Paul Volpe served as Commissioner of Architecture in Cleveland from 1983-1989, leaving that position to found City Architecture Inc., an urban design firm located in Cleveland. In this 2006 interview, Volpe talks about the various projects he led while working for Mayor George Voinovich's administration. He also discusses his more recent work with City Architecture Inc. and the philosophy of urban design and city planning that lies behind it. Throughout the interview, Volpe praises Cleveland's positive assets and notes the challenges the city faces in reversing the trend of suburbanization.
Volpe, Paul (interviewee)
Tobey, Addie (interviewer); Yanoshik-Wing, Emma (participant)
American Institute of Architects
"Paul Volpe Interview, August 1 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951007.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Addie Tobey [00:00:00] ... thank you all for giving me your time today. But we've talked a little bit about how you started your firm but I was wondering if you could just kind of retell a little bit of that story, how you initially got to be in the private sector of architecture and where that began and how you got to the building and where you are now.
Paul Volpe [00:00:19] Okay. Do you want the short or the long version?
Addie Tobey [00:00:22] The long.
Paul Volpe [00:00:22] The long! [laughs] Okay, how much time do we got? All right. I'll tell the long version as quickly as I can. I went to the University of Cincinnati, grew up in Cleveland, and I graduated in 1975. And I worked there for, I don't know, six years or so, and, you know, such a long time ago, I just I just don't remember exactly. But I was there about six years. And it was interesting because the kind of firm I was in there, you could talk about déja vu, it's very similar to the kind of firm I created here, City Architecture. And we'll go back to that as as we talk more about my present, and I one day basically woke up and said, I don't want to be in Cincinnati anymore. I was from Cleveland. Cincinnati is a very conservative town, and I tend to be not a conservative person [laughs], politically and otherwise. And so just made the decision to pack Nan and the two babies up and just move here. And in the process of doing that, I worked for... I had a complete change in experience. I worked for a very large engineering firm that sort me out and I started an architectural practice for them here, and I was about 27 years old, and that was absolutely one of the most horrible experiences of my life, let alone my career. A liberal architect partnered with seven conservative engineers. It was absolutely not a marriage to, you know, to live by. And so we split up unamicably. And I unloaded trucks for a while at my father's loading dock until I got my head on. And then I decided to respond to an advertisement for a new commissioner of architecture for the City of Cleveland, who was essentially the city architect that manages, designs, develops all the capital improvements for the city. The City of Cleveland has hundreds, literally hundreds of buildings, fire stations, police stations, recreation centers, and parks and all kinds of things. And the person was retiring after thirty-some years with the City of Cleveland that runs what's called the Division of Architecture. And because I've always been sort of tuned into civic issues, public architecture and community planning, this sounded like a pretty cool thing to go after. And I actually figured I had about a 1 in 9,000 chance in getting this job. [laughs] And, but I put my stuff together and I sent it in and I got a letter back telling me... I got a letter back about six weeks later, telling me—meanwhile, I'm still unloading trucks—telling me that thanks for submitting your stuff and maybe we'll get back to you. That's essentially what happened, much to my surprise. About three weeks after that, I got another letter saying, You have been selected for a screening interview. We want you to call up, blah, blah, blah, and make an appointment. So I did that. I made an appointment. I came in. It's exactly what they did. They screened me. They want to be sure that I, you know, wasn't a felon, that I didn't, you know, beat children, that I actually was who I said I was, and all those sorts of things. And they told me that there was something like 80 applications for this job and they were screening like 24 people that they had an interest in. So I sort of made it to that level. About a week to ten days later, I got a phone call saying, We want you to come in for an interview. And so I pulled all my stuff together and my slides and my work and, you know, all that. And I put together a sort of a little briefing package on me and my approach to being the city architect. I had no idea what the job was. Honest, honest to God, I had no idea what the job was, but I had an idea what I would do with it, you know, given Paul's world. So I put this together and I was, it was in the mayor's red room, which, if you ever seen, is the most intimidating room on the planet. It's a room about half again bigger than this, but it's got paintings of all the mayors and history surrounding, all looking down on you while you're sitting there. It's intimidating! You know, you're 28-year-old kid, you're getting stared at by these by these mayors, and everything is red. The upholstery, big, giant walnut table, and it's all carved, and then there's this giant door and then the mayor's right behind the door. I was scared out of my mind. And all these big city officials are around the table. And I turned on my slide projector. I did my thing. I was there for, you know, over an hour having a discussion with them. I walked out of the room and said, [laughs] I'm sure I don't have a prayer of getting this job! I, you know, I was just, you know, winging it. I actually got a call about a week later saying that it had been further reduced down and I was one of them. And the service director who I would work with wanted to interview me. And so he sat down with me and he told me what the job was and what you would do and what he was like and what politics was like and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And was pretty much. Are you sure you're interested in this, Kid? Sonny? And, and, and at this, at this point, I was in the game. At this point, it's, I'm in the race. I gotta see this through. This is too much fun to drop out. I had no idea if this is what I wanted, but the drama of it, the thrill of it. And we were in the middle of a recession, and I just did not want to work for another architectural firm. I'd come off the bad experience, and I've always been game for risks and it's just my nature. And so I finished this and they said, okay, when they were done grilling me, they said they'd get back to me. And I got a call literally a few days later saying It's down to three and you're one of the three and it's time to meet the mayor. So, you know, a week or so after the phone call, I put my one and only suit on and actually went through the red room into the big door into the mayor's office and George Voinovich was there. And, you know, he's now the senator. And I don't if you've ever seen George in person. He's a very slight man. I mean, I'm actually a little bit taller than he is. You can't tell when you see somebody on television how tall they are. But he's a very slight, very gentle man. And, you know, when I saw him, I was a little surprised. But I always liked him and I respected him because we had come off of the... His... This was his first term. And we had come off the Dennis Kucinich era when the city was in default. And I was excited about being a part of very bright, thoughtful, aggressive people that were going to turn Cleveland around. And so he comes up to me, and George is this really personable, comes up to me and he's like two inches away from my face. And he grabs my hand and he's shaking it real hard. How are you? And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And there's all these chairs. But he never said, Sit down. He's just standing there next to me—I'm telling you the long story, but it was really wild. I don't get to tell the story all that often. And to end it, he asked me a couple of questions and about why would you want this job and so forth? And then he said to me, he goes, You know, there's two other people that are after this job. And, you know, my father was an architect, and I actually knew that. I said, Yeah, I knew your father was an architect. And he said, And my brother owns, is an engineer and owns an engineering and architectural firm. And I knew that as well. I didn't know his brother, but I knew of him. I knew that he had the firm. And he said, my brother... And he said, my brother said not to hire you. You're too young. Hire the older guys. They're in their fifties. You got to be crazy. You hired him. But he said every other person that's been involved in this, in my staff, from my executive assistants to my directors to my cabinet, all said we should hire the young guy. He goes, What do you think I should do? [laughs] I said, You only have one choice and that's to hire me. At this point, I was in it head first. I said, Hire me. And he said, Okay, you're hired. And that was it. And shook my hand. We never sat down, never sat down, shook my hand, walked out. The service director's waiting for me in the red room. He goes, What happened? I said, I'm working for you now. And he was thrilled, took me downstairs, went through the miles of paperwork, and I was the city architect, so. Oh, and then to finish off, because that was a really interesting part, I did that for six and a half years, did about $150 million worth of capital improvements for the city, and which was enormous considering when I came in, the city wasn't even in the bond market. But Voinovich got us financially soluble again, and my job was to spend money and spend it right, build neighborhoods. And that's what I did. I promised George I'd stay until the end of his second term before he ran for governor. So I left on December 5th, which was 1989. George's last day was, of course, the end of December. The new mayor, Mike White, started on January 1. I left three weeks early and and I started my business on the following Monday. And it was literally hanging up the shingle, the proverbial shingle. Had no work, just a belief that we could do this. You know, I had met a lot of people in my job as city architect, but I couldn't I could have no conflict of interest. When you're in the public sector, I firmly believe that you don't have conflicts of interest. So I wasn't trying to run a business or generate business while I was the city architect. I finished my job, walked out, cashed in, Mark and I cashed in our retirement money, our PERS—that was all the money we had—and bought a little CompuEd computer back in those days. That's all. There was one stinky little computer which you couldn't even use for a calculator today, and we started our business in an old, deteriorated building on Prospect Avenue, and we bartered for work. We did work in exchange for rent. And it was also in a recession. If you look at the books and you look at the recessionary times, there were three substantial recessions, and all three of them were part of my life patterns professionally. One was when I left... One was when I graduated from... When I graduated from college, it was a recession, 1975. The other one was when I was in Cleveland looking for a job. There was a recession around 1979 or '80, whatever it was, maybe '80. And the other was when I left City Hall and started my business. And each time I survived. It took about two years to know the baby was going to live, and it took about five years to consider ourselves reasonably successful. And it took about, took about ten years to know that we had the capacity to meet our objectives and be the kind of place and we're in our seventeenth year now. So.
Addie Tobey [00:13:29] I have a couple of questions if I can go back to some of your story. Who was the service director during that time that you worked with?
Paul Volpe [00:13:36] Joseph Stamps. Joe Stamps. And you'll see his name at a building that I designed, one of the buildings I designed when I was the city architect, on the Shoreway on East 40th and the Shoreway across from the airport. It's got sort of brown and white tile stripes. It's got a red top with a balcony. And it's the Joseph L Stamps District Service Center. And Joe, joe passed away, I think when I was in my fifth year at the city. He, Joe got cancer and he died. And we named the building after him. So. Yeah.
Addie Tobey [00:14:26] Can you elaborate on maybe one or two—I know you did several—projects that stick out to you. When you took over you said you did about $150 million of work the city did during that time. Can you just talk about a couple of projects that really stick out to you that are... [crosstalk]
Paul Volpe [00:14:40] Sure. I'll tell you my favorites. If you ever talk to any of the folks that were in... The Voinovich years were special years. All of us that worked there... I mean, I've been through four mayors since I've been in Cleveland, and I've known them all personally. And I'm kind of excited to say I have a key to the city. George Voinovich gave me the key to the city, and Mike White gave me a key to the city. And I didn't work for White. And I was one of the only private citizens he actually gave the key to the city. Jane Campbell, to my disappointment, did not give me the key to the city, and she was given the key out of the city. And Frank Jackson will remain to be seen. But, you know, a big part of my life has been community service. And if you talk to people in the Voinovich administration, we were really close, and they used to call me the Cadillac architect in the Chevy administration because I would always design buildings that were more money than they allocated to spend because I believe that buildings should be sustainable and they shouldn't be built just to meet functional purposes or aesthetic purposes. They should do more than that. And so I would fight... For example, one of my favorite projects, one of my first projects was—oh, I'll show you pictures on the wall later—was a fire station, the first new fire station that I built for the city. City hadn't built a new fire station in thirty years and they desperately needed 'em. But the city had no money, no money to buy fire trucks, let alone build buildings. And they were in these crummy old... Either they had the bomb shelter fire stations of the '50s and '60s, which were windowless, concrete and brick boxes, ugly, horrible buildings right in the middle of neighborhoods. Or they had the beautiful historic buildings that were in massive deterioration. As part of my job, well, I got a chance to renovate a lot of these, plus I got a chance to build a few new ones. The first one was in a neighborhood that is on the Near West Side called the Archwood-Dennison neighborhood. And the fire station is at West 25th, now Pearl Road, and Archwood Avenue. And this is a neighborhood that's a historic district. I've been on the Landmarks Commission for twenty-some years and made a lot of the historic districts during my time on it. And this was a neighborhood that, like so many neighborhoods, was struggling to survive, but it had the ability to have a future. Well, the Voinovich administration was going to... They had agreed that a new fire station was going to be built and it was going to replace two other ones. They were going to consolidate into a bigger one. So they were gonna take two single company stations and turn it into a triple company station with an EMS. Well, they were looking for a piece of land to build it on, and it had to do with response times. I'm telling you, I'll makin' a story long again. But it's important to the way we thought back then and sort of the legacy I tried to leave from the perspective of architecture. Before me, they would've said, Okay, how much money you got? Where do you want to build a fire station? And they would have designed a piece of crap and that was it. Well, they came to me and did the same thing. They said, you know, we have $2 million to build a fire station out of the capital budget. And this is where we want you to build it. And the site they wanted to build, it was a crummy site. It was like out of the way. All... The only thing it did was meet response time. I said, We gotta find a better site. So I got together with the city planner, Hunter Morrison, who is a dear friend, somebody I worked with for, there and after there, for years, and I said, Hunter, we can't build it here. Let's put it someplace where a great new building is gonna make a difference. Plus, firemen, if you understand the genre of firemen, they're basically lazy. I mean, they're doing a great job when there's a fire. But other than that, they're lifting weights, they're cooking, they're eating, they're sitting on benches, they're smoking cigarettes, and they're having a pretty good time playing games. I mean, so that's basically what they do because they wait for the fire, okay? Now they clean the trucks and they usually do it in the front in the driveway, which is kind of cool. I said, Let's find a spot where firemen can contribute to the neighborhood. They can be seen. They'll provide security because crime and security is important. And where we could build a beautiful new building that'll make a difference, and let's try and find a commercial district. So I found this blighted, old used car lot right on the axis of Archwood Avenue, designed this magnificent fire... I think, I still think the fire station's magnificent. And the neighborhood loved it. The fire department fought me. The building cost about a half a million dollars more than they had budgeted. It was worth every penny to do a great piece of architecture. When it was all said and done, the neighborhood loved it. The building looks as good, because it's built right, looks as good today. It's not fallen apart, you know, like a lot of the junk that gets built. It's won four design awards. The city never won a design award for anything. And we made the neighborhood a better place as a result of it. Those are the things that matter. I built a number of fire stations like that. One of the biggest things I ever did was I got, I renovated the convention center. We spent about $30 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to a new convention.... At the time, a new convention center was about 200 million. Our convention center was in ruins and we were literally gonna lose all of our convention business. And I got to know the commissioner of the convention center and the head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. And they knew I was a gutsy kid. And they sat down with me and said, we gotta figure out what to do with this convention center. So I put together a plan for it and I said, We can do all these things. And, but I said, It's gonna cost you 30 million bucks, which at the time was an enormous amount of money. But we all agreed that unless we funded it and did these things in five years, our convention center would be closed. Now, you understand, that was 22 years ago that we had that conversation and the convention center is, you know, unfunctional today. But we kept it alive for twenty years, which meant revenue to the city. And can you imagine the city's image without a convention center, with a boarded-up convention center? So Dale Finley, Jim Glending and I went on a campaign. We got Ruth Ratner, who was... I don't know if you know Forest City? Ruth, Ruth... It's really Ruth Miller. Ruth Miller. She's one of the Ratner, sister of Albert Ratner, one of the greatest women I've ever known. She was tremendous. She's since passed away. We convinced Ruth that this idea made sense. We got the city through the Convention and Visitors Bureau to float bonds, and we did a $30 million renovation. It blew people's minds. It blew their minds. And we did an amazing job. Other cities were spending hundreds of millions of dollars that we didn't have. And for 30 billion bucks, we kept the place alive for twenty-plus years more. Very proud of that. Another project is the Charles Carr Center up here at Carnegie and East 55th Street. That intersection was one of the most dilapidated, deteriorated corners in the city of Cleveland. You know, much of the blight that exists in Cleveland is south of Carnegie Avenue, just in that direction. And again, the buildings that we did were the old Warner and Swasey plant, which were sitting vacant. And they'd been vacant for, I don't know, 12, 15 years. Warner and Swasey was a major manufacturing company in Cleveland, Fortune 500 company. They moved out of the city, and now they've ultimately been sold and consolidated, and they're gone completely from Northeast Ohio. But they were a major employer, and they had this giant manufacturing plant and office building over on the, right on the corner of 55th and Carnegie sitting there vacant and vandalized and blighted. They just walked away from the real estate and said, we can't sell it. Nobody wanted it. We don't care. Well, it was probably the classic sign of blight in Cleveland and the deindustrialization of the city to see that sitting there as a wasteland. Well, part of my job was put together capital budgets, and for the city for... How do you get departmental needs coordinated with facility needs? You know, I did a plan for the fire department. Where do we need fire stations? What do we renovate? How do we consolidate? Same thing for the service department, which is waste collection and streets and all those things, and the police department and all that. Well, we had this tremendous need for the service department to have places to store their trucks and to do motor vehicle maintenance and other kinds of sort of mundane, mundane things. And the city was looking for places to build new buildings. And I said, rather than building a small building here, a small building here, a small building here, why don't we build a central complex right in the center of the city and distribute things from there? And I said, if you do that, you have more efficient operation. You'll have less theft, you'll have better management, you can deliver services in a more efficient way. It's just city government, I know enough to be dangerous and so I suggested a central facility. Well, Joe Stamps, the service director, was a smart guy, and he said, All right, well, let's do a plan. So we did what we called the district plan, which resulted in his building getting built. That's one of the reasons it was named after him. But we needed a central facility to park trash collection vehicles and to do motor vehicle maintenance work. The city has hundreds of trucks and cars and police cars that get... We needed a central facility, and building a new building, new buildings, was very expensive. These are enormous buildings. Well, I knew about the Warner and Swasey plant, and I went in and I said, So why don't we buy the Warner and Swasey plant, and why don't we convert it, it's big, giant factories? I said, Why don't we convert it and create the Central Municipal Center, which ultimately was named the Charles V. Carr Municipal Center. And Charles V. Carr is a pretty famous African American politician here in Cleveland. And we took it up to Voinovich. He said, you're nuts, but it makes sense. Let's look at it. So I put together a whole capital plan, and it was $33 million. And I compared it to new construction, which was far more. And, you know, we actually did two-thirds of the project. We didn't complete one-third because it transitioned into the White administration. And Mike White decided that he didn't want to do the last third. And there were other reasons for that. But two-thirds of it got done. It's sitting there as evidence. And I'm very, very proud of that because functionally it works. We saved some great old buildings that are built better than, you know, the barns that tend to get built today with municipal dollars. We completely enlivened a dead corner of the city. We did something wonderful environmentally because and rather than throwing construction debris in a landfill, we saved it. And also those buildings, one of the attributes of those buildings is they have big sawtooth roofs with clerestories, windows, on the roof. So you don't even have to turn lights on in the buildings. The natural light pours in. And how much light do you need when you're pulling a garbage truck out in the morning and pulling it back in the afternoon? I mean, it was, you know, twenty years ago, it was real environmental design, you know, that we try and do today with green building. So I think we accomplished a lot. That's a real... That was a real important project. So.
Addie Tobey [00:27:56] When there's something... You said you got to do two-thirds but the other third wasn't complete, as an architect, do you find that to be disappointing that there was no followthrough after you or?
Paul Volpe [00:28:04] Yeah. That bothers me a lot. It bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, the plan that we came up with in the Voinovich administration would have worked, and Voinovich had the political will to see it through. It required consolidating other city departments into the office building and then completing the municipal center. Well, White looked at it and said, Why do we need to fool with all that? Blah, blah, blah. It wasn't because he... It just, you know, it's the problem with politics is that there's no continuity because you don't just get a new mayor, but you get a new service director, a new planning director, a new economic development director, a new community development director. Because everybody leaves, the whole cabinet leaves and gets replaced. That's the problem with politics. Nobody that worked for Jane Campbell, virtually nobody that worked for Jane Campbell in a cabinet position... Actually, I think... Nobody. No, one person, one person, the service director, Darrell Rush, are all gone and it's all new people. And so people being people have to create their own visions and, you know, they have their own idea of things. And I wish it was completed because now we have a building that's falling apart and an office, a beautiful, historic office building that's sitting there vacant. And so we still have blight where we shouldn't have blight, in my opinion. So.
Addie Tobey [00:29:39] Do you think that's just politics in general, or do you think it poses especially a danger to the city of Cleveland that we've had a lot of transitions and it seems like that... There seems to be this urban renewal and a liveliness to the city. Is there a danger as you get a lot of change through mayors, do you think?
Paul Volpe [00:29:56] Well, Voinovich was two terms. White was three terms, Campbell was one. A one-term mayor is a bad thing. That's just a bad thing. That's not a statement on whether or not I believed in Frank Jackson or Jane Campbell. It's just that a city has roughly 8,000 employees, 8,000 employees, and has a operating budget of, I don't know, four or five, $600 million. That's not even includ[ing] the capital budget. That's like running Boeing Airlines, you know, bigger. I mean, you know what I'm saying? I mean, so you're hiring somebody, you're electing somebody, who may or may not be qualified to run this enormous business. And this business doesn't just legislate. This business has to clean streets and maintain buildings and fixed roads and operate bridges and do a zillion other things because we have an infrastructure that we pay taxes for. And it's a real concern relative to, you know, the American way of life.
Addie Tobey [00:31:27] I want to change gears a little bit. With your firm, one of the things that I thought that stands out to me is you said the ability for us to survive, in a sense, and as I've interviewed other architects around the city, there's been such a change that, you know, they work for four or five years and they go another firm, become a principal, what do you think is, you know, that you and your partner Mark have been able to do that, you know, you've been able to last long, a long time, this longevity that I feel that when I've interviewed other people didn't exist for them?
Paul Volpe [00:31:57] A couple of things. I think first and foremost is a clarity of purpose. We know who we are. We know what we want to be when we grow up. You know, architects tend to have very large egos. I mean, enormous egos. And you can't be all things to all people. And I believe that we have great responsibility, great responsibility. I mean, you know what we do, it's not like building a car. You know, Americans care more about their cars than their homes. Car's a piece of crap. You know? Who cares? I mean, it's just a car, and, but buildings shape our environment, and we occupy them, and they entertain us. We learn from them. They keep us warm. They cool us down. They, you know, they shape the fabric in our environment. They connect us to each other. It's to me, that's an enormous responsibility. My firm views our mission to be consistent with our values, which is what I just told you. And so we make it very clear to the people that work here, and we constantly remind ourselves, that that's what we're here to do. And if you're into that, you stay and you like it. And if you're not, you work someplace else, where other places that I've worked and I've worked in quite a few other places, and I, you know, I have exposure to quite a few other places, they don't necessarily have a value. It's, you know, we're here to build buildings, so hire me, I'll make you a building. I'll make it look cool and everybody will be happy. And that's just not enough for me. It's not enough for Mark. So we try and do a bit more than that. And, and also, you know, the fact that we do urban design and city planning in addition to architecture gives it a much, much higher level of, I don't know, comprehension, you know. We understand what we're doing better because it means more to us. So.
Addie Tobey [00:34:08] With your firm, you know, being located here downtown, do you think that's essential for a firm that's doing urban design that your location is important for your work?
Paul Volpe [00:34:24] My opinion is you put your money where your mouth is, and if you work in the city of Cleveland, you know, with regularity, if you aspire to be a part of the urban discussion, then your office ought to be in the city of Cleveland. You ought to be paying taxes in the city of Cleveland. You ought to be a part of it. You shouldn't be out someplace else. I just believe we pay our dues as citizens. We need to participate. And, you know, I have a really interesting firm. I have 32 full-time employees and four students. We always have students here, and they work year round, not just in the summer, but... And of my 32 full-time employees, actually half of them live in the city of Cleveland, which is tremendous. People, go, Huh?! People live in the city of Cleveland? You know, absolutely we live in the city of Cleveland, and all but two live in, of the remainder, live in first-ring suburbs, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Euclid, Shaker Heights. You know, I mean, that's... This is a people that live what they practice. You know, they believe in urbanity and they're a part of... And I don't, you know, I don't look for them. They're just attracted to this firm and we're attracted to people that believe in what we're doing. So.
Addie Tobey [00:35:56] How do you continue to get people, you know, the general public, especially those in the suburbs, to appreciate, to come back into the city? You know, they just come here to work during the week, but to bring them back downtown to get them to have an interest in the city again, or as it continues to grow?
Paul Volpe [00:36:13] Well, that's a tough question. I personally think—it's gonna sound very negative, but I actually believe it—that we're almost too far gone as a society to do anything meaningfully. The... I mean, we can build beautiful buildings and have a Little Italy with shops and restaurants, or I can complete our project, the Avenue District on 12th Street, and we'll have pockets of success and we'll have neighborhoods that are edgy but viable, like Ohio City or Tremont or Little Italy or Shaker Square. But most of Cleveland is of poverty level to median income status. And to deal with that, to support that, is virtually impossible. It requires enormous subsidy and a great amount of tax dollars to support this environment. I mean, crime is higher. You gotta put more in schools just to keep kids in the door. The infrastructure is deteriorating. I mean, I can go on all day long, with the blight of the inner city. And the problem is all of
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