Richard Van Petten works as an architect in Cleveland, Ohio, presently running his own architectural firm. In this 2006 interview, Van Petten, a contributor to the Euclid Corridor Transportation Project, describes the history of the project and discusses its implications for the city's future. He also shares his thoughts on the current uses of Cleveland's Public Square and lakefront and outlines possibilities for future improvements. At the end of the interview, Van Petten argues for the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings in the city. Other topics of discussion include Van Petten's own work on the renovation of Pilgrim Congregational Church, as well as some of the speaker's favorite buildings in Cleveland, including the Schweinfurth House, Van Petten's one-time residence.
Van Petten, Richard (interviewee)
James, Greg (interviewer); Turk, Mike (participant)
American Institute of Architects
"Richard Van Petten Interview, August 2 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951009.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Multiple speakers [00:00:04] [setting up]
Greg James [00:00:04] Okay, here we are again. This is Greg James. Mike Turk here for the Euclid Corridor Project with Mr. Van Petten here down at his office at Superior in Cleveland on August 2nd, 2006.
Richard Van Petten [00:00:15] Good afternoon.
Greg James [00:00:16] Thank you so much for giving us an opportunity to...
Richard Van Petten [00:00:19] Okay.
Greg James [00:00:19] To do this. As we go along here, I'm going to try to ask you brief questions about your local, growing up as a child, and then try to build into because we know a little bit about you.
Richard Van Petten [00:00:29] Okay.
Greg James [00:00:31] So that we can understand...
Richard Van Petten [00:00:33] Okay.
Greg James [00:00:32] What those effects were when you were there.
Richard Van Petten [00:00:33] Okay.
Greg James [00:00:34] Very first question here. What community did you grow up in as a child?
Richard Van Petten [00:00:38] Well, I grew up in northern Ohio, actually, but I grew up in the town called Akron, which isn't all that far away. I don't tell everybody this, you know? I try to keep, kind of keep some things quiet. But since you're so direct about it, I guess I don't have any choice.
Mike Turk [00:00:56] So you grew up in Akron?
Richard Van Petten [00:00:57] That's right.
Mike Turk [00:00:58] What was that community and that home life like down in Akron?
Richard Van Petten [00:01:02] Well, it was terrible, but, but that was a few years ago. And it's very interesting, you know. I didn't think we were going to talk about Akron. But Akron is a city that has changed very much in recent years.
Greg James [00:01:14] Can you explain it to me? I'm curious.
Richard Van Petten [00:01:14] As I was growing up, Akron was the "Rubber Capital of the World" where all they, where all tires were manufactured. Well, a lot were manufactured there. And... But the thing is a lot has happened to the city in the meantime. It's become a much more cosmopolitan city. I think the rapid development of technology in the last quarter of the 20th century brought a lot of communities closer together. That is, what was happening in New York was all of a sudden seen in every city in the United States because you could see it all of a sudden, and that all of a sudden meant that a small provincial town wasn't nearly so provincial as it had been at an earlier time. And as a result, I think Akron is a much more sophisticated city today. And at the same time in terms of the arts, Akron has come a long, long way.
Mike Turk [00:02:27] That's very interesting.
Greg James [00:02:28] Now, one of the things I'm curious about here is like the Goodyear blimp, I mean, this is just my own personal standpoint. Is that why they talk about the Goodyear blimp always being from Akron or is that?
Richard Van Petten [00:02:36] Well, of course.
Greg James [00:02:38] Because of that history right there?
Richard Van Petten [00:02:38] That's, that's the company that developed it. And they... And they built an enormous hangar back in the 1930s, which was big enough to put one of those blimps into. And...
Greg James [00:02:52] Because it's weird because you think of Akron and you think of the United States of America, and you think about this little town, which is, it is compared to most cities. You know, you think of Akron being like the outskirts of Cleveland. But that's, that's interesting you did grow up in the Akron area. Knowing that about your, about your life, where you grew up. Your parent's occupation or educational backgrounds?
Richard Van Petten [00:03:13] Well, my, my father was trained educationally as a schoolteacher.
Greg James [00:03:22] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:03:22] You, you would...
Greg James [00:03:23] Absolutley.
Richard Van Petten [00:03:23] Appreciate that. And as far as I know, he never taught school. But if he did, it was for a fairly brief length of time. They got moved to, to Akron by whatever company that he was working for, for the purposes of selling advertising, which he did for 40 years. Or maybe it was 35 for that, for that company. And so that's why they happened to settle there.
Greg James [00:03:56] So what, where did they grow up? Were they, did they... You said they settled there. Did they? So you were born in Akron? So your parents...
Richard Van Petten [00:04:02] Well, actually, I was born in Cleveland. But that's...
Greg James [00:04:05] Born in Cleveland.
Richard Van Petten [00:04:05] Another whole story or two, maybe don't want to go into... But my father had grown up in central Illinois.
Greg James [00:04:20] Central Illinois?
Richard Van Petten [00:04:21] And he met my mother after he returned from the war. This was the first war.
Greg James [00:04:27] First war.
Richard Van Petten [00:04:28] By the way, and, and she at the time was living in Virginia. But she'd been born, had been born, and grew up in the New York City area. And, and after my parents married, they worked in the Washington area for a few years and then lived in some other places. They moved to Akron from Atlanta and in Georgia. My mother always said she loved Atlanta.
Greg James [00:05:01] Yeah, a lot of you say that you love Atlanta, Savannah, and all of those places.
Richard Van Petten [00:05:06] My parents also lived in Syracuse, in New York. My mother always said she hated Syracuse. I lived there for six months, and she never saw the ground in front of her house not covered with snow.
Mike Turk [00:05:21] Oh, that's just like me. That's why I hate Cleveland. So I hate Cleveland. Okay, we've got your parents. Now, next couple things here. What led you to be interested in the arts? And on top of that, did your parents have any push over you to be interested in the arts?
Richard Van Petten [00:05:36] No, my mother, my mother, quite rightly I may say always said to me, well, if you were asking my opinion, I think you should go into medicine. Yeah, of course. She was right. But I had my own thoughts on the matter. And I was certainly always very interested in architecture and design. And so when it came time to select a university, I decided I really wanted [to go to] an art, a design school rather than a, than a more liberal arts college. And so I made the application to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where I was for four years.
Mike Turk [00:06:40] You went to Providence for four years?
Richard Van Petten [00:06:41] That's, that's right. And you know, and you're speaking about cities, the parallels between Akron and Providence are really quite interesting. And I think we're at an age now where sort of the second-tier cities in this country have really come into their own.
Mike Turk [00:07:05] They have.
Richard Van Petten [00:07:05] And I haven't been back to Providence for a lot of years, but I, but what I read and what I see, cities come a long, long way since, since I was there. And a lot of really great things have happened in the downtown that make it a much more livable city than it had ever been before.
Mike Turk [00:07:27] In Providence?
Richard Van Petten [00:07:27] In Providence. But this is also true of, you know, some other smaller cities. Portland in Oregon, as well as Portland in Maine, are just, you know, are both they're relatively small cities that have in the last 10, 20 years become far more livable than they ever had been before and have most major larger cities.
Mike Turk [00:07:58] That's like Canton. Those type of cities driving through, drive through there. Okay. Well, you said you grew up in, you were in Akron. You'd tell us where you went to college when you talked about... What high school?
Richard Van Petten [00:08:10] Oh, I went to public high school. The Akron public school system. And I went to a school called John R. Buchtel High School.
Greg James [00:08:27] Buchtel. Is that still the same Buchtel high school that's there today? Is that what?
Richard Van Petten [00:08:30] Well, so far as I know it is.
Greg James [00:08:31] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:08:31] We're tearing down school so fast in the state, I, I really am not quite sure of it. I was back to.
Greg James [00:08:39] It was a big powerhouse in sports.
Richard Van Petten [00:08:39] I see. I was, I was, in Akron. Oh, sometimes six months or a year ago. And the, and the primary school, the grade school that I attended to, which was, you know, architecturally one of the more interesting schools in the city had just been knocked down. [And] I understand is they're going, they're building a new school on the same site, which is from a preservation point of view, really very unfortunate thing to do. You know, in terms of the environment, knocking buildings down and building them over again is, is, is, is very wasteful.
Greg James [00:09:27] Oh it is.
Richard Van Petten [00:09:27] And along the way, a lot of the, the architectural elements that are replaced [aren't] nearly as durable and maybe as having as much to do with the community as the original building.
Greg James [00:09:42] I've heard a lot of people say that about the new architects. You were saying, you know, we were talking Mr. Madison yesterday, and that's one of the things he was mentioning, which we'll get to around here, like the tearing down projects. Now, just to get a time.
Richard Van Petten [00:09:52] Okay. Okay.
Greg James [00:09:53] Frame for our listeners here. What, what timeframe was college?
Richard Van Petten [00:09:55] That was in the '50s.
Mike Turk [00:09:58] In the '50s. Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:09:58] Yeah.
Greg James [00:09:58] In the '50s high school. Okay. So that, now that we've got a time frame on everything. Now as we move along here, we've got that. Can you describe the history of your firm and can you share some examples of your local projects you've had some of your works.
Richard Van Petten [00:10:12] Okay. My firm is relatively young. We've been, we've been here 10, 12 years now.
Greg James [00:10:23] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:10:23] And I have to tell you, through my professional years, I've always worked for other people.
Greg James [00:10:30] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:10:30] The security of a paycheck on a regular basis...
Greg James [00:10:33] Oh, yes.
Richard Van Petten [00:10:33] Is, is very compelling, I'm afraid. It certainly was to me. And so I didn't strike out until fairly late in my years. And, of course, I've been kicking myself ever since for not having gotten around to it, 35 years sooner because I'm having an awful lot more fun now.
Greg James [00:10:59] I can imagine.
Richard Van Petten [00:11:00] And I can make my own mistakes and not have to have anybody else worry about it and clean them up as best we can without, without somebody other than myself feeling terribly, terribly injured about it. In terms of projects, the most, most interesting things we're doing are, of course, the most recent things that we're doing. And, and the most recent thing that we're doing is a very small addition to Pilgrim Church, which is an historic church in the Tremont area of Cleveland.
Mike Turk [00:11:55] Beautiful church.
Richard Van Petten [00:11:56] It's, it's, and this is a particularly interesting, interesting church. Our assignment was to build a very small addition to make the building more accessible. That is, it includes a small... An elevator to get people to the various levels of the church. And the, and the location that needed to get built was at the confluence of the church building and a later community building that had been added on to it. Each one of them three levels. No two of which lined up with each other so that it offered some, some interesting challenges and complications. It's really [a very] special project for me because we happen to have a really wonderful group of people that comprise their building committee. And, you know, over the last eight, nine months, we've met with them at least once a month. And for every meeting, there's 10 or 12 people sit down and focus [on the] project. And none of the meetings have been less than two and a quarter hours. And at the end of the meetings, they're all still focused on it. And they've, and they've done... And then along the way, they've asked a lot of very thoughtful questions and had some discussion about issues among themselves and, and come to, to decisions. This is, you know, this is quite a remarkable board. GM would have done well over the years to have as good a group of folks.
Mike Turk [00:13:49] Now, you said one thing here. I'm curious, one thing you said. What's the biggest difference between having your own firm and working for someone else? If you could say the number one?
Richard Van Petten [00:13:58] Well, the number one thing is you don't get paid on a regular basis when you have your own firm, if you're very fortunate.
Greg James [00:14:06] I'm curious about that. What do you mean you don't get paid?
Richard Van Petten [00:14:06] Well, if you for a firm as if you work for a school board. You anticipate that you are every two or four weeks you're going to have somebody hand you a little envelope that has a check in it that has what's been previously agreed upon as just compensation. And if you work for your own firm, then you can get paid after you've done the work and after you've put together a bill for your client and after they decide to pay it. A process, which may take some several months, or longer in certain cases. So, so it is, it is all a much, a much less certain arrangement.
Mike Turk [00:15:02] But you did say it's more fun having your own.
Richard Van Petten [00:15:03] But it's a lot more fun.
Greg James [00:15:05] Okay. That's, that's the thing I wanted to say... [inaudible] That's the thing. Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:15:09] And, and also I think for me at least, a lot more rewarding. And, you know, one of the reasons that we do what we do is at the end of the day, that there's some reward. And one has the opportunity to think that, gee, what I have done, what I've been able to do today makes a difference.
Greg James [00:15:36] I know what you are saying. That's the same thing Madison was saying too.
Richard Van Petten [00:15:37] Yeah. Well sure.
Greg James [00:15:37] Along with like being able to have your own firm, seeing your own people, develop them in that process, and then when they branch off and go someplace else, you get that same, you know, same feeling of reward there. That, that's some of the things that we are starting to see the trend about people with their own firms. Now a little sidebar question here. What's your favorite building in the world?
Richard Van Petten [00:15:56] My favorite building in the world. I'm, I'm not sure I've got one.
Greg James [00:16:01] Just one.
Richard Van Petten [00:16:01] But if you're, you're going to press me on this, I have a feeling. And I will have to say that one of my favorite, maybe the favorite building of all time is the Pantheon in Rome. This is the temple...
Greg James [00:16:26] Yes.
Richard Van Petten [00:16:27] You remember that has a hole in the roof.
Greg James [00:16:29] Yes.
Richard Van Petten [00:16:30] And that. Okay.
Greg James [00:16:31] You ever been there to see it?
Richard Van Petten [00:16:32] Oh, yeah, of course.
Mike Turk [00:16:34] What is so special. Like when I, when I study that history books. I've never been over a chance to see that. How come those types of things over there look so much more special? I mean, even though that they're broken, they still look more fabulous than anything that I've ever seen over in Greece and Rome and those places. Why is that? I'm just, I mean, this was so this these things were built so many years ago. Is it because we don't see that anymore or is it because, myself as a history teacher, I try to embrace my students like guys that was built without all these types of things we have today. And, you know, by, by the people that put out those materials, how could something be that awesome?
Richard Van Petten [00:17:15] Well, I think, yeah, I think probably each culture brings its own, its own particular things to the table. And, and part of what we learn from, from the from historic arts is, is something about the, the attitudes and the cares and the interests and the times that the people were building those buildings.
Mike Turk [00:17:48] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:17:48] So I think, you know, there is a, there's a lot of, lot of different levels of history involved. And, and in the case of the antiquities, there may be certain art facts that were worked on as a development over the years that, that are very special. And, and as we put them into perspective of the times that it was done, why it becomes much more special.
Mike Turk [00:18:22] Because those took years. Now we see buildings put up in what months, a year. I mean, they have is it's amazing. Okay it says you were an editor of the Guide to Cleveland Architecture 1997.
Richard Van Petten [00:18:35] You know, you've, you've done a lot of research.
Mike Turk [00:18:37] What are your three favorite buildings in Cleveland?
Richard Van Petten [00:18:40] Oh, okay. That, that's a tough question too. And I'm not sure that I would have given the same answer when we were editing that particular journal, because one of the buildings, which I find the most exciting, of course, is the Gehry building, which has happened since that guide was written. And I really think that that's one of the more exciting things that we've seen in Cleveland. And, you know, it's a very interesting building because it, you know, you were talking about the effect of technology. And this is a building which, quite frankly, just simply couldn't have been built before we had computers available to us. And every little piece of structural steel with its twisted, convoluted shape could be designed because somebody could set it up on a computer and get information which couldn't otherwise be gained. And then from a place in the site, set it up in a way which by computer they can direct somebody to put that little twisted piece of, of something into, into its appropriate place. It's really quite an amazing building.
Mike Turk [00:20:06] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:20:06] So that, that certainly has, has become one of, one of my favorite buildings.
Mike Turk [00:20:14] One of your favorites, okay. What's another one?
Richard Van Petten [00:20:15] And another one, which I have to tell you a bit of personal history about, is the historic house that I lived in for, for 35 years until it got sold two years ago. And this is the Schweinfurth house.
Mike Turk [00:20:39] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:20:39] Which is on East 75th Street between Euclid and Chester. So it's right in the...
Mike Turk [00:20:45] Oh, I know just where that is.
Richard Van Petten [00:20:46] Euclid Corridor area. And, and it, and it's a very interesting building designed by Charles Schweinfurth. Its construction started in 1892. It was finished in 1894. So as you were pointing out, it took a little longer to build buildings a century ago. An interesting building because of its form its rusticated sandstone and the original, the original building is almost a cube. Almost as wide as it is long and almost as tall as it was wide... And was built with a lot of care and a lot of interesting details.
Mike Turk [00:21:40] That's how buildings were back then and I mean that's...
Richard Van Petten [00:21:41] Well, this is a very, very different house than any other of that time. He designed a couple of buildings that were not dissimilar at about the same time but they no, so far as I know, no longer exist. So this is really quite unique in terms of history and its development.
Greg James [00:22:10] Okay, that makes sense. And you said two there. Can you name one more?
Richard Van Petten [00:22:12] That's right. I thought you were going to come up with the third one.
Mike Turk [00:22:17] You don't have to.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:17] Pretty soon.
Mike Turk [00:22:17] Now that we are done with two. You don't have to.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:18] Yeah.
Mike Turk [00:22:19] We like for the really.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:20] Okay.
Mike Turk [00:22:20] To really make those two.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:21] Yeah. Okay. Well [I'm] sorry. [This is] an area which would help if you give me a little advanced.
Mike Turk [00:22:29] Yes. I see what you are saying.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:31] Warning so I could have.
Mike Turk [00:22:32] Okay. That's fine. That's fine.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:32] I'd given it a little bit, a little bit more thought. [crosstalk] Okay. Well. All right. Let's skip it. Okay.
Mike Turk [00:22:38] So I was going to go with what's your favorite building on Euclid Avenue? So we'll come back to that a little bit later so you can think about that. Maybe instead of answering your third favorite building in Cleveland, you could sit there and think about the favorite on Euclid Avenue.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:48] Well, let's talk about that.
Mike Turk [00:22:51] Okay, let's go.
Richard Van Petten [00:22:52] It's interesting. The Schweinfurth house I mentioned is not, is not exactly on Euclid Avenue. But aside from that, there is Trinity Cathedral, which is also a Schweinfurth building. It's Trinity Cathedral. It's the Anglican church at East 22nd and Euclid.
Mike Turk [00:23:17] Any particular reason why that is? Is it just by the same designer, or is that just fascinates you the way that...
Richard Van Petten [00:23:23] Well, it's... I think one of the most carefully done historic churches in Cleveland. They, the materials selected and the design are really very well thought out, very well organized and...
Mike Turk [00:23:49] Okay. You like detail.
Richard Van Petten [00:23:50] Assembled, and I think it's also a building which works very well in its setting both of the time it was originally designed and built and, and, today part of the building complex is a chapter house which predates the original church. And the chapter houses are a Romanesque sort of building. And the, and the main church was down in this, in this, Elizabethan Gothic style, which is much more severe and much more plain and much more of a Gothic statement.
Mike Turk [00:24:39] Okay. So. What are the similarities between those two buildings just curious that you see? I mean, do you see between like when you look at designers and those types of things. Are there some basic... Yourself being an architect, you know, does every building that an architect has being by a designer does it have, and it's my own curious question here. Does each building have a distinct feature on each building? Is there something that an architect has on every building their own?
Richard Van Petten [00:25:09] What you're saying is, can I look at a building...
Mike Turk [00:25:16] And not yours.
Richard Van Petten [00:25:18] Or know that it was done by an architect because it was very similar to all of their other...
Mike Turk [00:25:24] Yes. I'm curious about that. I look up at these buildings and that's one thing... [crosstalk]
Richard Van Petten [00:25:24] Other buildings. And I think this very much depends. A lot of us, a lot of us feel and feel very strongly that buildings really sort of need to grow out of the demands that are put upon the architect when he sits down to design it, the constraints of the site, and the particular needs and desires as stated by the client. We refer to that as the program, except in Britain, where it's referred to as the brief. But these sort of requirements give a great deal of shape to the building. Beyond that, are there, are there very typical things that any one architect will repeat over and over again...
Mike Turk [00:26:20] Yes, that's something.
Richard Van Petten [00:26:21] Because, because he or she happens to like them? Yeah. I think that that happens sometimes without, without our being really terribly aware that it's happening. But certainly, certainly as we look at work of a Frank Lloyd Wright more than any other that comes to mind, there are, there are things that, that we see over and over again that we begin to associate with his, with his work. But, you know, others of us, perhaps aren't quite as interested in those kinds of elements and, or even I suspect some of us try to avoid that kind of characterization.
Mike Turk [00:27:16] [crosstalk] Okay. And some of the, like, different Gothic stuff, all that stuff. I'm just curious how architects perceive that and go with it. So. Try to go. Says you are a contributor to the Euclid Corridor Project. What is your vision for Euclid Avenue for the future Midtown Corridor?
Richard Van Petten [00:27:34] Okay, my association with the transportation project. And, you know, that's a project that's been around the city for a long time.
Mike Turk [00:27:47] How long has it been around?
Richard Van Petten [00:27:47] I think it, I think it, it was first started seriously being designed and considered in the early '90s, '91 maybe.
Mike Turk [00:27:57] And they just now got to it?
Richard Van Petten [00:27:58] And they're now, now... Well, it's gone through a few, a few manifestations over the years. It started out as, you know, as a rail project, what's become termed light rail. And light rail as opposed to heavy rail; it's a little bit like light beer as opposed to another kind of beer. A light rail project. And, you know, when the price tag got up over $600 million and why nobody could figure out a way to pay for it. And so what's happening now and this is really very interesting, it's going to be very interesting to see how this works. And I, it and the transportation planners in a group went off to Brazil a few years ago. I think it's Brazil because a mayor, a very enlightened mayor of a city, had done, was doing a very similar project that evolved with the question, is there a way to build a transportation project that will have the same efficiencies as a rail system without the staggering cost involved? And so this is the approach that's being tried here. And as I say, how well that works in this country at this time will be interesting to see. But the... What they found was that rail systems work much, much more efficiently because people pay before they board the vehicle. And they enter the vehicle on the same level without having to go up or down steps as the, as the floor of the vehicle. And then that the vehicle can travel between stations without having to stop along the way. So what they have, what they have done here is design some little stops, I believe, where people will buy some means or another prepaid before they go on. And they're raised just a little bit off the street and they, vehicles are very low so that they will be able to walk right on from the platform. And then the traffic signals are proposed to be activated by the transit as it goes through so that when you get to a cross street and there's a red light as the train approaches, the light will change, the train will go on through and people in their cars will get held up until the, the train passes. With the theory being that you're going to be able to get on this vehicle and get between University Center, Circle and downtown in less time than you can, than you can drive it.
Mike Turk [00:31:25] That's a lot nicer.
Richard Van Petten [00:31:26] And so this is going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. And, in fact, if it does work as well as it has been planned.
Mike Turk [00:31:41] Now with the construction that's going on down there, I mean, what are your thoughts on like the businesses? And I've been reading the Plain Dealer, I mean, is it fair for those businesses with the construction the way they're losing money? Should they be compensated for that? I know if I had a business that's...
Richard Van Petten [00:31:52] Well, let me, let me look at this from another angle for just a second. One of the things which I've done for a lot more years than I have realized is to sit on a committee for Midtown Cleveland, their design review committee...
Mike Turk [00:32:12] Okay.
Richard Van Petten [00:32:12] Which looks at a lot of projects. And one of the projects which we looked at last week is a hotel project, an existing hotel at, at 30th and Euclid Avenue, the hotel which was originally built as a Holiday Inn across the street from the Arena.
Mike Turk [00:32:39] Oh, rig
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