William Blunden arrived in Cleveland in the mid 1960s, working for architects Dalton & Dalton, as well as Don Hisaka, before starting his own firm. In this 2006 interview, Blunden discusses the development and deterioration of Cleveland's Euclid Avenue and speaks more broadly on how he believes Cleveland can remain a viable city while dealing with the loss of population and business. Blunden stresses the need for strong leadership and creative ideas in carrying out new development plans that take advantage of the city's many assets. He also is critical of what he sees as the wasteful and uneconomical demolition of old buildings, arguing for preservation and rehabilitation of such structures. Blunden talks briefly about some of his own work and also points out the importance of supporting Cleveland's architectural community, calling on Cleveland's leaders to use local architects more readily.
Blunden, William (interviewee)
Gibans, Nina (interviewer); Yanoshik-Wing, Emma (participant)
American Institute of Architects
"William Blunden Interview, September 29 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951016.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Nina Gibans [00:00:00] We can start. I'm Nina Gibans, and this is Bill Blunden. So the start point really is how you got into the architecture, your architecture career you were in. But maybe how you were, where you were brought up, born?
William Blunden [00:00:24] I was, I was born in Lima, Ohio, on the west side of the state.
Nina Gibans [00:00:29] Railroad town.
William Blunden [00:00:30] A railroad town, an interesting combination of economies. There was a rural economy there, a very strong farm economy. There was an industrial economy. Lima Locomotive was an old, old firm that turned into a tank plant during World War II. Westinghouse was there and Lubrizol, and it was a fairly interesting mix town of about 45,000 when I was there. And very much smalltown America in the '40s and '50s. And it was, you know, screen doors weren't locked, houses weren't locked. You didn't lock your car. Children went and played wherever they wanted to.
Nina Gibans [00:01:16] Have you been back?
William Blunden [00:01:18] I go back. Yes. I have, still have relatives there and no immediate family.
Nina Gibans [00:01:24] Has it changed a lot?
William Blunden [00:01:24] Oh, yes, as all the small towns in America have changed, sadly, and the car has waged its war and won. And so the center of the town is not as viable as it used to be and the outskirts are full of big-box stores.
Nina Gibans [00:01:48] And I have to ask you, are the sounds of the railroads still in the public area downtown?
William Blunden [00:01:55] Yes, they are.
Nina Gibans [00:01:56] That was built.
William Blunden [00:01:56] Yes.
Nina Gibans [00:01:58] That was an artist who came to Cleveland later, who actually grew up in Little Italy and who brought the sounds of the boats and bridges, trucks and so forth out to, you know, where the children's museum?
William Blunden [00:02:15] Yeah.
Nina Gibans [00:02:16] By cable television, I mean, you know, telephone. That was a project.
William Blunden [00:02:23] Yeah. Well. The, the...
Nina Gibans [00:02:25] All right. So continue.
William Blunden [00:02:26] So it was a, it was a smalltown experience, which I loved. I think I had probably one of the most carefree and wonderful growing up periods in my life. I had the privilege of going to high school and college in the '50s, which was a very special time, in my view. America still had a certain degree of innocence. And...
Nina Gibans [00:02:52] Where did you go to college?
William Blunden [00:02:53] I went to... My undergraduate education was at Ohio State, and my graduate school education was at Cornell. And in between then I served for two years in the Army, in Army Intelligence, the Counterintelligence Corps, and I was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco for two years. Went back to Ithaca, New York, and was there for two years and then moved to New York City. And I was there for about four years. I worked for Edward Durell Stone and then moved to Cleveland.
Nina Gibans [00:03:34] Right. The Cornell architecture had its influence...
William Blunden [00:03:40] Well, I think...
Nina Gibans [00:03:41] On the environment.
William Blunden [00:03:41] That... I think the, you know, the influences I've had in my life have been many. I started... I decided I was going to be an architect when I was twelve years old. I had a drafting board and all T squares, and I was drafting, and drawing houses, and buildings in my bedroom when I was twelve years old. Unfortunately, at the expense of doing other homework. But... And when I was at Ohio State, I actually... And I started out in the architectural school and I took a year out because I wanted to spend a year in the art school. So I spent a year in the fine arts and then went back into architecture, graduated from Ohio State in 1958. Spent two years in the Army and then went back to graduate school in 1960. And that was a two-year experience as well.
Nina Gibans [00:04:42] Were you there at the same time Bill Morris was there?
William Blunden [00:04:45] No. Bill was ahead of me, and he was... I only met him when I moved to Cleveland.
Nina Gibans [00:04:55] Right.
William Blunden [00:04:56] Yeah.
Nina Gibans [00:04:57] So you came to Cleveland.
William Blunden [00:04:58] I came to Cleveland.
Nina Gibans [00:04:59] So let's talk about that path.
William Blunden [00:05:04] Well, I was actually from New York. I could have moved anywhere.
Nina Gibans [00:05:11] Who did you work for in New York?
William Blunden [00:05:12] Ed Stone. Edward Durell Stone. And I could have moved anywhere. And I explored Philadelphia and Boston and felt that at the time I visited those cities, their renaissance is already, had already started. And I came to Cleveland and it looked like Cleveland's was about to start. And I felt that that was probably a good sign and a good place to come to. And I had a lot of friends who lived in Ohio. I grew up... Growing up here and going to undergraduate school here, I had a lot of friends. And I thought that was a bonus as well.
Nina Gibans [00:05:56] Well. Maybe we haven't explored the major influences on your career...
William Blunden [00:06:02] Okay.
Nina Gibans [00:06:02] As much as we thought.
William Blunden [00:06:03] Okay. I think that certainly I had a couple of teachers in high school that actually encouraged me, and they actually. I took some architectural drawing classes in high school as part of the industrial arts program, although I was in a college prep course. I spun off and they allowed me to do that. There were only two of us in the program, and I worked as an office boy in an architectural firm in Lima: McLaughlin and Kyle. And that was, I was in the eighth grade, and I did that for several years off and on, and actually worked for them after I'd gone to college, worked for them in the summer, a couple of summers. But I had a couple of teachers in high school that encouraged me. One was my art teacher, Mrs. Simpson, and she was just wonderful. I ended up, when I moved to Cleveland, living across the street from her sister. So it's a small world, but she encouraged me. Then I went to Ohio State, and I had several professors there that encouraged me, George Tittle and Harry Filion, and they were very supportive and... But I felt that Ohio State at that time, and still is, the architectural school's in the engineering college, and they gave us a very strong background in the technical and craft of building. And I just felt I needed more design experience and exposure. And that's why I went back to Cornell. And there I met two professors that were, that really changed my life. Henry Elder, who was an Englishman, who had taught at the AA. And Mario Romanach, who was from Cuba and had just left everything he owned and exited Cuba. Went to Harvard, taught there for a couple of years. He and Gropius were friends. And then from there he went to Cornell, and he was there during my time. And shortly after I graduated, he moved to Philadelphia and became part of the Penn faculty and was there for 20, 25 years. At one time he was the dean of the school. And both of those people just changed my life. They. Henry Elder was an intellectual, and, and he guided me on in that, that path. And Mario was a designer and he was a man who illustrated to me that you could devote your life to that. And it was worthy, it was a worthy cause. And coming from a midwestern practical experience, few people talk to me about the fact that, that art and the, and the, the need for art was a was a legitimate life endeavor. And so between the two of them, they really set me on my path.
Nina Gibans [00:09:38] That's right. So when you came to Cleveland, finally, you mentioned where you lived. But where was that?
William Blunden [00:09:45] In New York?
Nina Gibans [00:09:46] No, here.
William Blunden [00:09:46] Oh, here. I moved here. Originally, lived in Shaker Heights for 26 years or something like that. I now live in Cleveland Heights.
Nina Gibans [00:09:56] And what year did you come here?
William Blunden [00:09:59] I came here in 1965, I believe, or '66. I'm very bad on dates.
Nina Gibans [00:10:07] In the '60s?
William Blunden [00:10:08] Yes, in the '60s. Middle '60s? Yeah.
Nina Gibans [00:10:11] So what was going on and how did you enter the world of architecture here?
William Blunden [00:10:17] Well, I actually came here to to take a job. I had interviewed with Dalton-Dalton. And I was here about six months. And I was I was ready to go back to New York. I wasn't satisfied. And an individual in the in Dalton's office said, well, why don't you go down and talk to Don Hisaka? And so I went down and, and Don and I hit it off and I left Dalton-Dalton. And went to work for Don. And we had a grand time. I was there for seven years, I believe. And it was it was fabulous. We had great fun. We had a lot of interesting work to do, and it was a wonderful experience. Don is a great teacher and I learned a lot from him as well.
Nina Gibans [00:11:16] Do you think we should interview Don in this project since he worked on Euclid Avenue and since he had one of the few Cleveland buildings that was nationally recognized?
William Blunden [00:11:29] Yeah, I certainly think that he's an important part of the, of the...
Nina Gibans [00:11:32] That was something I wanted to ask you about, interviewing him by phone. He's in San Francisco area.
William Blunden [00:11:39] Yeah, he's, he's... You know, he, he played a very, I think, a key role in elevating the, again, elevating the expectations for what a building should be. And I think that... And he was one of those guiding lights, in my view. He was the guiding light in Cleveland as far as doing that.
Nina Gibans [00:12:09] I've had a lot of conversation with him recently. He's just retiring. He's out in San Francisco area, Berkeley. And maybe he'll come back here next year with the Cleveland Goes Modern.
William Blunden [00:12:22] Oh, great.
Nina Gibans [00:12:23] So, Don, that's where I know you.
William Blunden [00:12:29] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:12:29] I first got to know you.
William Blunden [00:12:29] Yes.
Nina Gibans [00:12:33] So in developing Euclid Avenue and the development of Euclid Avenue, obviously you weren't in Cleveland during, you know, the old days.
William Blunden [00:12:46] No.
Nina Gibans [00:12:46] So to speak.
William Blunden [00:12:47] However.
Nina Gibans [00:12:48] However.
William Blunden [00:12:49] My father was.
Nina Gibans [00:12:50] Oh.
William Blunden [00:12:52] He was a... Prior to World War I, he was nineteen years old. His brother had left the farm and moved here and was working in a machine shop. And he came here and worked with him. And he basically worked off of what is like a UPS truck. It was a delivery truck and he delivered things to all the mansions on Euclid Avenue.
Nina Gibans [00:13:17] What was that like?
William Blunden [00:13:18] Oh. He said that it...
Nina Gibans [00:13:20] Did you accompany him?
William Blunden [00:13:20] No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Nina Gibans [00:13:21] Oh, this is before.
William Blunden [00:13:22] Yes, this is before I even was on this planet. Now, this... He was only nineteen years old.
Nina Gibans [00:13:28] Oh, okay.
William Blunden [00:13:28] He was here for, I don't know, maybe a year, a year and a half, and then went into World War I. [And] then never came back. But, but he has told me about his experiences in driving a truck.
Nina Gibans [00:13:43] Would you like to tell us some of those experiences?
William Blunden [00:13:45] Well, they're really not... I don't, I don't know that there, there's an architectural connection. I mean, the truck driver evidently liked to stop at all the bars and drink, and he'd have to sit in the truck and wait for him since he was the number two guy. So. Yeah. He said that that made him a bit mad because he could get, they could have gotten their runs a lot earlier, finished a lot earlier. And he could have gone home. But no, he had to sit in the truck and wait for this guy to go hit every bar on Euclid Avenue that was or wherever they were. But he did talk a little bit about the mansions and how many there were and what a, what a place it was.
Nina Gibans [00:14:21] So he would have delivered to all those mansions?
William Blunden [00:14:23] He, he would have delivered packages.
Nina Gibans [00:14:25] Do you know if it would have been a horse driven truck?
William Blunden [00:14:27] No, it was a truck, truck.
Nina Gibans [00:14:28] It was a truck, truck.
William Blunden [00:14:28] Yeah. Gasoline.
Nina Gibans [00:14:31] Right. Probably made in Cleveland.
William Blunden [00:14:33] Probably made in Cleveland.
Nina Gibans [00:14:35] Well, that's fun. Is there anything you want to say more about that?
William Blunden [00:14:42] No, I think that's...
Nina Gibans [00:14:44] Right, because those mansions.
William Blunden [00:14:45] It was just an aside.
Nina Gibans [00:14:46] Those mansions are history, legacy gone. So how do you feel about that, that you never got to really experience them?
William Blunden [00:14:56] Well, I, you know, I think it's interesting because Americans have very short attention spans. And you go to Europe, and there is a sense of the whole continuity of time playing out. And we tend to, you know, build and then tear down. A typical example is the student union building at CSU. This building, Don Hisaka did this building. In my view, it's the best building on the campus. And it's, it's one of the best modern buildings in the downtown area. And they're going to tear it down and they're going to put up a new student union building. And I find it hard to understand the logic for doing that.
Nina Gibans [00:15:51] Well, that's why. Did you have any part of that?
William Blunden [00:15:54] Yes, I did. I was working.
Nina Gibans [00:15:56] Well, let's get into that a bit.
William Blunden [00:15:56] I was working in the office when, when they were doing the building. I left right after the major part of the design was done. I had, Don and I were separating. And I went to work for another firm here in town as a, as director of design. And I was only there two years and I started my own office. But I, it was an interesting process. It's a very difficult site. And the resolution that I think that that Don came up with was very, very pragmatic. But it was also wonderful in the fact that the, the spaces that are created and the relationships of the spaces and how the building fits on that site are wonderful. Some people complain that it's a concrete building, but you know, that isn't, that is not the heart of the building. Heart of the building is inside.
Nina Gibans [00:17:00] Well, the issues have the ones that I've read about it anyway are the ones that are about facing Euclid Avenue and energy consumption. And I know about the sound in the main part.
William Blunden [00:17:15] Yes.
Nina Gibans [00:17:15] Which is not different from the old arcade.
William Blunden [00:17:19] Right. I mean, you know, it we get so used to buildings with eight foot ceilings and acoustic tile in the ceiling and tile on the floor. And this becomes our standard. And we, we assume that everything should be like this. I find it to be a wonderful building and quite uplifting when you walk into it. And the other things, I think that, you know, some of the considerations of, of energy and things like that are, are addressable. And I think you can address those. I think it's. I don't, I can't speak for what the what all the reasons are, but I have not been convinced. And there's nothing that I've read that is tells me or says to me it's compelling. It is a compelling reason to tear that building down.
Nina Gibans [00:18:14] Let me ask you an architectural question that bothers me. Why might not, except for the political reasons of going back to your original architect, why would they not go back to an architect as well respected, say, as Hisaka? And ask for his renovations?
William Blunden [00:18:43] I think that what happens, at least in my experience, is that if an architect works, particularly in an institutional setting, works for an administration, then they become associated with that administration. And each administration wants to make its own mark, have its own signature on things. And so they, they tend not to do that or it's been my experience that they tend not to do that. We have been involved in projects with institutions in the city where the administrations have changed and we have been able to continue that continuity. But at some point, it always ends. There's always a change in administration, no matter how many years you might be involved, and 15, 20 years they'll come a time when an administration will come in and they just want to make their own signature.
Nina Gibans [00:19:34] Change.
William Blunden [00:19:35] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:19:35] Right. Just because they need to make their own mark.
William Blunden [00:19:38] They, they feel they need to make their own mark. And, you know, that's just the way the world works.
Nina Gibans [00:19:47] Right. I guess I wish it weren't quite that way.
William Blunden [00:19:50] Well, I'd be, I'd be happy if they just, you know, if they're going to do it, at least keep it in the city. You know, we don't need to go to New York. We don't need to go to Boston. You know, we don't need to go to L.A. There's plenty of talent here that can tackle those problems.
Nina Gibans [00:20:13] Well, we know that some of our architects are working around the world from Cleveland. So there's no reason they shouldn't work in Cleveland.
William Blunden [00:20:21] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:20:21] It's really one of the, one of the issues.
William Blunden [00:20:24] Well, if they don't work in Cleveland, if Cleveland turns its back on its architectural community, as far as projects are concerned, then the architecture community is going to, it's going to die. It's going to be, it's going to be basically is what will be left is basically a service community. It's like the art community, music community. If you don't support the local talent, it leaves because it can't sustain itself here. And so it's very important. It seems to me that both the city and the state take a hard look at employing the talent that it has and building on that talent, not turning its back and going to New York. For someone who's going to come in here for a year and leave and never be heard of again. And so their commitment and their... I'm not saying that they don't professionally perform their responsibilities, but the commitment to that and the, and the passion for that. Their investment in that is not nearly as great as people who are living here and making and trying make their lives.
Nina Gibans [00:21:42] I want to make a leap with that idea, an analogy to the corporate community, for instance, that has lost some, some of its leadership. The corporate, you know, headquarters that were in Cleveland. Might have to do with what's happened since the time you came actually to the city. And it's bearing on the vision of the city. So can we do that?
William Blunden [00:22:15] Sure. Absolutely.
Nina Gibans [00:22:16] I mean, it's an analogy I think that works.
William Blunden [00:22:18] Absolutely.
Nina Gibans [00:22:19] About commitment.
William Blunden [00:22:20] Sure.
Nina Gibans [00:22:22] Sustainability and energy and all that kind of thing.
William Blunden [00:22:25] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:22:25] And maintenance and supervision and...
William Blunden [00:22:29] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:22:30] Caring and all those good things. So. Have you a favorite building on Euclid Avenue? And can we start with anything like that? Have you?
William Blunden [00:22:43] I have. The only building that I've been involved with on Euclid Avenue as far as an architectural project is concerned, is the CSU center. And I was in Don's office at that time. However, I, our offices for close to 27 years were in the Arcade. And I think that that building is a jewel and thank goodness that I came along and put 50 million or whatever it was into the building because we know what's going to be there for a while. It was badly in need of, of repair and upgrade. But it is, you know, in my view, it's the jewel of Cleveland. And it sets a standard for urban space. It sets a standard for the way it responds to people. I think it's a wonderful, wonderful building. And it does everything buildings should do. It excites. It, it enlivens. It, it is joyous to be in. And it's just it's a marvelous building, marvelous building. And...
Nina Gibans [00:23:57] I couldn't agree more.
William Blunden [00:23:59] You know, certainly the, the... And as you go along Euclid Avenue, it's the old buildings that stand out. The new ones, with the exception of Don's, the new ones just don't quite go there. [They] don't seem to respond to the issues that the other older buildings responded to. Obviously, times are different, issues are different. But I think there's still a consistency and a demand for what these old buildings did. The the little corner building at East 9th and Euclid, Cleveland Trust, little dome building there. As I was walking down today, I was looking at that and just marveling at it and, and absolutely dumbfounded as to why there isn't anybody in that building. Why? Why? How could someone not want to be in there? Obviously, there are reasons and I don't know what they are, but I'm always amazed.
Nina Gibans [00:25:07] it makes me think about the Breuer situation.
William Blunden [00:25:09] With the tower? Well, here again, you know, are we going to build buildings and then every thirty years tear them down? Start over again? That's a really a waste of of resources, in my view. We can. If, if we've got enough money to tear that building down and build a new one, why don't we leave that building and build a new one somewhere else? And, you know, then we've got both buildings. I can't believe that a building, though, that's less than fifty years old can possibly be outdated. When we have buildings that are 100 years old and Euclid Avenue, there are still viable buildings. I, I just.
Nina Gibans [00:25:46] They aren't dated. They are dated in a way, but in a classic way.
William Blunden [00:25:50] Yeah. And so, anyway, I think that this rush to destroy or to tear down and build new I think is questionable. I find, I find it hard to believe that that really makes economic sense. Now, I realize, again, I don't have all the issues that are out there and all the reasons for it, but you just can't. You know, otherwise you're going to be rebuilding the same buildings and you're not going to be doing anything else if you tear them down every thirty years, the buildings you build, you'll have no resources to do anything else.
Nina Gibans [00:26:32] Is that a problem with our vision and working it out?
William Blunden [00:26:34] I think so. I think so. You know, I. I don't know whether I'm getting ahead of you or not, but it seems to me that, that the, the problem Cleveland has had is [the] focus of the leadership to the, to the urban core. And it has been development here has been one that I would call opportunity driven as opposed to planned.
Nina Gibans [00:27:15] Lord knows, we've had plans though.
William Blunden [00:27:17] Oh we've planned to say, I don't know how many Euclid Avenue times we've planned Euclid Avenue. Halpern has been here at least twice, and there have been other people in between. Public Square gets studied every ten years and it goes. It's it's the same thing that I talked about tearing down buildings, believe me. Keep studying these same things. Public Square is the front door of Cleveland. Doesn't need to be anything else than that. It's not a destination center. It's a... It's a transportation center. [It's] the front door of the city, the parks and the traffic patterns. People seem to have a lot of problems with and I don't have problems with them. It is unique. Well, are we going to make it look like something everybody else has? This is a unique feature in Cleveland, the four quadrangle. The way the streets work around it, but it is a front door. It's a visual element. [It's] like the gateway to the Forbidden City or any sort of entry point. It is symbolic to put it. There was an article in the paper several weeks ago about, oh, we need to make it a destination and we're going to put in a theater and we're going to put in a restaurant in the quad. That would be absolutely, that would destroy what its purpose is and it wouldn't attract people.
Nina Gibans [00:28:41] Do you see it from your window?
William Blunden [00:28:43] I do see it from my window, absolutely.
Nina Gibans [00:28:45] And, and...
William Blunden [00:28:47] And it's lovely.
Nina Gibans [00:28:48] Yeah. Oh.
William Blunden [00:28:49] Lovely. [And] it's wonderful to watch the light change during the seasons and watch the trees. And so I think Public Square is fine. And let's, you know, every ten years they plant new trees. And so all we have are these trees that are in the process of growing. We don't have any mature trees. We need to get something. We just leave it. We do it, we leave it alone. We live with it. And we hopefully have been thoughtful enough about it that it will last for 150 years.
Nina Gibans [00:29:21] So we've talked about the traffic pattern and I can visualize past the sculpture and the history of those pieces that are on the Square. But what about other buildings? What about... You're in the Terminal, right?
William Blunden [00:29:36] I, we're in the BP tower. You know, the thing that, that the Public Square needs is it needs to fill in the blank on the west side of the Square with whatever that is. It should not be a parking garage. It needs to be a building. It needs to be something that...
Nina Gibans [00:29:58] You mean opposite the, opposite the Stouffer? Not Stouffer.
William Blunden [00:30:02] Yeah.
Nina Gibans [00:30:02] The hotel.
William Blunden [00:30:02] The Renaissance. Yeah. It's filling in the, the... What would be the northwest corner...
Nina Gibans [00:30:09] Right.
William Blunden [00:30:09] Where the west side of the Square opposite the hotel.
Nina Gibans [00:30:12] Didn't Peter Lewis try to do that at one point?
William Blunden [00:30:14] No, he had a building that he wanted to put down on the lakefront next to...
Nina Gibans [00:30:18] I see. Okay.
William Blunden [00:30:18] Next to the city hall or county building. I can't remember.
Nina Gibans [00:30:21] So you would, you would fill that space, right?
William Blunden [00:30:24] Yes. That should be filled. And there was a, you know, when was it... Ten years ago, they tore down the buildings that were there because they had intended to build a tower and then the economy went south and, and that... Those plans were put aside and they've never been revisited.
Nina Gibans [00:30:43] What about the restorations of some of the spaces there?
William Blunden [00:30:48] I think that, you know, again, I think that the old buildings are wonderful. We need to keep them. We need to have a sense of elapsed time in our city. We need to see that continuity [of] growth and change. It connects us to the, to the past and, and I think inspires us to the future. We, we... All the things that are new, all the things that we create are created from something that already exists, whether it's knowledge or, or an object or whatever. And so if we eliminate all the things that have existed, we're destroying a lot of what our inspiration is built from.
Nina Gibans [00:31:38] What about the Euclid Avenue development?
William Blunden [00:31:42] Well, I'm, you know, I'm happy that we're doing that. My concern is that I don't think that in itself is going to make the city any much different. It's going to change some traffic patterns. It's going to separate bus and automobile traffic. It's a, it's a transportation-driven project that has some beautification associated with it. The thing that Cleveland lacks, in my view, is that it's just lax and its economy has been just, just destroyed. And you've mentioned it earlier that the move of the corporate headquarters out of Cleveland, and you could list them and it'd fill a couple of pages. When I moved here, we were the, I think, first or second corporate headquarters...
Nina Gibans [00:32:36] Right.
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