In this 2006 interview, Jim Gibans, an architect in Cleveland for over four decades, discusses some of his work and gives his opinion on Cleveland's development - past, present and future. Gibans talks about his firm's role in building and renovating Lakeview Terrace and the Outhwaite Homes - two public housing developments in Cleveland - going into detail on Lakeview Terrace's numerous historic murals. Gibans also gives his opinion on the Euclid Corridor Project, Public Square, and what he sees as some of the major challenges facing Cleveland as it tries to rebuild itself, offering ideas on possible improvements.
Gibans, Jim (interviewee)
Tobey, Addie (interviewer); Yanoshik-Wing, Emma (participant)
American Institute of Architects
"Jim Gibans Interview, 27 July 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951006.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Jim Gibans [00:00:01] It's lousy. What more do you want? [laughs] It's rain, rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain. No, this is about what I... How I talk. Is... That works?
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:00:09] Yes.
Jim Gibans [00:00:09] Okay.
Addie Tobey [00:00:11] All right. Well, first, I want to thank you for your time today and truly appreciate it.
Jim Gibans [00:00:14] Okay.
Addie Tobey [00:00:15] I want to know if you could tell me a little bit about how you got started on your journey to be an architect, how you became interested, and why you studied and traveled from there.
Jim Gibans [00:00:24] Okay. I guess I started having interest in it as a teenager. I was fascinated by buildings. I used to make models of houses and things like that, or layouts and things like that. And by when I wanted to go to college, I chose Yale. Fortunately, I was able to get in for very specific reasons because I knew they had, you know, a wonderful undergrad general education and they had an excellent architecture school. And I said, well, if I that gives me a choice. I can try try it, see if I'm interested in architecture. If not, there's plenty of other things to fall back on. And when I was a freshman, I took a history of architecture class and was hooked and then became had my major in architecture there actually continued in those days was rather strange because I mean, this was back in the late '40s, early '50s. You went for years for a Bachelor of Arts and then you had another three years to get a Bachelor of Architecture, which was wonderful if you could afford it, because it gave you a broad education, broad based education with the liberal arts education which was highly valued and still do value. I mean, this made... My values come from that. And there are too many architects who are architects only and have very little of their general education background to really appreciate more than architecture. Interestingly enough, as an aside, about twenty years after I graduated with my Bachelor of Architecture, I got a letter from Yale which says, We have decided this is happening. All those who have a first baccalaureate degree, who had a second one in architecture can apply and have that changed to a masters of architecture, because it's in line with what is being done, you know, throughout the country. And my only choice was I could either spend $15 for a certificate or $35 for a lambskin. I said for a masters, I go all the way. [laughs] But following my architecture degree, I did apply and was accepted as a Fulbright scholar for a year in England of studying city planning, which I was interested in. And I went to the University of Liverpool actually, who had a very excellent civic design school, and I knew if I applied for Liverpool I had a chance of getting in. If I tried to apply for London, that was gonna be harder because everybody wants to go to London. And so I did do that and Liverpool was still somewhat devastated by the war but it was interesting. And when I came back to town, came back here, I went to work for the Urban Renewal Department of the City of Cleveland, seeing if I apply my urban design skills. And I very quickly got disillusioned, realizing anything that I did or tried to do would take ten years minimum to get it to happen. And I didn't have that sort of patience, so I went back to architecture. [laughs] My influences? I think certainly my influences are, of course, my teachers. And there were some very significant ones and. From the east and from the east, from Yale and whatnot. People like Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson and George Howe. I think Europe, spending a year in Europe and traveling in Europe, there's a major influence, not only seeing what was being done new, but of course, you know, the wonderful heritage and glory of the old buildings and urban spaces. So that there's a major influence. Where have I worked? Well, after I worked, after... Actually, after I came back and started working for the Urban Renewal Department, I was then, two months before I turned 26, drafted and spent two years in the Army. When I came out, I came back to Cleveland and found that there was nobody here I wanted to work with to start my architecture. There was one person. It was Robert Little, who's just since passed away, but he was a small firm, just starting out, doing mostly residential and he had a staff of some very competent friends and dear friends of mine now, good friends of ours. And he couldn't take any more. So we decided we would go out to San Francisco, the Bay Area, for two reasons. I had liked the work that I had seen developing there. Wasn't quite as formal as some of the other places. And Nina, my wife, had a relative there, so we would not be going out and into the cold world completely. So I did be able... I was able to get a position in San Francisco, and we lived there for four years. Yeah. Four years. No, six.
Addie Tobey [00:06:15] Did you ever envision, you know, that you would make it back to Cleveland or you thought you were headed to San Francisco and you would stay and work out there?
Jim Gibans [00:06:21] Well, that was my initial... That was our initial feeling, though towards the end... Well, there were a number of things that happened. My wife's sister died very young at 28 and leaving three small children. We sort of missed the family. You know, my family, at least my mother, because my dad had died just before, just shortly after we got married. We missed them. And with Nina's father having suffered the loss of one daughter, we felt that, you know, it would he would be comforting to him to, you know, be back. And I also found that being in San Francisco, I was a little fish in a big pond. And I could come back here and be at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-size pond. And that and that sort of, you know, I had had a nice... I had a, you know, interesting position and whatnot, but was, you know, where it was going to go. I wasn't sure. So I was willing and we were able. We hadn't gotten that far that we were able to make the choice to come back. And I never regretted it. You know.
Addie Tobey [00:07:39] So when you came back, what did you which firm did you start working for?
Jim Gibans [00:07:42] I started working for what was called Ward and Schneider. They did a lot. They did churches. They did educate... Public buildings, a lot of schools and whatnot. And I was there from '63, actually '64, beginning of '64, to '68, so for four years. And... That's when I got my... I had gotten my license in California, but I did get my Ohio license while I was there and learned an awful lot. Oh, I also did hospitals, was their project manager of this addition to Brentwood Hospital at that time. Having come back, having worked in hospital work in San Francisco. After that, I went to William Gould and Associates, Bill Gould's office. We were very big at the time. It was... We had gotten up to about forty people after, shortly after. When I came on there were about twenty people; we got up to forty. When I left, we were down to seven. Went on to Don Hisaka's office, wonderful architect and really talented, and was there a few years and then went on my own. Went on to my own... Had my own private things, but then started working with Jim Herman here. He needed some help. He was small at that time and needed some help. And so I had a little extra time so we worked together. I was sort of borrowing or renting space from another architect who suddenly needed it, so I needed to get out, so Jim said, well we got room. So I came here, came to the... It was then Weinberg, Teare & Herman, and was there a couple of years and really finally closed my own practice, became the employee and then came to them in '79. In '81 I was named a partner, and so I've been here ever since in all its manifestations and various names and name changes.
Addie Tobey [00:10:03] Are there some projects that stick out to you? And you've done quite a few projects, but before I ask about specific ones that you were really proud of or that you were really pleased to have a part of like the top three or four or something like that. I know you do a lot over the years.
Jim Gibans [00:10:16] Yes. [laughs].
Addie Tobey [00:10:18] So I won't make you...
Jim Gibans [00:10:18] Well, that's one that I certainly am, though currently frustrated by 'em, because of the client who has become very difficult, I am... I have been most pleased by what I have been doing for Lakeview Terrace. Lakeview Terrace, if Jim has not already told you, was the founding of this firm some seventy years ago. Joe Weinberg and Wally Teare with Bill Conrad were hired by the local housing authority. This was before there was public housing, before there was a public housing, to build this development for, you know, people who were having trouble because of the Depression. And it was, ended up being the second oldest public housing project in Cleveland and about the third or fourth in the country. There was one in Atlanta, I think, that opened up just before they did. But it was, did finally opened up and had became public housing public. The Federal Housing Authority had been established. I think the building was... The project was started in '33 or something like that. Federal Housing Authority was established '34 or '35, and the project was opened in '36, and actually dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt and everything else like that. And back in 1980, actually, I started doing a little work for them and with another architect out of Kansas City trying to rehab it, that didn't get very far. But we did some work and then did some other work later and then finally in '97 we were chosen to do the rehab, based on the work we had done it Outhwaite Homes, which was basically converting these units which were built for, well, they were usually built for, you know, a young married couple, maybe with a baby. And so most of the apartments were one- and two-bedroom apartments, small ones, you know, for just for starters. And the concept back then is, okay, you get a start there, we cover till you get a job and you go on, you know, it's not your home forever. It's a temporary home. Well, as we all know, that's not, that's not the way public housing works anymore. It is permanent housing. Most people, many people have been there for years. And it's usually a, well, very often a single parent with four, five kids, things like that, or an elderly single person. And these units were, I mean, especially at Outhwaite, I remember we found these elderly in these walkup apartments up on the third floor and they couldn't walk. They couldn't walk down. They were stuck there, basically. So, you know, we did the transfer there and which was a little easier—it's flat ground—than we were doing here. And that's why we were chosen, because we made it work there, and they said if anybody can make it work at Lakeview, which as you may know is a very hilly site, we could do it. And that is trying to transform it into a housing project that works for today's families, you know, turning them into three, four or five, even a six-bedroom, couple of six-bedroom apartments, and where we can squeeze some handicapped or accessible units in to do that and also to get rid of common stairs. So as we did in Outhwaite, every apartment has their own entrance from the outside. This means carving it out from the inside of the building because these are either listed in the, well, Outhwaite was eligible for listing. That was about the sixth lowest public housing project there. This one was either, I think it's just eligible for listing. I noticed that in the history thing you got it says it's listed. I'm not sure that's true, but... So you cannot... You have to be very careful of what you do to the outside. It had to be sensitively done. So I mean, this had to get reviewed by the Landmarks Commission here and by the Historic Society, Historic Preservation Office of the State of Ohio and whatnot to be approved. And we did. And we have won some awards certainly for Outhwaite. This, Lakeview is a little fractured, but Outhwaite had an overall view. But because it was ours to begin with and I've been prevailing and we have done it and, you know, we're just about to open the second phase of our rehabilitation where we totally rehabbed a block and a number of about seven buildings. And now I'm working on the community building rehab and addition is under construction. So that as a total job and as a total concept, I've been very proud of and it's been very difficult, but I certainly have been proud of it and enjoyed it.
Addie Tobey [00:16:11] With that, can I ask you, you know, what's the biggest frustration with working something that, I mean, it's a public housing space. It has a lot of history, like you said, with Eleanor Roosevelt being there, too. I think it has some WPA art around it?
Jim Gibans [00:16:22] Yes. Yes. The community building has some wonderful WPA art, which we're restoring.
Addie Tobey [00:16:28] So it has this great history. So what's one of the most difficult parts of this project then for you?
Jim Gibans [00:16:34] Trying to... Trying to do it within the budget that HUD allows, and actually because of what we've had to do in terms of... You know, these are not wood structures. These are mason... concrete and masonry, so they're built very solidly. And to do anything, it's very difficult and very expensive to reconfigure the way we're configuring. So it's never been able to be done within, quite within the HUD guidelines. And we try to give and take to make it happen. And it hasn't happened, and we... And the other, you know... So. And just, it just has taken a long time but... So that...
Addie Tobey [00:17:23] Kind of the opposite way, what's one of the things that you think is special about this project that you like working on it about that makes it a great...
Jim Gibans [00:17:30] Well, I think what we've loved about it is trying to do a creative [design]... When we make additions to the design, especially on the outside, what we tried to do is to put in elements like new, new, where there's a new outside door we put a little porch, a little canopy, which reflects the design of the the original, but is very different. You know, the other was a concrete hood. This is galvanized metal and things like that, but has the same similar curved, curved thing. One of the other things was developing the porches. We've.... And this again went back to Outhwaite, where so many of the units that, and Lakeview too, where there's a townhouse, they have a patio outside or outside the front door or whatnot, and people, you know, or they have [porches]... They had some small porches at the entrances to the units to Outhwaite, and people used to sit out there. And I said, one of the things we try to design for is called defensible space. It's based on Oscar Newman book that he developed, oh gosh, in the '60s, about how, especially in a crime-ridden or difficult area, the residents can take control or try to can try to take control of their space. Know as being able to see who is who's a stranger and, you know, either notifying authorities or telling him to stay out and whatnot. And they do that by, you know, being able to have a view of their immediate surroundings. And so this concept of expanding that idea of wherever we put a front door, we put a porch where they could put some chairs out, not just a tiny one but where there's room for two or three or four chairs or a larger patio and even a place, if they wanted to throw some flowers in there and control that, they could do that. And that's what we've tried, done through ever. So that sort of taking a concept and making a creative statement out of it. Also this, the way we defined spaces, entrances to buildings, entrances to groups of buildings by gateways, with address blocks and things like that. So, you know, using like sort of a creative way of bringing in new that's compatible with the old and acceptable to the powers that be with the old too, especially the Historic Preservation Office, things like that. Secretary of the Interior. So that's been exciting for us. Two other jobs that I've enjoyed then and very different was the [University]... This I did for Bill Gould was the University Circle Research Center Building 2, which is right there where Fairhill, well not Fairhill, it's Martin Luther King, and Cedar and Carnegie meet. That's sort of the... It's now I think the coroner's office. It's got some additions. It was... It's sort of a concrete Brutalist building, but it was done with some little bit of flair, and I was in charge of that one. And the other one was, and Jim and I worked very hard on, the Bruening Health Center at Judson Park, which I thought was a pretty good building. A couple of things I'm not crazy about, but it was an exciting project and I had fun doing it. A very difficult and on a very difficult hilly hill site because it's... That area between Ambleside and I'm gonna say Overlook, I guess it's Overlook. But you know, it's like ahh! We had to set this building into it so that you go, I think it's something like seven floors, six floors from the entrance on Ambleside to the entrance on the... [laughs] There's a... I mean, so it's quite... That was a challenge.
Addie Tobey [00:22:05] When was that that you guys did Judson?
Jim Gibans [00:22:07] That was in the mid-'80s. Yeah. It's abouttwenty years now. God, that seems hard, but yeah, it was mid-'80s that we did that, and those were the, I mean, those are the sort of the three, three main things. I've had some fun doing some other stuff, but they're not that significant buildings as those maybe were.
Addie Tobey [00:22:34] Did you work with Mr. Herman on the Tower City renovation? You guys did some of the [inaudible] renovation on that?
Jim Gibans [00:22:38] No, I did not work on that at all. I... No. I really didn't. A little peripheral stuff but no. Not at all. I was doing some medical... We did some stuff for the Euclid Clinic at the time and I was very busy on that, but those were minor stuff.
Addie Tobey [00:23:02] Kind of skipping around, I know, with the questions I gave you. I hope that's okay.
Jim Gibans [00:23:05] Sure.
Addie Tobey [00:23:06] How could you define architecture? If one of my students said to me, I want to be an architect or I want to do something with architecture. How do you define that? Because it's it's a tough definition I thought.
Jim Gibans [00:23:16] Well, I wrote something down. [laughs] You know, I saw that. In simplistic form, I would call it the art and science of building, because it's both the science, the technical side, and the art. And without art it isn't architecture. I think the other wonderful definition of architecture was done by, I think it's Piranesi back in 15th century and that, well, he used architecture... It contains firmness, commodity, and delight, and solid structure, usefulness, and then the delight of the aesthetics of the design. And without all three, it's not architecture.
Addie Tobey [00:24:08] With that in mind, one of the things as looking at architecture, you have to kind of look what your client needs and then look what will fit in a public space. Is that easy to accommodate or is that the challenge?
Jim Gibans [00:24:19] That's what you do all the time. And that's the other thing about architecture. You know, architecture is art which has a... has a practical use it has to make work. And nobody says a book has to, you know, do something other than be itself, or a piece of art does, though art is sometimes commissioned for a specific place, but it goes beyond that. I mean, that's the, that's the issue, and that's what you need to do when you... And if you don't do it, you either, you may make it work, but you're not an architect. You're just a builder, if you will, or a designer, or if you make it work... If you make a piece of sculpture with it that doesn't work, that hasn't solved it either. And the real trick is to make the masterpiece, which is a great work of art that works. And I'm not sure I've ever achieved that.
Addie Tobey [00:25:29] Do you think, you know, as Cleveland is reworking things, especially along Euclid Avenue and Public Square—there's been in the paper lately all the talk about Public Square or what to do with Public Square—what, I mean, what do you see as something be done with Public Square or to leave it or...
Jim Gibans [00:25:48] First, I think you've gotta... I've seen a number of ideas put forward over the years. I think first you have to redefine the downtown. Then sometimes the... what will happen in Public Square can have a logical development from that or decision from that. And the Euclid Corridor project actually is starting to redefine downtown. It's already been redefined here. You know, this used to be a warehouse district and a manufacturing district. It's not that anymore. It's an entertainment district and an empty nester or young people's residential district. And there is... Downtown will never be in this, in this city, what it was. It's been... There are too many shopping centers and now these Legacy Village and Crocker Parks and whatnot, and businesses moved out and everything else like that. So that though you have a concentration which is still valuable, it's never going to be what it is. And you've got a lot of real estate and a lot of square footage here. So the question is, you know, what do you do? And one of the things of the Euclid Corridor project, one of the purposes, was to reinvigorate the main thoroughfare of the core of the downtown into something that was people [friendly]... Was people and transportation friendly with the concept that those buildings on either side of it could be turned into housing and retail and whatnot and start to take some of the things that we're doing here and take it down the corridor and do it in a friendly way. You know, our 4th Street has just been totally redeveloped. You look at what it is now and what it was five years ago, and that's the sort of transformation I think is envisioned for the Euclid Avenue corridor. That's why I think it's valuable, if it's going to work, we hope. But without not having done it, it would have been a mistake. And actually, you know, that originally grew up out of, you know, the concept of tying University Circle and downtown in an efficient way, and it was originally looked at as maybe it was going to be a subway and things like that. I think maybe the best thing that happened actually is it's not a subway as I've come to think of it because it's going to keep life on the street level, which is very important. And if that works and that happens, that can sort of blend into Public Square. The problem with Public Square is it's bisected by these major transportation arteries, which just makes it difficult for people to use as a unit. They have to use it a quadrant at a time for the most part. There's been talk about, you know, turning traffic so it always goes around the thing, which means you've still got to cross it and you still got to... Well, I, I'm... It's, it's almost too big, as a square it's maybe too big. That's the real problem. It would be easy to go around it if it were a smaller block. And I don't... I don't have the answer, but I think there has to be a way, a way of making it work a little better and a little... The thing is to... The thing is to try to tie the quadrants into a unit. Right now there are four different, very separate quadrants. You know, one is a fountain, one is a green space where the bums hang out, one is this, you know, sort of amorphous plaza in front of the Terminal Tower, and the other is the wonderful Soldiers and Sailors Monument. But one doesn't relate to the other. So maybe we'll turn it all back to pasture for something maybe, like it was originally. [laughs] Let the sheep graze.
Addie Tobey [00:30:36] As I think of downtown, you know, my ultimate goal is getting my students interested in downtown and appreciating what's here and realizing what the city has to offer. And I'd like them to look at different buildings. What are two or three buildings that really stand out to you architecturally that, you know, people need to take a look at that, you know, are a value here to Cleveland that people may not even notice?
Jim Gibans [00:31:02] Well, I did write them down. I've... And as I looked at it, I said, Oh, I forgot one. I mean, the Arcade is still a magnificent building in terms of concept of how to turn the [shopping], bring shopping inside and connect people to two areas. It's wonderful. I think... I just added this one too. I think the public library complex is wonderful. Not only you know, do we have the wonderful original building, which is a lovely classical building which has been beautifully restored. And then you have the modern counterpart, which is very exciting and very unusual. And then you have this fabulous garden in between, which is far better than the original Eastman Reading Garden because it really is inspiring. So that's significant. I think the Huntington Bank banking hall at the corner of 9th and Euclid is an absolutely wonderful space and it's glorious. The murals are just, you know, in their way they're lit and whatnot, are just, just wonderful. I think Playhouse Square as a group and its spaces are wonderful. I think the county courthouse has some wonderful court, courts, court buildings, and the lobby is fabulous. And I guess we have... You know, Terminal Tower has some wonderful things as well. Tho[se], I mean, those are the ones, the downtown buildings that I find of special interest. And I, well, the Cleveland Trust rotunda is wonderful too. Not much in the way of modern. There's some interesting modern buildings, but there's none of the ilk of those because the only modern buildings we have are commercial buildings. And we don't put the money into commercial buildings as they used to, like the Huntington Bank. And they certainly... the public buildings... Nobody puts money into public buildings like they used to either. There was a pride of building, and there was... And the cost was reasonable. So we have to go back.
Addie Tobey [00:33:35] As the city has changed. What change or a loss of a building that stands out to you that you can think of that they've torn down or they've changed so drastically that it kind of has changed the building altogether or disappeared?
Jim Gibans [00:33:55] I'm finding it... It's funny, time takes a toll. I know that question is on here. And I... And I was having trouble trying to think of a building that was that significant, that its loss was that great, that I really still feel, you know, it shouldn't have happened. There's, you know, there's some building... I think if anything, the one thing that I'm afraid is going to be lost—and I think that they were wonderful and I did have a part in trying to save them—were the Hulett unloaders, ore unloaders, because of the scale and the majesty of those structures. Gutsy and whatnot, and especially in their site, original site. I don't think they'll ever be... If we do find a way of saving them and reinstalling them, they'll never be the way they were because they were right on the edge of the water and there were four of them. And the power of the repetitive pattern of those those giants were magnificent. That's... That's the one thing... That's the only thing I can really think of, that I think it was a major loss.
Addie Tobey [00:35:19] Why do you think architecture is important to the vitality of the city? Do you think it plays a role in getting people downtown from the suburbs or getting people to live down here? Do you think architecture can play that role?
Jim Gibans [00:35:33] I think that has... Yes, I think it probably does in a, maybe in a more indirect way. I think architecture as good urban design is, whether people are aware of it consciously or not, affects people as they go down there. If you go among, I mean, just walking down here in East 6th Street, along this street with trees and nice sidewalk pavement and interesting, nicely scaled buildings versus going out to some strip mall. It's a very different feel and it's a very different [space]... You come into it and out of it with a very different spirit. That's what architecture and good urban design does. It affects you subliminally, if you will, semi-consciously, but you can feel good and you can have fun. I mean, I could look at all the sidewalk cafes here are go over to Market Plaza. You know, that little street where the Great Lakes Brewing and all their wine bar and whatnot, that is the most wonderful place to sit out on a summer night and have dinner or have a drink or whatnot because it's alive and it has a nice scale to it and it's great! Can you think of doing that in any strip mall? [laughs] No. I mean, there's no... There's nothing to shelter. There's nothing to coddle you and to give you pleasure. It's just there to sell. That's what architecture and design can do to you. And that's where, you know... But it also, it gives you a chance to look at something, you know. Being an architect and being a, you know, a design professional, I tend to do that. How much that affects the general run of the mill people, I'm not sure, but the fact that they can look at something and say, ooh, and I think sometimes they do with it, you know, doesn't that look nice or whatnot. It's just, you know, similar to an art... in some ways it's to an art museum. You go in there and you find something that really excites you just in passing. And that's what... that's what the art museum's for, something to fill you up.
Addie Tobey [00:37:56] So is it important that for this firm to be located downtown here in the warehouse district or at least a downtown somewhere, or do you think that... [inaudible]
Jim Gibans [00:38:02] We have never considered moving out of downtown. It was always important that we be here. We are now going to move, but it's essentially the same. We're moving to, you know, West 25th Street with the market... We're a couple of houses, a couple of buildings from the West Side Market. So it's a similar situation. It's an urban situation and a people situation. And it's an opportunity for us to own, you know, own a building. So that's, and that's still, to me, almost within the downtown fabric. It's like moving up in Prospect Avenue or something else like that, which is acceptable too. But I would not move to the suburbs.
Addie Tobey [00:38:45] One of the things this firm appears to do has done a lot with public housing and different types of healthcare facilities. Do you think that it's important now that an architectural firm has a niche, has something, a specialty that they really know well, or does it matter? Each firm is different.
Jim Gibans [00:39:01] We have specialties, but we don't have a specialty. And I think that's valuable because there's economic cycles both for whatnot. So the fact that we have a specialty, we can give our expertise to the client on what they want and what they need and we're up to date and, you know, we don't have to relearn the curve all the time. We just have to keep it up and keep ahead of the game. But for our economic wellbeing, we need a couple of specialties and things we can do. And I think that's what we have tended to do. And that's, I think,
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