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June 6, 2013

Structural problems are nothing new for Rhodes Tower

History shows building plagued by construction problems since 1969

By John Cuturic

Everyone knows about Rhodes Tower’s modern-day problems; asbestos prevents Cleveland State from renovating the building, and a bursting pipe last semester closed the tower for an entire weekend. But these are just the latest in a long string of problems for the tower, going all the way back to its construction.

The first major setback to the construction came in 1969. The Cleveland Press ran the headline “3000 Bolts Fail Tests in CSU Tower.”

Rhodes Tower (Pic by Clay Herrick, courtesy Cleveland Memory Project)

This was a year-and-a-half after Cleveland State purchased the land for the tower from Albert A. Levin, who had been using it as a parking lot. In the university’s master plan for the campus, the tower sat in the center. Back then the plan included, among other things, softball fields on a big plaza stretching above the Inner Belt (to be fair, most of the plan was more realistic).

As opposed to the modern-day Cleveland State campus, which sprawls along Euclid Avenue in a row of buildings, the old master plan would have made CSU a self-contained cluster of buildings, cut off from the city. One worry for Cleveland State in those days was that parents wouldn’t want to send their children to a university with a downtown campus. The solution? Make the campus into a fortress, with traffic coming in through a few specific doors.

The tower would hold about 700 offices for faculty, and it would include technology centers to produce educational films and presentations. Papers wrote positive editorials about Cleveland State’s decision to build University Tower at first.

Then the problem with the bolts came along.

The subcontractors installing bolts in the steel girders of the tower’s foundation had used A-325 bolts according to a supervising architect quoted in the Cleveland Press story. They should have used A-490 bolts. The difference, in plain English: the bolts they should have used were three to four times stronger than the bolts they actually did use, and as many as 6,000 bolts in the fledgling tower could have been faulty. Workers had to go back over every single bolt, looking for and replacing mismatches.

While reporters couldn’t seem to agree whether the finished University Tower would have 19, 20, 21, 22 or more floors (it’s 20, folks), the story ran in several area newspapers.
It was only the first problem. In November of 1969, Cleveland Press reporter Bud Weidenthal wrote that “they are having more embarrassing problems with that 21-story tower that’s rising on the Cleveland State University campus.”

According to Weidenthal, Cleveland State couldn’t get big equipment into the tower. Big desks couldn’t fit into the freight elevator or through the narrow windows. Meeting tables wouldn’t make it in, either. And the most important monkey wrench this threw into Cleveland State’s plans landed in the proposed computer center. Back then, computers took more space than the professors’ desks that architects had designed the freight elevator for.

“So, red-faced CSU officials admit they are going to have to remove the exterior walls every time they install a large computer,” Weidenthal wrote. “A possible plan is to leave the bolts exposed on one wall section of each floor. Then all you need to do to install a big desk, for instance, is to erect a crane, remove a section of the wall, lift in the desk and rebolt.”

Computers got smaller over time, though, saving Cleveland State from this problem. But in February 1971 University Tower saw even worse news.

The Toledo Blade: “Tower Settling Causes Problems.”

The Plain Dealer: “CSU Probes How Safely Tower Holds.”

The Cleveland Press: “19-story tower at CSU sinking.”

The newspaper articles said that Rhodes Tower had settled about three-and-a-half inches over two years. The architects had expected three inches. Anything more did not bode well. According to the Plain Dealer, “cracks in walls and twisted doors have appeared inside the tower, indicating settling problems.”

The PD reporter, John A. Crawford, said that within a two-week period 250 tons of snow and rain added to the building’s load, which had sunk the tower 1/8 of an inch. We can only hope somebody took the golden opportunity to make a Cleveland weather joke.
The biggest story about the sinking appeared in The Cleveland Press. Bud Weidenthal wrote,“The Cleveland State University tower, plagued with construction problems almost from the beginning, has run into more trouble.”

The building was sinking into the clay underneath the foundation. According to Weidenthal, more cutting than the others, “CSU officials and engineers admit they have a serious problem. They say it’s been developing for the past two years.”
Weidenthal quoted the engineer who designed the foundation, Merrill Barber: “If I had it to do over again, I’d have done it differently.”

Pending the results of a faulty construction investigation, the State Controlling Board deferred more than $2 million that Cleveland State wanted for other construction projects. But on April 30, 1971, officials pronounced University Tower safe.

“State officials have termed the Cleveland State University Tower safe and given CSU officials the go-ahead to move into the 20-story building in mid-May,” Plain Dealer reporter Deena Mirow wrote. “The Ohio Public Improvements Inspection Committee Wednesday heard reports from two consulting firms, and both said there would be no further problems with settling of the massive building.

“After hearing the reports yesterday, the commission decided to end its investigation of construction problems at CSU and release state funds that had been held up because of the problems,” Mirow wrote later in the story.

An October ‘71 pamphlet from Cleveland State called University Tower “a beautiful symbol of Cleveland State’s presence in Cleveland.”

Another pamphlet about the tower said “a state university is a gift - a people to people gift. It is also a monument to the generations who foresaw great needs and burdened themselves to provide ways and means to meet those needs. The fruits of these labors are here in this institution - The Cleveland State University.”

In June ‘71 (before either of the pamphlets), University Tower’s air conditioning failed, forcing boiling-hot faculty members to pry open their office windows with screwdrivers.
Ed Thomas, a retired Cleveland State business professor, said he remembered tricking the windows open. The heating and cooling didn’t always work.

“Everyone learned to take a screwdriver and crack the windows open a little bit,” Thomas said.

Thomas had an office on the 14th floor. He started teaching at the university in 1973, when they still called the building University Tower. He said the tower had more problems than just the heating and cooling.

All his classes were in the Main Classroom building -- he would have to get there from his 14th-floor office. Back then Rhodes Tower didn’t connect to the Main Classroom building (it still doesn’t).

“I spent a lot of time waiting for elevators,” Thomas said.

The tower used to hold the music department, too. Thomas said that you could hear horn players throughout the nearby floors.

And he said he could remember when Cleveland State added its name to the tower.

“Michael Schwartz used to joke that that was his greatest, or his most talked-about accomplishment,” Thomas said. “Finally getting the university’s name up there.”

He said that he’d heard the talk that the university might mothball the tower.

“It’s sad to think the building wouldn’t be worth saving, and we can’t renovate it and get more use [than just] 40 years,” Thomas said.

Leo Jeffres, a professor emeritus in Cleveland State’s School of Communication, also said it would be sad to leave the space vacant. Jeffres came to the school in the late ‘70s, so he saw University Tower change to Rhodes Tower.

“A huge amount of space would be vacant, if the building is mothballed,” Jeffres said.
But many faculty members, including Jeffres, didn’t like their offices in Rhodes Tower. He said the building separates faculty from students. Some faculty might want to move their offices out.

“For faculty, moving to spaces closer to students is always preferable,” Jeffres said.
Thomas said he wasn’t sad when his office moved and he escaped the elevator problem. “The university has had roofing problems, heating problems, and all kinds of problems over the life of the building,” he said.