The Development of Shaker Heights

Early van Sweringen Roots

In 1657, Gerret van Sweringen, a crew member aboard the Dutch West India Company’s ship Prince Maurice, sailed from Amsterdam to the Dutch Colony of New Amstel now New Castle, in Delaware.  Leaving the Prince Maurice at that port, Gerret decided to stay in the New World, and it was not long before he was involved in trading and “land cultivation,” and had been appointed as sheriff, commissary, and as a member of council.  A few years later, after the Dutch colony passed to the British, Gerret moved to Maryland where he became an “innholder,” landowner, alderman, and sheriff.

Gerret van Sweringen became a man of monetary and social affluence, and it seems that this first-generation American set a family precedent.  For nearly 200 years, all of the van Sweringens were successful, and it was not at all in keeping with this tradition when one of Gerrett’s descendants, James Tower, faced hardships he could not overcome.

James was born in the Pennsylvania-Dutch district of Juniata County, Pennsylvania but later moved to Ohio.  He served in the Civil War and suffered injuries at the Battle of Spotsylvania that bothered him for the remainder of his life.

James returned to Pennsylvania after the war, married Jeanne Curtis, and had four children—Edith E., Carrie B., Herbert C., and Maud Alene.  He then moved to Wooster, Ohio, where two more children were born.  It was these children, Oris Paxton, known as O. P., and Mantis James, known as M. J., who were to rise from poverty to become two of this nation’s most prominent empire builders.

The Sweringen Brothers’ Childhood

Oris Paxton Van Sweringen

Oris Paxton Van Sweringen, April 24 1879 - November 22, 1936

Oris Paxton (O. P.) Sweringen was born in 1879 on a farm near Wooster, Ohio.  Mantis James (M. J.) Sweringen was born two years later.  When O. P. was eight and M. J. was six the family moved to Cleveland, taking up residence in a small but comfortable house on East 105th Street, just south of Cedar Avenue.  They attended Bolton and Fairmount Schools, completing their formal education at the end of the eighth grade.  They grew up as typical American boys.  They had several odd jobs: carting groceries, tending cattle, lighting street lamps, and operating a bicycle shop.  One of their jobs, delivering papers for the Cleveland Leader, took them into land originally settled by Shakers and gave them the background for one of their later ventures.  Their only unusual characteristics were their complementary personalities and inseparability.  O. P. was the dreamer with innovative ideas.  M. J. was the implementer with the ability to get things done.  These characteristics held true throughout their lives.  Together they formed a perfect team.

Around 1896, their older brother Herbert helped get O. P. a clerking job at the Bradley Fertilizer Company where he worked.  M. J. had an egg and butter business, but soon joined his brothers.  After a short time, Herbert and O. P. left the fertilizer company and opened their own business, dealing in stone, and M. J. became a billing clerk for Morreau Gas Fixture Mfg. Co.  When the stone company closed, O. P. and M. J. formed the Prospect Storage and Cartage Company.  It lasted less than a year.

O. P. and M. J. were then free to enter into a business that had interested them for some time.  They had had some earlier success in real estate, but their first major venture, in Lakewood, was a disaster.  A foreclosure judgment went against them, and for two years they were forced to operate under their sisters’ names, shortly after adding Van to their name as a cover up.

Mantis James Van Sweringen

Mantis James Van Sweringen, July 8, 1881–December 12, 1935

A side business occupied O. P. for a short time.  For five dollars a day, he guarded the court-attached possessions of Cassie L. Chadwick, the lady who claimed Andrew Carnegie as her father and swindled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Cleveland bankers.  After that, O. P. went to Texas and tried to obtain options on a telephone line.  This was the only time the two brothers were separated for any length of time and distance.

When the older of the two brothers returned, they resumed selling real estate, this time on Cleveland’s East Side.  They subdivided properties in Cleveland Heights on North Park Boulevard and later on Fairmount Boulevard.  To purchase the acreage on Fairmount, they borrowed $1,000 for the down payment and purchased the land under their sister Carrie’s name.  The brothers’ aim was to provide luxurious housing for the wealthy businessmen from Cleveland.

The City of Shaker Heights

Artwork for the Van Sweringen Land Company illustrating the allure of Shaker Heights and its proximity to Cleveland

Planting the Seed of Shaker Heights

Oris Paxton (O. P.) and Mantis James (M. J.) Van Sweringen became interested in the tract of land that had originally been settled by the North Union Shakers.  This religious sect had dammed Doan Brook and created the Shaker Lakes, using water to power their mills.  The brothers saw vast potential in the beauty of the area.  In 1905, they took options on a few parcels of land which had been part of the North Union Shaker Colony, but which now belonged to a Buffalo syndicate.  A year later, with borrowed capital, they purchased the remaining holdings of the syndicate, amounting to 1,366 acres, for $1,000,000.  The development of this area now became a consuming desire, for it would be the fulfillment of their boyhood dreams, dating back to the time when, as boys, they had frequently roamed the “Valley of God’s Pleasure.”

In planning the area, O. P. and M. J. designed Shaker Village to be a residential community primarily for the affluent.  “Their idea was to build a terribly expensive, terribly exclusive, and terribly desirable suburb.”  Shaker was to be a “garden city” with elliptical boulevards and park-like avenues.  Homes were to be spacious and beautiful, with no two alike, and fronted by a wide expanse of green lawns and many trees.  The brothers dreamed of a unique community with strict regulations regarding architecture, color, and placement of homes, multi-family dwellings and the placement of business districts. Restrictions were also placed on the buyers; undesirables were to be kept out.  They marketed their vision by stressing the ideals of health and purity espoused by the Shakers.

Despite a slow start, the venture was a tremendous success.  The brothers had had the foresight to build good schools.  They persuaded John Carroll University to move from downtown Cleveland to a new location near Shaker Heights, donated land for the Shaker Country Club, and made land available for the Troop A Riding Club, the Cleveland Tennis Club, Moreland Courts and Shaker Square, and almost 300 acres of parks.  They also brought cultural attractions to the community.  But the primary reason Shaker Heights succeeded was the development of the Shaker Rapid Transit.

The Shaker Rapid Transit

The Shaker Rapid Transit was built in response to the undeniable need for public transportation to connect the new suburb of Shaker Heights to downtown Cleveland.  The Rapid would serve as a life line to carry businessmen to the downtown Cleveland business area.  It also carried their domestic help from the city, thus assuring fares for both directions during rush hours.

The Van Sweringen brothers were originally successful only in getting a small extension into part of Shaker Heights from the Cleveland Railway Company’s streetcar lines.  Very much aware that a transportation link with Cleveland’s downtown business district was vital to the success of Shaker Heights, O. P. and M. J. decided to build their own rapid transit.  They obtained right-of-way properties and four acres downtown for the terminal.  In 1911, they established the Cleveland and Youngstown Railroad Company and made plans to go from Cleveland through Shaker Heights, Chagrin Falls, Garrettsville, Leavittsburg, Warren, Niles, and Girard to Youngstown.  Unfortunately, a small portion of land needed to connect Shaker Heights with Cleveland was owned by the Nickel Plate Railroad, which at that time was controlled by the New York Central.  Their best opportunity to cover the mile and a half distance was to share the Nickel Plate right-of-way for a distance to a point closer to town, where they might obtain temporary trackage rights over the Cleveland Railway Company to Public Square.  However, their ideas conflicted with the New York Central plans and its need to rid itself of the Nickel Plate and in 1916, to alleviate both problems simultaneously, the brothers purchased the Nickel Plate Railroad.

Cleveland's Terminal Tower

Cleveland's Terminal Tower

The Van Sweringen brothers continued to build their railroad empire.  At one time, they owned the New York, Chicago and St. Louis (Nickel Plate), the Lake Erie and Western, and the Toledo, St. Louis and Western (Cloverleaf) railroads, which they consolidated into a greater Nickel Plate Railroad.  They later obtained the Chesapeake & Ohio, Erie, Hocking Valley, Pere Marquette (P. M.) and Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh railroads.

In order to establish an efficient terminus in the heart of downtown Cleveland, a railroad terminal had to be built.  What started out in 1920 as the construction of a union terminal building of twenty-fivestories, turned into a grandiose aggregate of massive structures, including a hotel, a department store, the Republic Building, the Medical Arts Building, and the fifty-two story Terminal Tower, which became the marvel of the entire Midwest.  Construction began in 1923 and was completed in 1930 shortly after the stock market crashed.

The Van Sweringen Empire Collapses

The years after 1929 were marked by crisis after crisis.  Before the Great Depression, the Van Sweringen brothers had more than $30,000,000 in the stock market; they owned or had controlling interests in the Higbee Company, a Cleveland department store based in the Terminal Tower complex, a bank, the Cleveland Railway Company, other Cleveland traction companies, iron and coal companies, and numerous other businesses including their various railroads.

When the stock market collapsed, the Van Sweringens owed millions of dollars and unfortunately devaluation of their stocks shrunk their collateral.  Refinancing was possible simply because they owed so much no one could afford to let them fail.  A year after J. P. Morgan’s New York bank had refinanced them, they could not even pay their interest.  Their creditors realized the latest loans had not accomplished their goals.  Rather than advance more money to “pay ourselves interest,” creditors became owners of all Van Sweringen properties that had been used as collateral.

In 1935, some of the brothers’ railroads and other properties were sold at public auction to pay the Van Sweringen loans.  The brothers, however, had found other backers and had formed another company.  They bought back their own holdings for ten cents on the dollar.  A few months later, M. J. died, followed shortly by the death of O. P.  They were buried side by side in Lake View Cemetery.

During their lifetimes, the brothers had been shy and shunned publicity.  They hid from fame in their residences on South Park Boulevard, at Daisy Hill, and at the Greenbrier Suite in the Terminal Tower where they shared a common bedroom, sleeping in twin beds.  They had never married and had no hobbies.  They were described as being industrious, thrifty, generous, modest, and “having simplicity in manner, food, dress and pleasures.”

The brothers altered the countenance of a great city, leaving behind them the colossal memorial formed by the Cleveland Union Terminal development.  No longer an overgrown town, Cleveland had become a modern urban metropolis.  In place of the North Union Shaker Utopia which had long since disappeared, they created a capitalist paradise, unique in its planned layout, and perhaps the most beautiful residential community in the nation.


Today about three-quarters of Shaker Heights is on the National Register of Historic Places.


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