Then & Now: Public Square
A historical and current look at the city's center space
By Courtney Bosetti
Public Square is an icon of Cleveland. As the heart of Downtown, it welcomes community members, professionals and visitors to enjoy the free public space. But what was Public Square like before the unique architecture, summer greenery and snowy ice skating rink?
To be frank, it wasn’t always as beautiful as it is now. It was used for a variety of purposes, including burial ceremonies of renowned presidents and a space to present new inventions to Clevelanders. Some of the Square’s historical purposes remain largely the same today, while others have been relinquished to the past.
It dates back to the late 18th century, when Moses Cleaveland marked Public Square as the center of the Connecticut Land Company’s plan for Cleveland and evolved it into a ceremonial space for the new city. After the Civil War, regiments home from battle were greeted here, which would soon turn into a tradition for generations to follow. For these reasons, the addition of historic monuments of Moses Cleaveland and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument were necessary inclusions to the space. (Fun fact: Cleveland is named after Moses Cleaveland, but spelled differently because legend has it a newspaper could not fit Cleaveland into a headline, so it dropped the first "a.")
During the 19th century, the city’s first public fountain was introduced and Cleveland showcased the world’s first successful electric streetlight system in Public Square. The Square also held the burial ceremonies and served as the common ground to view the caskets for two U.S. Presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James Garfield in 1881.
Even though Public Square was used for multiple purposes throughout time, it was always recognized for its transit hub station. It first started as a pickup location for stagecoach (and then streetcar) passengers. Today, RTA stops--including a rail station and several bus stations--dot the areas around and through Public Square.
During the 20th century, people proposed many ideas to help revitalize the space. They ranged from subway system implementation, to making it the new Rockefeller Center (of New York City fame), to building a parking area with a waterfall, but all of the plans failed. Public Square had a federally-funded revamp in 1986; however, it didn’t connect all four quadrants of the square and fell short of future visions.
According to the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, Public Square was named one of the world’s most dysfunctional spaces in 2002 and needed a major revitalization.
In the fall of 2014, the planning of the new design was nearly completed and the 15-month-long construction project began the following spring. The plan encompassed a modern-design with high-quality materials, innovative arrangements and an authentic Cleveland touch.
On June 23, 2016, Cleveland unveiled its $50 million renovation of Public Square with a free celebration led by Mayor Frank Jackson. Public Square now features a large grassy area, a reflecting pond with water jets, a bar-restaurant called Rebol, and a public skating rink during the winter months. The old Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the statue of Moses Cleaveland still remain as a testament to the historical Square.
Clevelanders can enjoy an unobstructed view of Downtown Cleveland from nearly every angle and take advantage of the free events and activities that occur in the Square, such as farmers’ markets, yoga classes and orchestra concerts. The space creates an environment that allows people to embrace the urban outdoors and can finally be considered as one of the most versatile and useful public spaces in Northeast Ohio.
Haven’t checked it out yet? What are you waiting for? Here are some upcoming events on Public Square to get you acquainted with the new space.