was built by the Higley Company. Over the ensuing years, the company expanded into the manufacture of fluorescent and incandescent lighting equipment, and then into commercial and residential lighting products.

Virden was the third largest among the nation’s 1,400 fixture manufacturers by 1968, with production tripling from eight years prior. The company sold more than 1,000 varieties from its biennial catalog, and produced 10,000 to 15,000 fixtures per day, consuming more than a million components per week. Virden constructed 600 to 800 units of one design per run, which were moved to distributors in lots of 10 to 2,000 per week, some designs totaling 150,000 units per year. Its designers sketched 2,500 fixtures per year, selecting 100 patterns to be prototyped.

In 1946, Virden was elected a director of Eaton Manufacturing Company and became director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland in January 1951 – later rising to chairman of the board. On September 28, 1958, Virden was named president of Eaton Manufacturing Company and diversified the company, believing in “divisional autonomy.” He also announced his resignation as chairman of the board of the Virden Company. In 1965, the Virden Company was acquired by Scott & Fetzer Company of suburban Lakewood, with no changes taking place at its operations at Longfellow Avenue. The company became known as the Virden Lighting division.

Scott & Fetzer laid off several hundred from the Virden Lighting division due to a housing slump in 1970, and again in 1975. The company sold off its Virden Lighting and Rembrandt Lamp divisions in December 1977 to a newly formed company, Virden Corporation, which at the time of the sale had 360 employees.

On August 6, 1979, Virden failed to make payment to 300 employees. According to the company, Virden had closed three days prior because of a parts shortage, but Robert M. Allen of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1554 stated that the company owned Cleveland Trust Company $5 million and Scott & Fetzer Company $2 million – and paid them first instead of its employees. Virden’s president stated that he hoped Virden would be open by the end of the week, but employees were officially laid off in January 1980. On October 28-31, a complete auction was held at the Virden Lighting Company, including its metal working machinery, punch presses, lathes, machine shop, $700,000 in inventory, $1 million in parts, print shop and real estate.

Prior to 1987, the property from Cedar Avenue to Thackeray Avenue along Ashland Road was transferred to Weiser Management Inc. A quit claim deed for $60,000 was filed on July 7, 2008 to Bleacher Beast Inc., who was foreclosed upon on February 28, 2012. On June 21, the parcels were transferred to Sandusky Solutions LLC.

What is still unknown is when Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge officially vacated their Ashland Road facility and what time period the Cleveland Ice Company occupied the complex.

9Comments

  • Jake Barshick / 19 September 2012 11:25

    very nice research man! just wondering where you got the sanborn maps from.. I've never heard of these but they are an excellent research tool! Thanks for posting this, I've been in this building a million times and have seen it decay so much over the last 5 or so years.

  • Jeff Martin / 19 October 2012 2:56

    Some minor corrections regarding the end of Virden Lighting. The company did not "fail" to pay the employees on August 6, 1979; Cleveland Trust closed the company's checking accounts and cancelled the line of credit. The checks that were issued were returned NSF. The company re-opened under Chapter 11 on September 1, 1979 and operated for another year before going totally bankrupt in August of 1980.
    Jeff Martin
    Former Human Resources Assistant

  • Fred Raymond / 21 December 2012 2:04

    As an IBEW shop, by 1980 Virden had to have found it impossible to be price competitive in the lighting fixture business. It's impressive that Virden even lasted that long, considering what their labor cost must have been relative to non union manufacturers.

  • Sarah / 28 December 2012 8:55

    I recently got a wall light fixture with a very antique looking tag on it saying it was a Virden, Division of the Scott and Fetzer Company. The lamp looks quite dated. I have looked to try and figure out when the Virden Light company started, but to no avail. The design of this thing looks Art Deco, but that couldn't be because of it being a Division of Scott and Fetzer. OR, when all this was sold, did the division just come in and put their labels on all inventory and then sold it? I am curious. I did not pay that much for it, and it is used, but it sure does not look like it came out of mid-century. When did Virden start in business. How old could this wall light actually be? Thanks so much.

    mjmeyer@sf.edu

    • Larry / 7 December 2013 7:20

      I sold for Virden from 1971 to 1978 . Scott and Fetzer owned Virden from 1965 to 1978 . The quality was quite good and had a lot of craftsmanship. The. Lighting fixture catalogs went back to the early 1930 ‘s. The gauge of metal was usually thicker.

  • jen / 9 August 2013 12:44

    Really amazing article and great pics. I just spent my lunch hour yesterday exploring this beautiful old building.

    Going back for more photos when I have a friend to accompany me.. :)

  • Patrick / 9 August 2013 4:30

    I just wanted to say thanks for this after stumbling across this site, I grew up in Cleveland, and have been around this area a lot, I used to work for the RTA, and worked in the bus garage on Woodhill and Quincy, so I went past this place quite a lot and always wondered what its history was.

  • Paul / 27 August 2013 8:31

    I love industrial archeology. Being from Cleveland, I know the city is full of these old wonderful sites. This Cedar/Ashland power plant is one of my favorites and I usually make a pilgrimage to it every 6 months. It’s too scary to venture inside owing to its apparent state of dereliction, so I’m glad you’ve done it for me! It would be nice to preserve the building but to what end; also, it appears to be too far gone. You have also done a monumental job researching its story. My interest lies in its history as a generating plant. I wish I knew where all the steam engines, boilers and DC generators went. I thought I was the only one interested in this building! It’s nice to see others who share the interest.

  • Janice / 5 February 2014 1:23

    I just bought lights with the sticker Virden Lighting Issue C. 498.385 Div of the Scott and Fetzer
    Milky white 2- wall sconts, 1-that looks like them that hangs & and one round hanging ball with medal flowers on it. I can I find out when they were made or what they are worth?
    Thank You
    Janice

Leave a Comment