Back to the Drawing Board: John C. Williams

The view from SPACES, looking east along Detroit Road.

After high-profile projects like the Cleveland Trust Building’s transformation into a grocery store, and with BAYarts’ adaptive re-use of the former Huntington Playhouse in the works, John Williams looks back—and forward.

by Jeff Hagan

John C. Williams does not consider himself an architect. He jokes that he accidentally signed up for his first architecture course because in the course catalog he saw ARCH and thought it was archery. He had to take calculus three times before finally passing it. What Williams does, he says, is solve problems. What he is, is a designer. The name of his firm, Process Creative Studio—which will celebrate a quarter century in the business of problem solving and designing this spring—doesn’t mention the A-word.

That might come as a surprise to his clients, who have entrusted him to work on some of Cleveland’s highest profile projects, including Dobama Theatre, the observation deck of Terminal Tower, the Silver Grille restaurant, and two galleries—the artist-initiated Spaces, and the Transformer Station—which abut West 29th street a block apart on Cleveland’s Near West side. Already known as a designer (and, in fact, a genuine, licensed architect) able to sensitively transform or restore historic spaces and structures, and already retained by Heinen’s grocery store chain for a variety of its design needs, Williams saw these two facts come together with perhaps the highest of high-profile projects: the transformation of the disused and abused, century-old Cleveland Trust building into a showcase store for the family-owned chain. It was such an audacious undertaking that Williams thought the usually-serious Jeff Heinen, one of the company’s co-presidents, was joking. Grocery stores are these days gigantic boxes surrounded by an ocean of traffic-accommodating asphalt. This building was locked down like a Lego into a busy downtown Cleveland corner—not a promising location for a business that requires loading docks and space for large trucks to maneuver—and its interior included a soaring rotunda. One more thing: It was a beloved and iconic, historically-protected structure buried under janky layers of half-assed modifications that valued convenience over, well, everything else. “My thought wasn’t, ‘How beautiful,’” says Williams. “It was, ‘How does a semi load of produce get to the rotunda?’”

Williams’ prior projects include adaptive re-use of the historic Cleveland Trust rotunda as a Heinen’s grocery store.

The Heinen’s project was a huge, attention-getting success for Williams. You know you’ve made a splash when time with you is auctioned off for a nonprofit fundraiser. Even Aaron Burr—okay, the man who played Aaron Burr in Hamilton—heaped praise in a Tweet. The celebration of Williams’ work perhaps reached a crescendo with two presentations, roughly one year apart: the 2018 midcareer Cleveland Arts Prize award for—yep—architecture, and, perhaps as important to Williams, induction into the Distinguished Alumni Gallery of Success of Amherst, Ohio’s, Marion L. Steele High School, where Williams was a C student and the only one of his family’s five children not to make it into the National Honor Society.

Williams says that as a child he worked hard on the school subjects he cared about and hardly worked on anything else. Instead of doing his homework, he read for hours each night and journeyed around and beyond Amherst on his bike, sometimes trekking the eight miles to explore the cultural offerings of Oberlin College. He did his first 100-mile ride when he was 11 years old. He knew what he wanted and did that. He was already designing his life.

Leading up to the Gallery of Success event, Williams organized a multi-day pilgrimage during which he and a close friend stopped by his former family home and explored the haunts of his youth. On the eve of the ceremony, he assembled a group of people for dinner at the Hotel at Oberlin. These were people important to him from his early years, including members of the Lyle family, whose matriarch, Doris, Williams credits for introducing him to a life of culture. A musician who not long ago reunited his trio the Godot Quartet, Williams followed dinner by taking his friends to see the Punch Brothers at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel, where a younger Williams had seen acts like the Roches.

It’s possible that all the retrospection generated between the bookends of the high school honor and the mid-career nod from Cleveland’s art community may have led to a certain amount of introspection. He hinted at this shift in the conclusion of his arts prize acceptance speech, when he said, “Things are changing. I’m going in a slightly different direction. Stay tuned.”

“I love my job, I love architecture, I love design,” says Williams. “But I’ve run a business for 25 years. I didn’t go to school for business.”

Elevation drawing for BAYarts’s renovation of a former theatre building, located in the Huntington Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks.

Williams has slowly but deliberately allowed the Process Creative staff to shrink from a one-time high of eight to its current staff of two. He would like to return to drawing and design. He was chosen to design the expansion of BAYarts with the renovation of the theater building that once housed Huntington Playhouse, and he’s also taken on a couple of residential projects—both his own residences.

Despite his dexterity hurdling the parapets, walls and historic preservation requirements of century-old structures, Williams is a thoroughly modern modernist. Those who saw the home he custom designed for himself (and his cats and dog) in the Ambler Heights neighborhood of Cleveland Heights don’t doubt him. Because it’s stylish and makes a statement, the home plays nice with its fancy—but decidedly more established—neighbors, be they Old Money homes or the two oak trees that dominate the lot. Williams built it with the intention of living in it for five years, even though he stocked it with features—a library that fits his 1,300-volume collection of photography books, a glass-cube pop-out cat hangout, a cabinet for the whiskeys he keeps for company—designed around his specific wants. Even still, Williams recently decided to sell the house only three years in, to someone who loved it at first sight. A rescuer of feral cats, Williams spotted what he considered a feral home a half-mile or so away, which he hopes to nurture back to good health. A sprawling 1970s sore thumb among stately homes off of Fairmount, the house has a distinctive Mike Brady vibe and a perplexing footprint loosely approximating an L. Williams is not bothered by a challenge or by change.

Another project Williams has taken on that had perhaps suffered a little benign neglect in the last quarter century is John Williams. He sees his designs as storytelling—such as a vestibule that leads into the narrative that unfolds as a person moves through the house. At age 59, Williams realizes he is considered to be mid-career only according to the jurors of the Cleveland Arts Prize and the career of fellow arts prize honoree Robert P. Madison, the groundbreaking architect still active at age 96.

Williams approaches this project like any other, with the kind of process that gave his firm its name: a great deal of thoughtful exploration and deliberation before decision-making. In the same notebook that holds a variety of drawings and diagrams is a (so far) 22-item list of who or what he is (musician, animal rescuer, and gandy dancer make the list, as does architect). He is literally asking himself, “Who am I? What am I doing? What story do I tell?”

Williams says he was partly inspired on this path after watching Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, in which the Boss recalls the challenge of starting out with a blank page.

“I got to the point where the highlight reel has been awesome,” he says. “I couldn’t have scripted this—to be able to do the projects I’ve done.”

“But how do you create a blank sheet now? What we struggle with starting out—how do I replicate that now?”

As John Williams designs this next stage of his life, and considering what he’s done so far, it’s worth heeding his own words: Stay tuned.