During our first summer living in Ohio, we were invited to join new friends for an afternoon boating on Lake Erie. As we departed Whiskey Island Marina, a building on the shoreline caught my eye. A chalky-white lighthouse attached to a small complex of buildings in a minimalist art deco style. I didn’t have my camera with me and I couldn’t later identify the building through my misguided Google searches for “Cleveland lighthouse.” It was a mystery and I had to get back there for a closer look.
Almost exactly a year later we again took a boat out on Lake Erie and this time I was ready, armed with my camera and prepared to investigate this architectural beauty. I now know this building as Cleveland Coast Guard Station #219. The former coast guard post and registered National Historic Landmark was built in 1940 to replace the original, 1897-built Life Saving station located at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.
The Station was designed by J. Milton Dyer, a prominent Ohio architect who also designed Cleveland City Hall. Pennsylvania born Dyer relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1881. There he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Technology before attending the Lécole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1900. He returned to Cleveland where he lived and worked until his passing. Dyer does not appear to have had a signature architectural style and moved between Tudor-Revival, Beaux Arts, Neoclassical and even Art Moderne, depending on what he felt appropriate for a specific project.
Art moderne (or streamline moderne) style, is a minimalist form of art deco that arrived late in the artistic movement as a response to the onset of the depression. The streamline style was inspired by the efficient forms of cars, ships and aeroplanes. The style emphasized horizontal lines with rounded edges and flat rooves. Windows were often round like portholes or in horizontal bands, commonly placed in corners. The buildings had smooth, usually stucco, exterior walls in white or other light neutrals. Trims, balustrades and frames used utilitarian materials such as aluminium, chrome and stainless steel.
Dyer employed art moderne to design a three-building complex that represented a river vessel. The Station consists of a boathouse, garage and main building featuring a 60ft lookout tower. The main building originally housed a communications room, mess hall, recreation room, storerooms, crew and staff quarters. The building does indeed rise out of the low-rise land like a boat. At a distance, the only hint of the ground beneath is a large tree next to the Station’s lookout tower. Coast Guard Station #219 also became the only one of its kind, as World War II halted further proposed towers along Lake Erie’s Ohio shores. The Station was headquarters for the commanding officer and crew of the U.S. Coast Guard through to 1976. Apart from one season as a nightclub in the 1980s, the complex was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
For over a decade, Cleveland residents campaigned and raised money for the Coast Guard Station’s restoration. One of these residents is Pat Conway co-owner of Great Lakes Brewing Co. The company is host of the Burning River Fest which since 2009 has been held on the Station site. Proceeds of the Festival are contributed to the restoration of the Station. As I wander around the former Coast Guard base in 2017 it is evident much has been done to breathe life back into the art moderne gem. The roof and windows have been replaced and the 100-ft pier accessing the site repaired. A well-tended flower garden centres the porte-cochere with the American and MetroParks flags flying above.