Jerry Payto grew up in Beford, Ohio and worked for a variety of architectural firms in Cleveland before starting his own firm, Payto Architects. In this 2006 interview, Payto talks extensively about Euclid Avenue, discussing its past glory, recent decline, and contemporary plans for redevelopment, including the Euclid Corridor Transportation Project. Payto also discusses past plans for redevelopment, describes the urban issues hampering the city's revitalization, and offers some ideas on how such challenges can be overcome.
Payto, Gerald (interviewee)
Gibans, Nina (interviewer)
American Institute of Architects
"Gerald Payto Interview, December 12 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951025.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Nina Gibans [00:00:00] ... Payto, and I'm Nina Gibans, and we're having a conversation about Euclid Avenue and Jerry's background and perspective. Okay, so. Where'd you grow up?
Gerald Payto [00:00:15] I was born in Bedford, Ohio. Grew up in Bedford until I got married and I lived in New York City for a while while I went to Columbia University, so I got a little bit of a taste of the big city. And of course, I wanted to get a master's in urban design so I couldn't think of a better place to go than New York City to experience what a city's supposed to be like. But most of my...
Nina Gibans [00:00:39] So you worked with Polshek?
Gerald Payto [00:00:41] Polshek was his... Yeah, that was his first year there. The reason I went there is because I was enamored with a professor by the name of Victor Christ-Janer, who really had an awful lot to do with my foundation, my beliefs. And I went there because of Victor. And, of course, I had Jurgula, who was the head of the urban design studio at that time, Alto Jurgula, who I had a great admiration for. And it was also Polshek's first year after Smith had served there for many, many years. And so that in '72, '73, this was a very exciting time, not only in New York City, but certainly in Columbia University.
Nina Gibans [00:01:22] Is that when Fleischman was there? Was Fleischman there?
Gerald Payto [00:01:24] It was afterward. Yeah, I think he was there under the Smith.
Nina Gibans [00:01:28] Let's go back even further, though.
Gerald Payto [00:01:31] Okay.
Nina Gibans [00:01:31] To when you decided you would even like to become an architect.
Gerald Payto [00:01:36] I've been asked this question many times and I've really given it a lot of thought, but I can, as far back as I can remember, I guess back to playing in a sandbox or playing in the yard, I've always wanted to be an architect, and I can't make a distinction in my life of when, you know, I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything other than an architect. It was always there. After I graduated from Kent, I went to work full time Actually, I finished my requirements and then went to work full time, and I was taking graduate art student classes for at Kent in the evenings and weekends for about three and a half years. And, and almost had a masters in art because I was... There was something between the art and the architecture that really enamored me. And I was... And being taught, you know, in what I consider a very good university but being released out into the real world, there was a shock there that I had to overcome, and the only way that I could overcome that was to take a lot of graduate art courses until I finally settled in and said, Yeah, this is what architecture is like and this is how I can deal with it.
Nina Gibans [00:02:46] So Columbia came after?
Gerald Payto [00:02:48] Yeah, Columbia came, that came about nine years later. I got up one morning and I was married and I had a daughter and my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. And I just rolled over and said, I really have to go back to school because I think there's something missing. And... And I think having heard Victor and talk about certain aspects of architecture, I got really enamored with it all over again at a whole different level. It wasn't just a building and a building, it was buildings together, whether they formed streets or towns or cities or neighborhoods or enclaves.
Nina Gibans [00:03:27] So you had heard Victor?
Gerald Payto [00:03:27] Oh yes. I heard him speak, and I read some things that he wrote and I just, I just said this, I need to know more about this. It was just this insatiable appetite that I needed to get. And my wife decided because of being pregnant and that she was going to stay here. So I actually went to Columbia, lived in a little walkup tenement for $16 a week. Spent $5 a day for total meals and and helped support my family back here and returned a different person. In fact, I'd even... I've even been told... This just dawned on me now that I even had my house designed which is something that I always wanted to do. And I had the land all cleared out and the house was all staked out, and all of a sudden I got this urge to go back to school, came back, and after I finished my master's and I completely redesigned the house and built it totally different. So it must have had some affect, capital A, on me.
Nina Gibans [00:04:27] Is the house the one you live in now?
Gerald Payto [00:04:28] Yes.
Nina Gibans [00:04:29] Where's that?
Gerald Payto [00:04:30] In Brecksville.
Nina Gibans [00:04:33] What year is this?
Gerald Payto [00:04:35] This was... This was 1973-74. The house is 31, going on 32 years old. So I was 30. I was 30... I was 32 or 33 years old when I built the house.
Nina Gibans [00:04:49] That's fascinating. You know...
Gerald Payto [00:04:51] Something I won't do again, Nina.
Nina Gibans [00:04:54] Architects put their dream into their house, I think.
Gerald Payto [00:04:58] Yeah, and you can make all the mistakes in the world, but it doesn't really matter in some ways, as if you have a passion to do something. The most important thing is to follow through with that passion. And when I was young and foolish, I should say younger and foolisher than I am, more foolish than I am now, I wanted to do this and it was very important for me to do this. So I set out on a mission and said, I'm gonna build a house and put my family through all sorts of inconvenience and whatever else. But we got into it and we got settled in.
Nina Gibans [00:05:29] Well...
Gerald Payto [00:05:30] It was well worth it.
Nina Gibans [00:05:33] And the children probably benefited from the process.
Gerald Payto [00:05:37] Yes, there's many things that they helped with, like the tiles that came in for the living room were, about 20% of them were broken. So we created a... We broke them up into small pieces and the children made a big mosaic in the living room. And when they were only, you know, very, very young and we kind of mortared them into the... so there's this giant scene that's in the middle of the floor that wasn't supposed to be there, but it was kind of a, it was kind of a way of dealing with it. I have pictures of my youngest daughter helping lay the foundation, the block, and whatever else in her mother's big, tall red garden boots. And so, it's you know, there's a lot of memories and there's a lot of... I look at pieces of wood and trim that my father and my brother helped put in, and it's still very... It's not just a piece of wood. It's just much, much more than that. So, you know, I think a lot of people benefited by it in the long run.
Nina Gibans [00:06:35] That's great. So when you came back from Colombia...
Gerald Payto [00:06:40] Mm hmm?
Nina Gibans [00:06:41] Talk about how you started being an architect other than building your own home.
Gerald Payto [00:06:48] Well, I have to... I have to regress back and think about... I worked at this Visnapuu and Gaede for a while and then I worked at Fleischman for five years and I worked at Dalton, Dalton, Little, Newport for 15 years and became a partner there because I wanted to experience a larger firm and maybe more of the interdisciplinary functions within the house. And then we decided that my real dream in life was to practice architecture under the paid architects so I could make all my own mistakes and had no one else to blame. And that was a real dream of mine ever since I can remember. So 22 years ago, we set out and said, Let's do our own thing. And that's been very beneficial.
Nina Gibans [00:07:41] How many people are in your firm?
Gerald Payto [00:07:43] We got about five people right now.
Nina Gibans [00:07:47] So what about... You've talked about a major influence on your career, but on your architectural thinking. Are there other mentors?
Gerald Payto [00:08:03] There's one... I can't... I can't absolutely speak of this without mentioning somebody. The high school teacher by the name of Mr. Penza, and Mr. Penza is probably the single most influential person in my career. And I've had very, very many. I've been very blessed. But when I was in high school, he saw that I was really interested in architecture, and of course there was no course for architecture, so he said, Sign up for my drafting, mechanical drafting class, and you and I together will work out a curriculum.
Nina Gibans [00:08:38] So this is in Bedford?
Gerald Payto [00:08:39] This was in Bedford. Yes. And so at a very early age, I got to practice architecture in high school for two or three years. Well, and he would... There was a church going up next door and he would say, okay, this section, I want you to go there, watch the construction, take pictures, talk to the workmen, put together a report of what you've seen and whatever. He... And another project is, he said, Well, here's a house. I want you to design a house for a family of four and it's located here and this is what their interests are. So I would do the plan, an elevation, a little model. I was doing this in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. So I got... I feel that he helped nurture this because I wasn't the most dedicated student and I was perhaps not following the path that one should if they're thinking about college and whatever, I hung around with a very interesting group of people, but it wasn't really commensurate with what I really wanted to achieve later on in life. So he kind of towed me in, and he kept this interest going through these very informative years when I really needed it more than I thought. And he kept that spirit alive and he kept that thought in the back of my mind is I got to be an architect, I got to be an architect. So in reality, I did whatever I had to do from the ninth grade on with regard to working jobs and whatever, all but two weeks of my life through high school and college. But that was so strong that it forced me to go out and earn the money to go to college and to make the dedication to stick with it, because it wasn't there before that, you know, although I was interested in buildings and what was going on, I was also interested in a lot of other things in life that had very little to do with it.
Nina Gibans [00:10:30] Which is natural.
Gerald Payto [00:10:32] I hope so.
Nina Gibans [00:10:33] Well, let's get you to Euclid Avenue in your life.
Gerald Payto [00:10:37] Mm hmm.
Nina Gibans [00:10:38] So start where... That's right.
Gerald Payto [00:10:40] Gosh. Earliest memories go back to coming down to Higbee's shopping and meeting Santa first hand in the sleigh. I don't know how many times I've seen the movie The Christmas Story, because it's probably the closest rendition of what it was really like. And I just looked forward to that and being and all the activity that was going on, all the lights and the people and the music and very festive. And I those are probably my earliest memories. And also going down to the hobby shop on Huron Road, which my father got me interested in very early in life. So those were like trips downtown that were very, very...
Nina Gibans [00:11:24] The hobby shop was in Higbee's or was it Euclid Avenue?
Gerald Payto [00:11:25] No, it was on... I think it was on Huron Road, right off of Euclid. And... But the earliest memories I had was coming down to the Square and Higbee's. It was a very festive environment. Later on in life I... Before I was even working down there in the Keith Building and in the old Arcade, before that, when my wife and I started dating, we used to come down to the... Our favorite date night was probably Friday and, or Saturday, and we are biggest date was coming down to the Hippodrome. I mean, I have all sorts of little black and white photos that they would take on the sidewalk when you're walking along, smiling, having a great time and people would be taking photographs and you could you could get the photographs and as memories. And it was just so sad to see that building go because to me, it represented not only a lot of great memories, but I think, and as we've seen what's happened to the rest of Playhouse Square, it's really given a lot of people a lot of opportunities and a lot of venues that, my God, if they all disappeared and became parking lots, we'd be... We'd be in very critical shape.
Nina Gibans [00:12:37] Right. So what are your favorite buildings othan than Hippodrome?
Gerald Payto [00:12:43] Well, my favorite building, and it's been the favorite building for a long time, has been the Terminal Tower. And I've thought about this and I don't know. The first thing that comes to my mind is that it's for me, it's always kind of been the symbol of Cleveland. And it's always, I mean, even take the Public Square, it seems like most activities happen outside on the one quadrant outside of Tower City. And is it because the Terminal Tower opens up and encompasses that area? Is it because it's significant? It has meaning in the history of Cleveland? I don't know. Maybe it's a combination of a lot of things. But I, I think when I see that symbol on any logo, it means more to me than than looking at some of the other buildings, because it doesn't have the the past presence and it doesn't have the significance of serving as a symbol of Cleveland, like the Terminal Tower.
Nina Gibans [00:13:37] Any others?
Gerald Payto [00:13:41] And of course, I just think any of the historical [buildings]... I mean, I can't think of, you know, I've given some thought to this. It's interesting. You sent the list out because I started thinking about some of this and I started going up and down Euclid. And when I would drive up and down Euclid, I would be thinking, you know, what is, what in my mind is significant? What has left me, influenced me with some sort of definition or meaning that I can hold on to and say, well, this is meaningful because of this, this, or this. But it seems like so many of the historical buildings, whether the churches and some of them I've never even been inside, which is so strange, but yet there's a presence there and a past that I think is very important, you know, and I think that, you know, we, in this country, I think we need to learn more about keeping the past and relating to it because it's a part of us, you know, and it should be part of the future. And so many of the older buildings seem to be more important. And I imagine, I can imagine the context that they were in once with all the big mansions and all along Euclid. There must have been a continuity there that was just absolutely beautiful. You know, now we have bits and pieces that have been chewed out and opened up and whatever else for redevelopment. So it's, in some areas along Euclid, it's somewhat opened and it's somewhat segmented. It doesn't have the continuity that a lot of the great streets do or the other end of Euclid toward the Square has because of its containment. You know, there the buildings are contained and the distance between the buildings and the height of the buildings don't exceed a 2 to 1 horizontal to one vertical. So there's containment and there's a sense of closure and defining of that street. In other areas where the streets get lower, buildings get lower, and the streets are same width and they get opened up, then all of a sudden these streets lose their sense of containment. And that's, I think, a big... It's psychologically I think it's a big problem that we have. And there are a lot of other things that people can talk about with regard to treating the floor scape, because basically all we really perceive is about 27 degrees off the horizon. So that's why the lower parts of buildings are all far more fenestration and far more interest than the upper part of the building because it's perceived from such a distance at the top. So as you walk along these streets and that's what you perceive, you know, there's a lot of things that have to be in kind of equilibrium in unison, aside from the safety of the place and the cleanliness and whatever. There's certain physical things, I think, that have to be in place that really define great streets. And, you know, there are great streets all over the world. But the, you know, like having, instead of having buildings boarded up, you know, it's very important, I think, to see through buildings and see into them and vice versa. I mean, that's some of the most memorable streets we've been on do that, accomplish that. And with that, there has to be a lot of presence of people. The whole project along Euclid Avenue, this $168 million or whatever is interesting because the accessibility and whatever is going to be greatly, apparently greatly increased. And also the the look of it and the streetscape and everything is going to be improved. It's going to be interesting to see what effect, you know, that's going to have on the adjacent businesses and the adjacent value of the land, which should be critical, because if that really does increase, then maybe it'll be other opportunities for some some areas to grow into, mature, into, really viable, such, you know, neighborhoods. It'll be interesting to see over the years if that really does act as a stimulus for that.
Nina Gibans [00:17:47] For starters, the morning paper has the county commissioners [supporting the...]
Gerald Payto [00:17:52] Yeah, I saw that.
Nina Gibans [00:17:54] Struggling businesses while the street is being... [inaudible]
Gerald Payto [00:17:57] Yeah, there's... I heard the program, I guess a few weeks ago on NPR about the, a lot of the businesses having to go out of business because of all the disruption that it's caused. And that's certainly sad because some of these owners have been there for a long, long time. And I don't... You know, it's just, you just can't afford to lose and cause that kind of disruption because, you know, it's something you can't get back very easily. You know. And again, it goes back to this whole thing about being there. It's so easy to tear something down and build something new, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna work. You know? You have to understand it, I think, at a lot, a much, much deeper level. And I can... I hope they are able to save a lot of the the existing context along Euclid Avenue because that's really very like the Howe Mansion and the Mather and some of the churches and all because there's so few pieces left in that one section that I think it's important to save whatever you can and build with some sense of continuity. You know, I think some of the most memorable places that I've seen and experienced really have a very tight sense of containment. And people don't meet people in automobiles. And I don't think they meet people in trolleys. People meet people when they're walking. And it's just... I didn't invent this. I mean, it's just, it's just the way people are. And they need when they have places to walk, especially long places to walk, they need pocket, safe pockets to congregate and whatever. And it's just... If you look at a lot of the successful cities throughout the world, they're like that. I was in Lucca, Italy, recently and walking in some of the tightest, even like some of the cities I've experienced in Austria, but they're extremely tight, narrow streets. Some of the same relationships that Paris had when it, when it put down some doctrines, I think, in the 1780s, about the width of the street, if it's two the height of the building to the corner should be three. So it's extremely, extremely tight. And I think that might have been the first ordinance that was really written in Paris. But what it gave us is some very tight, intimate streets and they feel comfortable, you know, when you walk down a street like that and you experience other people on bicycles and walking and strollers and whatever and banners and windows. I mean, it's an exciting place. [crosstalk] It's the kind of...
Nina Gibans [00:20:34] [So you want to be] walking into the street when when the buggy comes by?
Gerald Payto [00:20:38] Well, that's gonna be... Even though they have dedicated lanes, I'm sure for efficiency, it's still traffic and you still have vehicular and pedestrian movement coming together, which is a very tricky thing. It doesn't necessarily—and I've seen because... And obviously the intensity of Euclid in the... It's what, six and a half miles or something like that that we're talking about. The amount of traffic and whatever on that street is large. I mean, it's not very feasible to think about that street as a pedestrian precinct. But I think there ought to be some thought given to, as development occurs along that area, of providing some of these amenities that make the streets and streetscapes so successful. But at least keeping in the back of your mind, because this will not be a solution, I don't think, for everything. It may be an impetus, it may be a beginning, but it needs to be thought of as a continuation of of this beginning and what can be done to really solidify a success and, in the streetscape in these neighborhoods, because it's not just a curb, a sidewalk, and a building wall.
Nina Gibans [00:21:52] Let's talk also about, then, buildings that have been torn down, buildings that remain. There's the current...
Gerald Payto [00:22:02] Oh!
Nina Gibans [00:22:04] Breuer and Hisaka.
Gerald Payto [00:22:10] Yeah. That's... That is, I mean, we are so guilty in so many ways and in so many instances of doing this. I mean, you mentioned the Breuer building, now, it's just absolutely mind-boggling how we can think that we can't save the building and use it for an office. It's mind-boggling that we have to turn our back on it and say, well, it's old, it's going to cost too much to renovate it, so we'll spend even more money and build probably a cheaper building. And is it gonna make everybody inside work and function better than they would have? No. The answer is no. So here again, you know, it's a wonder we don't think about tearing down the rotunda so we can get a few more parking spots. You know. I mean, it's a matter of priorities. And I've seen so many things like the buildings on Public Square that have been torn down. Well, there was supposed to be a big building, and I was I served on the City of Cleveland Design Review Committee for 18 years and I remember when that came before us, they were going to tear down and propose this big building. Well, then, you know, the big building didn't get... The big building didn't put up, but the surface parking lot is there, you know. So there's a big gouge out of the city...
Nina Gibans [00:23:24] Right.
Gerald Payto [00:23:24] That, you know, you know, the parking lot is apparently more desirable than the building was. And it seems like we we come to very quick solutions to tear our buildings down because they become outdated and they become too expensive to renovate. But then they actually cost more to rebuild. So I don't know what the justification is there other than we don't really respect and we don't honor as much as we should what was there before us.
Nina Gibans [00:24:04] What are some of the issues you think are before us that you haven't already discussed here as a vision for Euclid Avenue?
Gerald Payto [00:24:17] Well, I wish it would be. And this sounds crazy, and I don't mean to... I don't mean to skirt around the question, but I really hope it could be really unique. I wish we could think of it as is looking for what Euclid Avenue was, is, and shall be forevermore. And it's going to change. It's going to change like it's going to change like the Square. I mean, Euclid Avenue has changed. I mean, it used to be a little dirt road that used to be wooded and it used to be a totally different road than it is today. And I can remember when Higbee's and Halle's and Bonwit Teller and Sterling Lindner and all those shops were there, and I couldn't wait to go out at lunchtime and go shopping or go shopping after work because it was so vibrant and it was so exciting and seemed to have a great deal of purpose and significance, regardless of what it was, didn't matter. The thing that mattered, it was active and it was a place to be and it felt comfortable and it felt exciting. I hope... I hope that we can kind of regain somehow some of that excitement and and try to create some of that activity, even if it's in bits and pieces along that long stretch, because I think that's what's going to be... That's what's gonna mean success for Euclid Avenue. It's got to be more than just a beautiful boulevard with transit buses. You know, and I appreciate the public art component because having served on the Committee for Public Art for over ten years and one of the first four members, I totally believe that that's an important part of our society. And it's an... It should be constant and it's beginning to be recognized, I think, more and more and becoming more and more successful. And with allocations on federal projects and all given to art, it's becoming... It's beginning to be recognized, but it's an important ingredient. And I'm glad to see that they're doing, going to be doing that along Euclid, because I think that that's a very unique idea. And that's the kind of thing that I think should happen along here. I hope that the impetus is to create uniqueness. You know, it's... It shouldn't be like someplace in Pittsburgh. It shouldn't be like some Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It shouldn't be like any of those. It should be Euclid Avenue. We should find out what uniqueness and what purpose that has, and that's what we should follow through on. And so people come here and they go down the place and say, Well, gee, this is, have you ever been to Euclid Avenue? You know, it was turn of the, uh, when our city was in such a growth mode just before the turn of the century, I think it was 1870s, 1880s, it went from 12 square miles to 24 square miles but then by 1910 was the sixth largest city in the United States, you know, and Euclid Avenue was compared to Park Avenue in New York City. So there was, there was, and there was a stature. There was an excitement. There was a certain definition that street had, you know, you couldn't take it to Fairmount Boulevard, you couldn't take it somewhere else and transplant it. It was Euclid Avenue. Period. And... And that's what I think we have to find, is what Euclid Avenue needs to be.
Nina Gibans [00:27:43] Is just the most important vision for the future? What about the convention center, though?
Gerald Payto [00:27:51] Oh, I... Well, I... You're asking somebody... I was on the... When the... When the football stadium was built. That's what got me excused from the design review committee, because I think I referred to it as the giant pumpkin on the lake. And I meant that it really belonged on the N&W tracks over by the other two facilities to share parking, access, restaurants, and all the other support that the other two, the baseball and the basketball arenas had. It could have been a real sports complex and for some reason it ended up on the lakefront end and maybe I hit a sore spot. But that was the last... That was my last time on the Cleveland Design Committee or Design Review Committee. The... And I also look at the light rail and I'm a real light rail fanatic, perhaps, and I think we've been blessed with some light rail here in Cleveland. And I look at the lakefront line and wonder what it's doing because I hardly see any people on it. And yet we spent $77 million to put it in place. And I keep hoping, well, maybe someday something will happen and this will be used, but it certainly isn't being used now like it should. And we have a stadium occupying valuable lakefront property that only gets used maybe eight or ten afternoons a year. And people are looking at trying to put domes on it and whatever else to make it useful. The fact of the matter is it was in the wrong place, I think. And the airport, there's some real question as to how long that airport can survive, because I hear that it's had all sorts of financial problems and been in and out of bankruptcy. I don't know if that's true or not, but the thing is, I think we need to look at the land and decide how to use the land and how to give the land back to the people. Because I think once we decide how to use our lakefront like Chicago and Boston and some other cities have done, and I think that'll be a big asset for us. We haven't really discovered it ourselves yet, you know, in Public Square, too. I mean, I thought a lot about Public Square over the years there's been a lot of proposals from granite curbs and new benches to let's bury everything under the ground and whatever else. But the real practical thing is, I think to myself, you know, we got four quadrants that are all different and they're hardly used. And yet here's this large piece of real estate that has the same path going through it as when the city first started around Public Square and about a two-block area a long, long time ago. We really kind of have the same pattern. And you wonder if when the log cabins, the one- and two-story frame buildings where there, are we dealing with the same requirements now? And I often thought and I don't even know if it's practical or feasible, but I've often thought just for exercise my mind a bit that most of the buses and all go around the outside of the Square. What happens if you really terminated the two lanes and rerouted some of that traffic? If you had all that real estate to deal with, what would you do with it? You know, instead of a defensive thing, which is what we, how we've been dealing with Public Square is we put a little cosmetics on it and it looks great in the daylight. But the fact of the matter is, you know, how does it really work and how could it really work, you know, if that land were maybe all captured together, what would you do with it? If you... If it were a student project and you had a piece of paper, you know, every all the other infrastructure in place and you had this big square blank on the piece of paper, how would you fill it? You know, what would you do to it? You know, as an offensive way of looking at it. You know, what would, what would be the best solution for this piece of probably the most valuable piece of real estate, I would think, in Cleveland? What would you do? You know, how would you approach the problem? And it's, you know, it's I think kind of the fresh look at things that we really need to start looking at because I think whatever the vision is here, it's got to be, it should be, I think, unique. It should be a Cleveland solution. It shouldn't be emulating Pittsburgh because what worked in Pittsburgh may not work in Cleveland. You know, we got to stop copying or if they build a convention center, do we have to build a convention center? You know, I've tried to be open-minded about the convention center, but the more I read and the more I, and this is a, it's, you know, it's a bottomline decision a
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