The Van Dorn Iron Works was located along East 79th Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio and was founded in 1872 by James Van Dorn as an iron fence fabrication company in Akron. He relocated to Cleveland six years later to be closer to supply and shipping lines.
While waiting to submit a bid for cemetery fencing in Milwaukee, Van Dorn overhead someone mentioning jail cell construction. He believed that jail cells were nothing more than indoor fences, and went to add them to the company product line. Within a few years, Van Dorn’s company was the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the United States, some of which were used in the West Virginia Penitentiary among many other places.
The company expanded into structural steels by the late 19th century, which coincided with the rise of the skyscraper and then the automobile. One of the Van Dorn’s early contracts was the erection of a 16-story iron skyscraper in downtown Cleveland, the Williamson. By the early 20th century, the company boasted over 1,000 employees and an expanded production line that included frames, fenders and other automobile parts for local industries. By 1908, Van Dorn consisted of four departments: the Structural Iron Department, the Steel Jail Department, the Ornamental and Light Iron Department and the Art Metal and File Department. The company also controlled the Van Dorn & Dutton Company that manufactured cut gears for shops, trolley cars and automobiles, and the Van Dorn & Elliot Company. Van Dorn was also pioneered the development of the mechanical dump truck hoist, and later produced tanks and armor plates for Jeeps and aircraft during World War I and World War II.
In 1916, Van Dorn expanded on the west side of 79th Street by constructing a five-story concrete-reinforced building.
Below: The Van Dorn Iron Works encompassed both sides of 79th Street in this 1922 view. The five-story expansion from 1916 is on the right. Image donated by Gerald Adams to the Cleveland State University Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.
Below: 1926 views. Images donated by Gerald Adams to the Cleveland State University Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.
Below: The 1916 addition today.
In the 1940s, Van Dorn diversified by purchasing the Davies Can Company and the Colonial Plastics Manufacturing Company. By the 1960s, Van Dorn produced drawn aluminum cans for processed foods and plastic injection molding machines.
Van Dorn announced that it was closing its plastic injection molding machinery manufacturing plant at its 79th Street location in November 1990, and consolidating its equipment with another site in suburban Strongsville. A dip in earnings for 1990 also brought about the need for relocation and modernization. It’s third-quarter earnings showed a 94% drop in its plastic machinery division, operating at a loss. The facility was also aging and not adept to handling modern assembly operations. In addition, much floorspace was not utilized due to advanced manufacturing methods that simplified the assembly process and cut the number of equipment required. The new production processes included simultaneous building and testing of its subassemblies, team assembly methods, a moving assembly line and the pre-painting of parts.
The company also announced that it was seeking to relocate its corporate offices from 79th Street to a new building in the region.
The Orlando Baking Company, which had operated on the east side of Cleveland since 1904, had relocated to the five-story Van Dorn building in 1977. It constructed new production buildings towards the western end of the Van Dorn complex but in the early 2010s, was running short of land and sought expansion space for a new production facility. At the time, production flowed east to west within the bakery, with raw materials delivered on the east side of the bakery and finished goods shipped from the west side. The bakery needed additional space for cold storage on the west side of the complex. Orlando pitched the idea to move maintenance and other functions to the east side of 79th Street, and to construct cold storage facilities on the west side of 79th Street at a total cost of $6 million to $10 million.
The bakery, as of 2013, used a portion of the five-story building for storage and office space. A one-story shipping building was used as a repair and fabrication shop for bakery machinery. Another Van Dorn building was demolished in the 1990s for a gravel lot.
A Phase I and Phase II environmental assessment was conducted in 2011 on the former Van Dorn property on the east side of 79th Street, paid for in part by the Orlando. Based on the findings, several areas of the Van Dorn property required remediation to protect bakery workers. The city of Cleveland and the Orlando Baking Company submitted a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund application in January 2012, and received $1.3 million in May 2012. Demolition commenced on the Van Dorn Iron Works site later in the year.
Below: Recent photography of the Van Dorn Iron Works in a state of demolition.
Below: To save on electricity costs, light wells were constructed throughout the complex.
Below: Inside the 1894 office building.
Below: A passing Norfolk-Southern train on the former Pennsylvania Railroad C&P Division.
Below: Looking southeastward towards the Mechanical Rubber Company site.
Saying goodbye to another historic industrial site in Cleveland.