Who will save Cleveland’s historic Marquard House?
By Mariam Makatsaria
Along the endless row of cookie-cutter homes on Cleveland’s Warren Road, the Marquard House stands as a mute witness to a rich history. Two of the four pillars on the old mansion’s façade are missing the hand-carved volutes and acanthus leaves of their capitals, and their decay hints at the ruin inside: 52 rooms, including a chapel, a theater, and a ballroom, are now a casualty of neglect. Next door, parishioners gather at the St. Mary Romanian Orthodox Cathedral for Saturday’s vespers service. In May 2009, the house was sold to the church at a tax delinquent sale for $50,000. For almost six years, the church has done nothing to restore it.
Cleveland is an essay in the rise and fall of exquisite residences – and sometimes, against all odds, their resurrection. When restored or rehabilitated, a historic house can reflect an area’s identity, character, and cultural heritage. But a wide swath of Cleveland’s residential properties is vacant — including its historic houses. Some, like the four-story Stanley Block in downtown Cleveland, have fallen to the wrecking ball; just last year, the Herold Building on Prospect Avenue was at the center of a restore-or-raze fight between the city of Cleveland and the property owner, who wanted the home demolished. The city won.
Such fights are fraught for both sides. “You have grand mansions that are vacant and are arguably some of the best real estate in Cleveland,” says Stephanie Webster, assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University. But these houses often come with a hefty maintenance bill, and restoring a historical homestead is a lengthy and expensive process. Deciding what to do with these buildings demands creativity – whether it’s turning them into low-income units, senior housing, or a museum.
The Marquard House is nestled in the West Park neighborhood, which is not as devastated by vacancies and abandonment as other spots in Cleveland. (Some areas have seen their original buildings all but disappear: a strip on Euclid Avenue, dubbed “Millionaires’ Row,” was once the site of the lavish, imposing mansions of wealthy industrialists, financiers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, including John D. Rockefeller, Sylvester T. Everett, Marcus Hanna, and George Worthington.) Within the geography of Cleveland, the West Park neighborhood isn’t very old, either. For statistical purposes, it’s a considered a part of Kamm’s Corners, an area on the west side of Cleveland with 70.4 percent of residents working in white-collar occupations. For those reason, Webster says, the Marquard House is an unusual case.
Phil Marquard and ‘The Big House’
Tom Marquard, a descendant of the Marquard family, has been dubbed the family historian, despite his lifelong career in insurance, sales, and management. An author of several books, Tom, who now lives in Dearborn, Michigan, is about to release the story of his family’s homestead – or, as the Marquards called it, “the Big House.”
“It’s something I kind of grew up with,” he says. He speaks softly and steadily. His hair is combed back from his temples and forehead, and his keen, intelligent eyes peer from behind a pair of barely-there, rimless glasses. He is sitting on the sun porch off Dearborn Inn’s lobby, which overlooks the gardens. “When we’d drive by the house, my father would tell us stories.” He pauses. “I always found it to be such a beautiful place that, over the years, has just been falling apart.”
The Marquard House is special not only for its grandeur, but also for its former owner Phil Marquard, a man of big ideas and unparalleled ambition. He was once the proprietor of multiple thriving businesses, including Marquard Sash & Door and the Phil Marquard Real Estate and Building Co. A 1931 article published in The Plain Dealer acknowledged the real estate company’s thirtieth anniversary and its achievement in housing a population of 8,600, a feat that helped develop significant portions of Cleveland.
The Marquard House was erected just after the Civil War, and back then, it was referred to as a “modest farmhouse.” In a couple of decades, it would become anything but. In 1908, the property was purchased by Phil, whose ambitions for the house grew proportionally with the growth of his family. The house began to sprout new rooms, wings, and floors. Fifty-two rooms were designed to accommodate Phil’s family; at one point, he even built a “sky apartment” on the roof for his ill son. “It ended up probably 10 times larger and bore no resemblance to the former homestead,” Tom says. “Local historians questioned if the original house had been razed. My relatives who lived there assured me that it had not.”
When the Great Depression hit, foreclosures, unemployment, and economic ruin swept the nation. Cleveland was no exception, and Phil attempted to salvage his many businesses by putting up his house and estate as collateral. But in October 1942, he died of an illness in the lavish home he had built for himself and his family. His obituary, published October 14, 1942, says he once was honored by Pope Pius XI for his “aid to the needy and untiring work.” In a photograph accompanying the obituary, Phil is stoic, looking upward from behind a pair of perfectly round glasses.
Because the Marquards were unable to pay back the loan Phil had taken out, the bank claimed his estate a month after his death. The following year, the property was purchased from the bank by William Bauer, the former president of a packing company, who then rented it to the U.S. government. An article in The Cleveland Press followed the story of the government’s lease and described the home’s many luxuries: the ballroom-sized sunroom on the ground floor of the north wing, the three garages, and the many stairways, gables, and chimneys. When the article was published, the home was about to be converted into apartments, to be rented to war workers through the War Housing Service. It remained apartments until 2009, and was almost 75 percent vacant from 2004 till 2009.
That’s when the church came in. When the house was put up for tax-delinquent sale in 2009 for $50,000, Tom Marquard didn’t know about it – when last he’d checked, it was valued at almost $400,000. “I always had a dream of buying it and turning it into a bed and breakfast, or a restaurant, or a conference center,” he says. “But back then, it was out of reach, distance-wise and financially.”
Instead, the St. Mary Romanian Orthodox Cathedral purchased the property with plans of transformation in mind: a museum, perhaps, or a housing facility for immigrant families and the elderly. And should the church acquire at least half a million dollars, the Rev. Remus Grama says, the house could be restored to its former glory. But this year, the church intends to raise funds for the renovation of its social hall instead. “The future of the building has been and it continues to be in our attention, but the preaching of the Gospel is our highest reality,” Grama said via email. (He declined to answer any further questions for this article regarding the property. Parish Council President Nick Muntean also did not comment.)
There’s certainly much that still could be done with the house. Frank Ford, the senior policy advisor at the Thriving Community Institute, said he envisions the homestead rehabbed for many adaptive uses, including use as a low-income or special-needs housing project; because the west side neighborhoods have stronger real estate markets that were able to withstand the influx of vacancies without automatically converting them into blight, such goals are more attainable. As a general rule, Ford says, the stronger the market, the more feasible projects become.
But something good has already happened to the Marquard House, Ford says: It was rescued from being subject to irresponsible speculators and put it the hands of a tax-exempt religious entity. That’s one staggering operating cost down.
Tom’s failure to purchase the property hasn’t stopped his commitment to its preservation: since 2013, he has been spearheading the effort to obtain the Cleveland Landmarks Commission’s historical designation for the Marquard House. In June 2013, Ward 17 councilman Martin Keane nominated the house with a letter of appropriateness to the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, which in turn sent a letter to the current property owners in October 2013, as a part of its protocol. The commission subsequently met with church officials to discuss any concerns, but they have yet to give the commission their consent. Gary Swilik, a member of the West Park Historical Society, said the society also has made efforts over the years to discuss the future of the Marquard property with the church. The response has always been courteous, he says, but the society was never able to bring about a personal meeting with church officials.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the landmarks commission recently has become understaffed and overwhelmed, accumulating a backlog of nominations and accordingly long waiting periods for designation. “Last year, our staff went through a transition period,” says staff member Donald Petit, who is now responsible for reviewing the nominations before handing them over to the commission. “The secretary of the commission retired, so we cut back significantly on the number of properties that we were designating last year.” There are currently 352 properties designated by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, and Petit said 10 to 20 still await approval.
Ideally, the next step for the Marquard House is to hold a public hearing, where supporters and opponents voice their thoughts and opinions, with the commission taking testimony from both sides. It is up to the city council, however, to make the ultimate decision, because in this case, such a step would likely need to be taken without the owners’ consent. Tom Marquard’s attempt to place a historic marker on the city-owned tree lawn in front of the house also was halted by a lack of response from the City of Cleveland, he says: because Tom was unable to obtain a grant for manufacturing the marker, as well as for its placement and maintenance, a one-time fee of about $3,000 rests on the shoulders of family, friends, and the West Park Historical Society.
Undaunted, Tom applied to have the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 12, 2015. More than a month following the nomination, the State Historic Preservation Office determined the property likely eligible for a place on the list. It is now a notch below earning a spot on the National Register, pending more research on Philip Marquard and his significance as a local real estate developer and builder. In contrast to a designation granted by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, which requires approval for any alterations to local landmarks, listing a property on the National Register does not impose any restrictions on the property owners – but its owners’ objection can obstruct the process.
Then and Now
Between the emails, phone calls, and meetings deciding who does what and when, the Big House hangs in preservation limbo, devastated by the elements. But the essence of the house’s former beauty lives in old, black-and-white photographs of the interior. The rooms look like museum displays, dotted with items that reflect the family’s decorative whims: ornate candelabras, boiseries, porcelains, embellished mirrors. A depiction of Madonna and Child hangs adjacent to a longcase clock in a photo of the front entry hall. Christian figurines top writing tables and commodes, serving as visual reminders of faith and beauty.
In January 2010, Tom and other members of the Marquard family toured the house for the first time in years. It was frigid; the house had been left without heat or electricity for a little over a year. “It was in bad shape, but not as bad as I thought it might be,” Tom says; despite dirt, trash, peeling paint, and water stains, “the hardwood floors and some of the architectural touches from the old days seemed intact.” Although painted over, the wooden railing and finely turned balusters of the main staircase were still preserved, and intricately carved corbels held the mantel of a red-bricked fireplace. Many of the stained and leaded glass windows survived as well, Tom says. Even in its current condition, the mansion’s asymmetrical façade shows signs of grandeur, with its casement windows, a balcony balustrade and entrance door framed by pilasters and a pediment.
Inspired by an episode of “American Rehab” that followed Detroiters Christopher Lee and Amy Feigley-Lee as they renovated Lee’s great-grandparents’ 1903 Victorian house, Tom even tried to garner the attention of home renovation shows. But he realizes his situation is different: in contrast to Lee, he does not own his grandfather’s house. “I think it could still be used for something, you know,” Tom says. “If nothing else, I’d like to see the front of it or something restored.” His biggest fear is to see the house, for one reason or the other, flattened to the ground.
Frank Ford of the Thriving Community Institute speaks of the house with the same combination of compassion and distress. “When we have a house like this one, which just cries out for a solution, it would be criminal, almost, to let something like that be the subject of a wrecking ball.”
As Tom awaits a breakthrough, he continues to work on his book, unfurling stories about his grandfather, the family businesses, and the Big House – a place brimming with memories, but hauntingly empty.
All photos courtesy Tom Marquard unless otherwise indicated.
Mariam Makatsaria is a recent graduate of Kent State University. Based in Stow, Ohio, she is a freelance journalist and an insatiable lover of art, history, and coffee. Her work has appeared in Buffalo Spree Magazine, The Burr, and Fusion magazine.
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