The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
IT WAS soon after I again became City Editor that, quite by accident, I bumped into a young man who was to do more to change the face of Cleveland than anybody else ever did. It was raining. The sky was black. The wind blew in gusts around the downtown building corners.
I had borrowed somebody's old umbrella. As I came across the street it took off. I tried to hang onto it, but the wind simply whipped it inside out. In my frantic effort to save it I crashed squarely into a man coming toward me and almost knocked him off his feet. He came up smiling.
"Things like that will happen," he said quietly.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "It was really an accident."
"Yes, of course," he said.
Then I realized that I had seen his face in our paper that day. He was O. P. Van Sweringen, the real estate man. He quietly acknowledged his identity, and we walked together across the street. He was headed for a hotel, and I for a streetcar.
"Someday," I said, "I would enjoy sitting down at lunch with you."
His eyes lit up in an amused way.
"If that's an invitation, I'll accept," he said. "What about tomorrow?"
We made an arrangement for the following noon.
That was the beginning of a combined professional and personal friendship which lasted as long as he and his brother lived.
From a farm near Wooster, Ohio, the two brothers had come to Cleveland, sold papers, got odd jobs, and then, as they walked across a plateau east of Cleveland, had a vision of a beautiful suburb. They realized their dream. The suburb became known as Shaker Heights -- after the Shakers who originally owned the land.
Their success was phenomenal. They restricted a large tract of land, bought lots on credit, and sold at a profit. The project took hold in a big way.
In order to provide transportation for their 2,000-acre development, they tried to persuade the Cleveland Railway Company to extend its tracks. The company refused. That put the Van Sweringens -- right then and there -- into the transportation business. To get a mile of trackage needed to complete their right-of-way, they
obtained control of the Nickel Plate Railroad from the Vanderbilt interests for a price supposed to be near $9,000,000. They were on their way.
I began spending considerable time with the "Vans." The two bachelor brothers were beginning to be Cleveland's No. 1 Story. They were dreamers, but they were also doers.
They moved their offices from the Society for Savings Building, in front of which I first literally bumped into "O.P.," to the Marshall Building, in more spacious and elaborate headquarters. They did everything with a flair, and well. They were perfectionists.
Some people have said that if Moses Cleaveland made Cleveland by founding it, the Vans remade it.
One day O.P. was looking out the window of his office on the tenth floor overlooking the Square.
"A very shabby skyline," he said. "Cleveland needs to change itself from an overgrown small town to a metropolis."
Standing there he outlined his dream for a great tower whose summit could be seen for miles around -- surrounded by a group of buildings which would become the centerpiece of Cleveland.
"It will come someday," he prophesied.
"And when it comes," I suggested, with professional selfishness, "we would like the story."
He laughed, and said, "You will get it."
When his dream of the Terminal Tower for Cleveland began to take shape, The Cleveland Press got the first architect's picture of it. There was nothing on
Page One that day but the Terminal Tower that O.P. Van Sweringen dreamed of. It now stands majestically over Cleveland.
The Terminal Tower was formally opened on June 28, 1930, with a great civic celebration, including a luncheon in its concourse. Everybody who had any part in bringing it to fulfillment was there, with two exceptions -- O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen, the brothers who had really built it. I called O.P. at his home.
"Aren't you coming down for the opening lunch?" I asked.
"No," he said. "The weather is nice. I'm going to take a walk in the woods."
A few days later O.P., M.J., and I were walking up Euclid Avenue, Cleveland's principal street. It was noon, and the streets were crowded. A friend who had spotted me asked afterward, "Louie, who were those two nice-looking fellows you were with on Euclid Avenue yesterday?"
When I told him he was dumfounded. Few people recognized the brothers, now famous the country over. So little did they allow themselves to be seen in public that they were almost total strangers in the very city whose face they were almost completely changing.
The Van Sweringens were responsible for my leaving the City Editorship of The Press a second time, after I had been three years in the job. They were doing big things so rapidly that they became a beat all to themselves. Because of my known friendship with them it was decided -- with my urging -- that I take over this beat, and I covered it for quite a long time. With their help
and blessing The Press published serially the only accurate story of their lives -- with exclusive pictures they supplied.
The Van Sweringens had had a swift rise. They had an equally swift decline. The depression broke them.
At their peak, in 1930, they controlled upwards of 150 corporations, which in turn controlled: Twenty-three railroads, seven holding companies, one large coal company, four traction companies and one traction holding company, ten real estate companies. Among the railroads they controlled were the Missouri Pacific, the Erie, the Nickel Plate, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Pere Marquette, and numerous smaller roads, such as the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western and the Hocking Valley.
They were never idle a moment. They were always thinking, planning, dreaming. They were so sensitive that a slightly inaccurate statement about them brought tears to their eyes, but they could also fight like tigers. They led sheltered lives on a castle-like domain called Daisy Hill east of Cleveland.
The Van Sweringens in a very real sense were products of their times. They were geniuses who came to full flower at the moment when the physical growth of the country was most rapid -- when mass production was phenomenally multiplying the industrial sinews of America. Perhaps they can happen again somewhere, but it seems doubtful. It is not likely that America will see duplicated in the future their incredible performance.
The tragedy of the Van Sweringens is that they, like
others presumably delicately attuned to the economic tides of America, did not foresee the great collapse that plunged the nation from the summit of prosperity one day to an economic crack-up the following day. Meticulously, thoroughly, comprehensively, the brothers had followed American business. They had a great corps of business economists and statisticians who met regularly to examine, to challenge, to forecast probable trends. It was generally assumed that the Van Sweringens, perhaps as well or better than most great financial and business organizations, knew the lay of the economic land ahead. It turned out -- as it did for the wisest of the experts -- that they didn't know.
I saw O.P. last not long before he died, when the wreckage of his meteoric career lay strewn across the American business landscape and there seemed to be no way of saving it. Ironically enough, in the midst of all this despair and reverse, again I stood with O.P. looking out over the Public Square. Time had changed his appearance, but it had not, even in these dark days, changed his outlook. Everybody but O.P. thought all was lost.
"It looks nice," he said, pointing out over the Terminal group, and at the network of tracks below. "It looks nice -- and it looks permanent. It does make the city look metropolitan, doesn't it? We have much yet to do. We will do it."
He had been the central figure -- with his brother -- in some of the most bitter financial struggles in the modern history of the country. The United States Senate had at one time inquired into the struggle. O.P.,
quiet, reserved, calm by nature, fought hard, made enemies, made friends, made plans, made dreams, made money. But as the country began slowly to pull out of the depression, he died in his sleep on November 23, 1936, aboard a Pullman on the Nickel Plate Railroad as the train neared Hoboken, N. J. He was fifty-seven -- and he still had many unrealized plans.
Whatever the mixed feeling about O. P. Van Sweringen in the circles where bitter contests are fought for control of vast properties, in Cleveland, where he and his brother fashioned a beautiful suburb, remodeled an overgrown town into a metropolis and changed the face of a whole city, there remains a friendly regard for him.
A year after O.P. died the Probate Court in Cleveland received a statement of claims and debts. O.P. had an indebtedness of $80,733,566.45 at the time of his death. His estate was appraised at $534,994.
The twenty-three-year-old City Editor who literally bumped into O. P. Van Sweringen for the first time during a wind-blown rainstorm has an additional appraisal: He helped Cleveland grow up. That civic asset -- standing high over the revised Cleveland skyline -- no depression or liquidators could take away.
Time has made legendary characters of the Van Sweringen brothers all across the land. The legend is strongest in the city in which they lived, fought, and accomplished. They did more, physically, for Cleveland than any one else ever has.
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