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Jennifer Coleman, AIA: Designing the Memory of Place

For Coleman, that place is her native city of Cleveland, and the memories are of a stunning rise and a gradual decline

By Angie Schmitt

It takes a special kind of person to love Cleveland—its harsh winters, sagging economy, and legendary sports heartbreak. Maybe there’s a Midwestern work ethic willing to exhaust itself to find beauty in a color palette awash in grays—the brownish slate of an ice-strewn lake, the pewter of the near-constantly overcast skies, and soot-stained marble work on City Hall. “Cleveland . . .You’ve gotta be tough,” is one of this city’s more venerated pop-culture “rebranding” slogans.

But among the under-sung charms of this storied city is the architecture, especially the historic architecture. Anyone with a penchant for late-19th- and early-20th-century Queen Anne design will appreciate Franklin Castle, on the Ohio City neighborhood’s historic Franklin Boulevard, late-19th-century home of some of the city’s most prominent citizens. Or the elaborate ironwork of downtown’s grand arcades, precursors to the modern shopping mall built when master craftsmen were cheaply had and wildly skilled.

Ready to guide you to all these gems is Jennifer Coleman, AIA, who not only grew up in one of the city’s historic streetcar-scaled neighborhoods (Lee Harvard), but has worked as an architect with URS, Westlake Reed Leskosky, and now her own firm, Jennifer Coleman Creative. Coleman has helped renovate and build many of Cleveland’s more prominent buildings, including Graham, Anderson, Probst & White’s Terminal Tower, which was for more than 30 years the tallest building outside of New York City.

Coleman also plays an outsized role in the local civic sphere. She serves as chair of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, the final authority on which of Cleveland’s historic buildings will survive the demolition ball that has irrevocably changed the face of so many post-industrial Rust Belt cities.

Finally, Coleman is the creator of CityProwl, a set of guided walking tours that celebrate some of Cleveland’s most treasured architecture. Available for free on iTunes, these self-guided, recorded walking tours take you through some of Cleveland’s iconic public spaces. One highlight is the Italian Renaissance-palazzo-style Federal Reserve Bank, where during the heyday of the Mafia marble statues doubled as machine gun perches for police. Another is the Warehouse District, bustling home to the city’s many garment workers when Cleveland competed with New York as a fashion mecca.

Coleman’s work, as she explains, has always been inspired by a combination of faltering urban fabric dotted with magnificent treasures that make up the everyday background of her native city.

LESSON ONE: Historic preservation is about telling the story of the city.

Cleveland Landmarks Commission

“There’s always a healthy tension between development and preservation. It’s not a case of ‘We save every building because, well, it’s old and it needs to be saved.’

“You’re always looking back to, what is the true legacy of the city? What is it we want to see? In some cases it might be a building. In some cases it might be the rhythm of the streets or certain aspects of the architecture.

“The most successful cities are cities where you can see the life of the city. You see old buildings. You see new buildings. You see what the architectural and cultural philosophy was.

“When you see a city that is missing certain eras of architecture, there’s usually a story behind that. The city was depressed at a certain time, [and] they were knocked down. Those things are fascinating to me. They speak to the overall vitality of the city.

“[Cleveland] is just full of interesting stories. Nineteenth-century Cleveland was basically like the Silicon Valley [of] 100 years earlier. There was a high degree of risk taken by businessmen. I think from the successes we’ve got a lot of cultural assets. From the 20th century, it was a lot [of] people protecting their wealth. We lost that entrepreneurial spirit. It seems likes now we’re starting to get it back.”

LESSON TWO: A building should acculturate people to its function and purpose.

Howard M. Metzenbaum Federal Courthouse Renovation

“The challenge of taking all this historic beauty and making it relevant in our time—it was kind of daunting. We don’t have all of the skilled craftsmen that we used to have when the immigrants were coming into town.

“The interior was built in the early part of the 20th century by a world-class architect [Arnold Brunner]. When you think of the majesty of the justice system, that’s what’s inside this courthouse.

“So how do we use modern materials, technology, and construction methods? How do we marry that with the historic? How do you put [audiovisual elements] in a space that’s subtle, and have that majestic feeling that you’re entering the halls of justice? Almost literally from the moment [people] enter the building, you need to tell the story of where they need to get to, how they should act, and the legal process that they need to adhere to.

“Architects are naturally curious. Whether it’s a school or a hospital or even an office building, you have to learn about the nature of the [building type].”

LESSON THREE: Architecture communicates how a city views itself—and its history.

Cleveland’s Group Plan (Cleveland Landmarks Commission)

“[For] the Group Plan in 1903, the mayor at the time had convened some nationally known architects and planners and artists to look at Cleveland and prepare it for the 20th century. And in that case, it was where our big public buildings were going to land. Before that—city hall, the courthouses—they were just sort of all over the place.

“At that time, there was the City Beautiful movement. Big, majestic Neo-Classical buildings were what [people thought of when they] thought, ‘This city is really hopping. This is a big city.’

“By having a big, beautiful mall and all these great public buildings located around them, considering their heights and scale [it] really started to show an organization to the city that had not occurred before.

“So [Daniel] Burnham, who had also recently done the plan for Chicago, came here and did a lot of the things that were making Chicago such a big city, [to] see if we couldn’t bring some of that to our city. How we were organized sort of informed the nation that we had arrived.

“We looked at the mall, when I was in my 20s and as a teenager, as somewhere to go for the All-Nation’s Festival. But it wasn’t really a place where you could just go outside and do nothing.

“So how [do we] make it a space for not just walkers and nine-to-fivers cutting through to get from point A to point B, to a place to do something or do nothing? I think that’s going to have an impact on the downtown area.

“The [Cleveland] Medical Mart is the first [new] building to be built directly on the mall, the first building that’s coming online [there] in the 21st century. There [are] still issues that need to be ironed out, like what’s happening with Public Auditorium and the [planned new] convention center.

“Again, it’s a sense [that] something that wasn’t all from one era is changing and showing the worldview change, if you will. That’s exciting.”


The Howard M. Metzenbaum Federal Courthouse in Cleveland. Image courtesy of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Jennifer Coleman, AIA. Image courtesy of Jennifer Coleman, AIA.


Recent Related:

Mark Cavagnero, FAIA: Growing Big Ideas

Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA: Bringing Architecture to the Public


Visit the AIA Historic Resources Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


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