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Western Reserve architecture

Origin of The Western Reserve of Connecticut

Western Reserve architecture: the grand atrium of Cleveland's historic Arcade
Photos by Rick Zimmerman

The Western Reserve region of northeastern Ohio had its origins in the 1662 granting of a land charter by King Charles II of England to the young American colony of Connecticut. That land charter granted to the colony all lands between the 41st parallel and the 42nd-and-2-minutes parallel west of Connecticut, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Those parallels conformed to the Connecticut colony’s north and south boundaries, in effect extending them off to the western horizon, off to the limits of the then-known New World.

As a practical matter, the total territory granted was likely deemed to terminate at the Mississippi River, for beyond that major waterway lay wilderness, uncharted for years to come. But the Connecticut colony also lost much of that original land grant as the young states of New York and Pennsylvania claimed competing conflicted areas. As a result of settlement of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in 1799, and subsequent negotiations with the fledgling U.S.’ federal government, all that eventually remained of Connecticut’s ‘Western Reserve’ was a swath of territory that now lies within the state of Ohio, 50 miles in breadth north-to-south, and 120 miles in extent, from its eastern abutment at the Pennsylvania state line to its western terminus just beyond the present-day city of Sandusky, Ohio.

The Western Reserve’s 6,000 square miles would eventually be parceled into virtually all of eleven Ohio counties, and would encompass the cities of Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown among many others. The westernmost portion of the Western Reserve was also known as ‘The Firelands’ (or ‘Sufferer’s Lands’), as it was initially set aside to compensate those Connecticut colonial citizens that were burned out by British forces during the Revolutionary War. Occasional signs marking The Firelands can still be encountered on rural routes crisscrossing Ohio farms and fields.

On August 3, 1795, Connecticut sold all of its remaining Western Reserve lands to the Connecticut Land Company for $1,200,000. By May of the following year, the estimable Connecticut native Moses Cleaveland took leadership of a surveying party that set out along the southern Lake Erie shore. The energetic, erect and portly Cleaveland had been born in Canterbury, Connecticut and had studied law at Yale. After rising within the Revolutionary War from ensign to captain, he had undertaken legal practice in his hometown. Backed by an expeditionary party of fifty, Moses was appointed to direct the requisite surveying and undertake all necessary negotiations with any Native Americans remaining upon the land. After a stop at the Conneaut Creek in the eastern portion of what is now Ohio, Cleaveland’s surveying party continued west to the mouth of the Cuyahoga (Native American for ‘crooked’) River. Entering the mouth of the Cuyahoga on July 22, 1796, Cleaveland embarked upon the eastern riverbank, climbed to a broad flat plain, and determined such should be the site of the future city of Cleveland. Today, Settlers’ Landing marks the point of that historic embarkation from the river, while the original broad flat plain is now occupied by the gridded blocks of Cleveland’s ‘front lawn’ of Public Square. Soon after the initial surveying, founder Moses Cleaveland departed the region, never to return.

At first known simply as ‘New Connecticut’, the surveyed sections of frontier land drew many migrants from the Connecticut colony, lured by cheap land, mild climate, rich soil and plentiful resources. Within a decade of Cleaveland’s surveying endeavor, the cities of Youngstown, Warren, Hudson, Ravenna, Ashtabula and Stow had all been founded. By 1800, the state of Connecticut had ceded any sovereignty to the region, and the area’s moniker shifted to ‘the Western Reserve’. However, as enduring testament to the Reserve’s Connecticut roots, many of its young communities had been named for their colonial progenitors: Avon, Chester, Coventry, Kent, Litchfield, New London, Norwalk, and Warren, among others.

Along with the names of colonial Connecticut towns and villages, the new settlers also brought with them their culture, habits, sensibilities, architectural tastes and sense of town planning. As B.A. Hinsdale opined in 1888: “No other five thousand square miles of territory in the United States, lying in a body outside of New England, ever had, to begin with, so pure a New England population.”

Architectural Stylings & Town Planning

In many of the structures erected across northeastern Ohio, that transplanted New England character manifest itself as a stylistic amalgam of Classical, Federal, Georgian, Queen Anne, Victorian and Farmhouse Colonial elements that has since been described as Western Reserve Architecture.

Dwellings of the Western Reserve ranged from the simplest and most utilitarian log and timber slab cabins to those that were stick-framed and sided in lapped milled boards or hand-split shakes. The most common coloration by far was the same ‘pure’ white-washing favored by Connecticut forbears for its conservative beauty, simplicity, and cleanliness. Log or timber slab-sided structures might remain naturally hued, or take on the common barn hue of red (since red pigmented paints were most often the cheapest). Eventually, the more elaborate residences of prosperous citizens would also acquire a range of muted tones of cream, gray, tan, blue and sea green.

Homes were typically limited to just one or two stories, within either one simple rectilinear volume topped by a single gabled roof, or several such volumes arranged in plan as a ‘T’ or ‘L’. Most had a large stone hearth and chimney that either penetrated the main volume of the home or formed one of its gable ends, providing essential heat and cooking capability to the main living spaces. Windows were almost exclusively modest-sized vertically rectangular openings occupied by hung sash with multiple glazed lights. The primary entrance door of paneled wood (at times, the only door into the home) would often be centered on a façade, flanked symmetrically by windows. In keeping with the farming and livestock occupations of many of the Western Reserve’s initial inhabitants, their homes, barns and utility buildings would usually be clustered together, and would often take similar forms, materials, colors and details. As residents prospered, homes would grow to multiple stories, and would begin to sprout many embellishments and architectural fripperies — porches and verandas, more complex roof forms, dormers, cupolas, colonnades, pediments, friezes, balustrades, widow’s walks and so on. The grandest of homes developed in brick and stone, with elaborate fenestration and stonework articulation.

Many public buildings, such as churches, courthouses, city halls, hospitals and eventually libraries, were initially constructed of brick, stone and elaborately paneled or plastered timber. Civic structures were often massive, blocky and rectilinear, conveying a communally desirable appearance of solidity and permanence, though occasional exuberance was tolerated. Decorative stone coursings, caps, finials, cornerstones and capitals might be employed to articulate the architect’s vision. Buildings reflected straightforward rhythm, balance, symmetry and proportion in their massing, and in their patterns of fenestration, colonnading, and material embellishment. The relative religious conservatism of the Reserve’s initial settlers meant that churches were topped by mere crosses or spires, rather than the elaborate domes or statue-studded roofscapes that might be throughout other parts of the country.

Town planning throughout the Western Reserve conformed to that of its Connecticut origins. The first parcel of land sited was almost always the village common or town square — the civic and ceremonial heart of the new community. Soon after Moses Cleaveland disembarked upon the east bank of the Cuyahoga River in 1796, he strode up the riverside bluff to a broad flat plain that appeared ideal for settlement. That plain became first a cattlegrounds and then the young city of Cleveland’s Public Square, and it remains the public heart of the city to this day.

After Cleaveland’s surveying party had laid out the rigid geometry of delineated sections and townships throughout the lands of the Western Reserve, it was left to each area’s initial settlers to establish their own new village green and the organizing principals of the surrounding future town. Most were laid out on a simple grid system of intersecting streets, arrayed about all sides of the village green with a draftsman’s precision. Today, one can travel along a strand of such townships — say, perhaps Grafton, then Liverpool, Brunswick, Hinckley, Northfield, Boston and Hudson — encountering the ever-repeating pattern of town square ringed by gridded streets, broken here and there by watercourses, rail lines and the occasional geographic obstacle.

While many Western Reserve communities were named for their Connecticut counterparts, still others took on the names of their pioneer settlers, land investors, tradesmen, entrepreneurs, military heroes and politicos. These include Tiffin, Stow, Perry, Boardman, Kirtland, Trumbull, Warren, Hudson, Kent, Youngstown, and Kelley’s Island.

Some of the best remaining examples of the traditional town square lie at the heart of such northern Ohio cities, towns and villages as Cleveland, Hudson, Twinsburg, Medina, Oberlin, Chardon, Warren, Sandusky, Willoughby (though Willoughby’s is more of a town triangle than a town square), and Tallmadge (which has a central circle). As many of these communities evolved into their county seat, their town square would often be punctuated by the grandest of architecture, manifest in the County Courthouse. Fine courthouse examples survive today in Sandusky, Warren, Chardon and Medina. Throughout Cleveland’s first century, Public Square was the site of its central courthouse, until it was shunted northward toward Lake Erie as part of the Group Plan of 1903.

The iconography of small town America’s town square — a stately quad of treed lawns populated by memorial statuary and an ornate courthouse edifice, and ringed by the hubbub of the central mercantile avenues — has even seeped into our cultural consciousness. Scene settings of such popular movies as Back to the Future and A Time to Kill recreate that town square of our collective memory.

A Return to the Past

It is no wonder then that community leaders, citizens, urban planners, architects and designers often seek to recreate Western Reserve architecture and town plans, especially for infill or redevelopment projects within many of those same small towns. For many, Western Reserve architecture is a key part of their fond remembrance of times past, simpler times before multilevel multilane overpass interchanges and big box retailers, before acres-broad parking lots and towering pylon signs, before colored cinder-block and faded stucco structures housing franchise outlets and dollar stores.

Yet another appeal of Western Reserve architecture is its compatibility with concepts of New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND). All are conducive to relatively small development parcels and structures in relative proximity. All favor more sensitive architectural design that is pedestrian friendly. Favored features include slower speed roadways of reduced traffic capacity in gridded format, on-street parking, tree-lined streets, shallower front yards, reduced parking lot sizes, and substantial pedestrian amenities. Encouraged architectural features include highly articulated building forms, visual supervision of streets, plentiful landscaping, porches and verandas, fences and balustrades, varied fenestration patterns, rich materials and colors, and varied architectural styles.

By as early as the late 1970s, many of us across America were seeking a new model for small town development. After decades of interstate highway construction, suburban flight, urban rioting and discord, proliferation of ever larger scale retail mall development, and exponential growth in franchise and ‘brand’ retailing, smaller American towns felt gutted and ignored. Citizens sought to restore, rebuild, infill and regenerate the creaking cores of their communities. For many throughout northern Ohio, the concepts of New Urbanism, TND, and Western Reserve architecture appeared to point a way forward. They provided a way of revitalizing towns without necessarily discarding what was historic and beloved and viable.

A prime example of one city’s embrace of those concepts is First & Main, in Hudson, Ohio. Rather than destroy its town square — or the viable main street retail flanking its western edge — Hudson chose to develop a multi-block mixed-use plan that linked to, and drew from, the vitality of that town square. A sizable food store, public library, plentiful on- and off-street parking, and a broad mix of dining and retail uses populate a pedestrian-friendly ‘downtown’ of gridded small-block streets. The architecture is a rich mix of forms, colors, materials, details and visual interest.

At Brunswick Town Center in Brunswick, Ohio that same ‘downtown’ feel is sought, within a very modest footprint of two u-shaped retail structures flanked by two big boxes. Here too the architecture reflects a small-town pedestrian-friendly character, with articulated ‘main street-style’ façades, decorative pavements, street amenities, and subdivided parking areas.

Meanwhile, Crocker Park of Westlake, Ohio embodies a more highly urbanized variant of Western Reserve architecture and town planning. While it still contains on-street parking, pedestrian amenities, lush landscaping and highly articulated architecture, it also introduces structured parking, taller and denser structures, and a greater mix of uses. Crocker Park thus charts one path toward effective densification of small town centers.

Other relatively recent retail developments — such as The Greens of Strongsville in Strongsville, Ohio — have wedded stylistic elements of Western Reserve architecture to their limited palettes.

Historical Precedents

Following are just a few of the more illustrative examples of the architecture of The Western Reserve:

Dunham Tavern, on Euclid Avenue just east of East 55th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, is the city’s oldest structure still standing atop its original foundation. The frame structure that one may visit today, as a museum listed on the National Register, was completed by the family of Rufus Dunham in 1832, on land he had occupied since 1824. Cared for by a preservationist group since 1936, Dunham Tavern contains a fine collection of authentic early American furnishings, paintings and household objects. Its grounds also include restored gardens and farm accessories.

One can see in the Dunham Tavern many of the key elements of early Western Reserve domestic architecture: the simple single-gabled rectilinear volumes, the anchoring forms of brick hearths and chimneys, the crisp lines, the ‘pure and clean’ coloration of lapped timber siding and trim boards, the regular rhythmic patterns of fenestration, the vertically-oriented hung sash with multipane glazing, and the centrally-placed entrance doors and symmetrical façade compositions. As a residence (initially), Dunham Tavern also displayed no extraneous decoration or non-essential embellishment — a testament to the conservative nature of the typical Connecticut emigrant.

The Grand River Light at Fairport Harbor, OH, is situated at the intersection of Second and High Streets. The existing 60-foot lighthouse and its adjoining marine museum first came into service in 1871, and were decommissioned in 1925, having been functionally replaced by the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light. The rustic tan stone and weathered copper components of the lighthouse stand in colorful contrast to the red brick of the gabled former keeper’s residence, which now houses the museum. The facility — supposedly haunted by a ghost cat — replaced the original 55-foot lighthouse and keeper’s house constructed in 1825 by early settler Jonathan Goldsmith.

Tallmadge Church and Old Town Hall both occupy portions of the historic Tallmadge Circle at the heart of the city of Tallmadge, OH. Founded in 1807, Tallmadge is the second-oldest city in Summit County (after Hudson), and its church and town hall were erected in 1825 and 1859 respectively. Each is a fine extant example of Western Reserve civic architecture. Within the greensward of the surrounding Circle, the structures offer a postcard panoramic of transplanted New England community pride.

The Chapel of Western Reserve Academy, in Hudson, OH, was erected in 1836 and continues in use today. As one of the oldest and most notable structures on the campus of the “Yale of the West”, the Chapel is an imposing multi-story red-brick structure topped by a strong white pediment with bulky bell tower. Fittingly, the Chapel looks out onto a strictly ordered campus of treed lawn quadrangles and formal building placements.

The Little Red Schoolhouse in Oberlin, OH is a one-room, one-story clapboard-on-frame structure that has occupied multiple sites within the city throughout its existence. Now situated adjacent to a parking lot at the Conservatory of Music, The Little Red Schoolhouse conveys the simple functional beginnings of many Western Reserve communities.

Offering an amalgam of Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Federal architectural styles is the Kirtland Temple, in Kirtland, Ohio. Completed in 1836, the Temple was erected by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (also referred to as LDS or Mormon Church), as Kirtland was the settlement locale of the religion’s wandering founders in the early 1830s. Though the structure today stands in stark white, with olive-green doors, it was supposedly bluish-gray with a red roof initially.

The First Congregational Church of Twinsburg (United Church of Christ), is a crisp example of Doric Order Greek Revival architecture, facing the town green in the heart of Twinsburg, OH. This church was constructed in 1848, succeeding a simple log structure on the square erected in 1822.

The Dr. Peter Allen House is on W. Williamsfield State Road, north of its intersection with State Route 87 in Kinsman Township, OH. Built by Willis Smith in 1821, the home’s transitional style embodies elements of both Greek Revival and Federal style. A regular front façade faced in Ionic pilasters rises to a substantial pediment with shallow fanlight.

The Former Baldwin Babcock House, later to become the home of The Hudson Library and Historical Society, was built in 1834 at 49 East Main Street, Hudson, OH, by Frederick Baldwin. Passed on to his daughter Caroline Baldwin Babcock, the residence was converted to a library in 1922, with successive additions over the following 40 years. It now houses community organizations.

Hale Farm and Village in Bath Township, OH is an historic 178-acre property operated by the Western Reserve Historical Society. Site of the original homestead of Jonathan Hale, an early emigrant from Connecticut, the complex today includes eight different farm structures constructed from 1825 through 1920. The original three-story brick Hale House was completed by 1827, becoming at the time one of only two all-brick structures in the Cuyahoga Valley. Its stout face patterns 14 identical windows and a central front door in a rigidly regimented expanse of brick, capped by a side-to-side gabled roof with end cap chimneys.

The Perkins Stone Mansion in Akron, OH is the current home of the Summit County Historical Society. Built by Colonel Simon Perkins in 1837, the home is fronted by an imposing two-story colonnaded portico with massive architrave. Punctuating the building’s roof line are a small central widow’s walk with balustrade and two side wall chimneys. The house is constructed of distinctive yellow slabs of random rough sandstone with large dressed window heads and quoins at wall corners. Other decorative elements of the home derive from the Federal style.


Reference sources for more information about The Western Reserve and its architecture:

Butler, Margaret Manor. A Pictorial History of The Western Reserve 1796 to 1860. Cleveland, Ohio: The Early Settlers Association of The Western Reserve and The Western Reserve Historical Society, 1963.

Campen, Richard N. Architecture of The Western Reserve, 1800-1900. Cleveland, Ohio and London: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971.

Chapman, Edmund H. Cleveland: Village to Metropolis. Cleveland, Ohio: The Western Reserve Historical Society and The Press of Western Reserve University, 1964.

Frary, Ihna Thayer. Early Homes of Ohio. Richmond, Virginia: Garrett and Massie, 1936.

Harry F. Lupold and Gladys Haddad, editors. Ohio’s Western Reserve: A Regional Reader. Kent, Ohio and London: The Kent State University Press, 1988.

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