Q&A: Laura DeMarco On The History Of Cleveland's 'Guardians Of Traffic'

One of Cleveland's art deco "Guardians of Traffic," holding a truck
One of Cleveland's art deco "Guardians of Traffic," holding a truck. [Cleveland State Library Special Collections]
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Cleveland's Major League Baseball team has chosen its new name. After decades of criticism that the Indians moniker was racist, team leaders announced last week that the club will go by Guardians beginning with the 2022 season.

The name is a nod to the "Guardians of Traffic," the art deco sandstone carvings that grace either end of the Hope Memorial Bridge connecting Downtown Cleveland to the Ohio City neighborhood. They're an iconic part of Cleveland's architecture, but you may not know much about them.

Ideastream Public Media's "Morning Edition" host, Amy Eddings, spoke with local author Laura DeMarco about the history of the Guardians. DeMarco is a former arts and entertainment reporter for The Plain Dealer and the author of several books about Cleveland, including "Lost Cleveland" and "Cleveland Then and Now."

Laura, before we talk about the Guardians we have to talk about the bridge. What is its history?

As Cleveland was entering the 1920s, it was really growing so rapidly. In the 20s, it would become the fifth largest city in America, nearly a million people. And at that time, there was only one high-level bridge [the Detroit-Superior Bridge] bringing people into the city. So, they really needed another way to transport people in.

By 1927, an $8 million bond had been approved to build a second high-level bridge into Downtown. It was originally supposed to be between Lorain and Central avenues, but because of the way some of the streets shifted, it ended up being between Lorain and Carnegie. Construction began in 1930 and it was completed two years later.

The bridge is 93 feet above the Cuyahoga [River] and it spans 5,865 feet. It’s steel and concrete, and it was designed by Wilber Watson & Associates, engineers, and architect Frank Walker, of the famed Walker and Weeks firm.

Obviously, it’s an engineering marvel, but Frank Walker wanted to do more than just transport people into the city. The design was obviously important to him. So, he added some extras. One of the major extras being these 43-foot towering art deco sandstone pylons which are actually called the Guardians of Traffic. They’re often referred to as the Guardians of Transportation, which I think sounds better, but the actual name is Guardians of Traffic. They were sculpted by famed sculptor Henry Hering and his studio. They were really lauded upon completion. They’re these beautiful art deco things that quite literally are meant to guard you as you exit and enter the city.

I love their look, this kind of stern visage. They hold different modes of transportation in their hands. Earlier designs had other modes of transportation. Can you tell me about that?

Some of the earlier designs actually included ships and aircrafts, and it was decided to only go with vehicles that could travel on the land. So the ones they ended up holding, a couple of them have trucks, there’s a covered wagon, a passenger car, a hay wagon, concrete mixer, even. So, they wanted to stick with things that actually could be going over the bridge.

And they were almost torn down. Tell me about that.

Yeah, this, I think, could have been one of the great travesties in Cleveland architectural history, or Cleveland history overall. In 1970, there was a [Cuyahoga] county engineer named Albert S. Porter who wanted to demolish these iconic statues. He said, ‘Those columns are monstrosities and should be torn down and forgotten.” Well, this, very fortunately, riled local preservationists who successfully lobbied to have the bridge added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the Guardians were saved. Around that same time, there was some work [that] got to be done on the bridge, including having the heavy sandstone railings replaced during a renovation. It was closed for three years. When it reopened, interestingly, it was renamed the Hope Memorial Bridge, which many of us know it as today. That’s often what it’s referred to. And this was in honor of [actor and comedian] Bob Hope and his father Harry, who was a stonemason who had worked on the bridge.

So, it has so many ties to Cleveland. The bridge. You know, Bob Hope, one of our most famous exports. And then there’s this great little story that the city banded together to save the bridge – to save the Guardians, not the bridge.

Right, the Guardians themselves. And there are eight of them, four pylons, two pylons on either end of the bridge and Guardians facing in both directions. Laura, what have you been hearing about the Guardians [as a name for Cleveland’s baseball team], and what do you think of the name?

I’ve been hearing mixed things, but overall, positive. I love the history of the Spiders but I’m glad that they [the team] didn’t go with that. That’s a little too creepy-crawly. You know the Spiders ended their season with the most losing record in baseball (20-134). They were the National League. I don’t think they would have set a good precedent. I think the Guardians are a little more positive.

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