To lure buyers, it’s common to say that a book is a “page-turner.” That’s not the case here, but nonetheless it’s well worth buying Jeannine deNobel Love’s Cleveland Architecture, 1890-1930: Building the City Beautiful, and keeping it close at hand. For anyone who lives in Cleveland or who’s interested in the arts, this is an indispensable reference.

Cleveland’s greatest period as a city occurred during the Progressive Era, when it became the fifth-largest city in the United States and generated enormous fortunes in fields like shipping, railroad, steel, mining, and oil. During this period, under progressive mayor Tom Johnson, Cleveland was also celebrated as “the best run city in the United States.” One consequence of this immense wealth and good management was a flowering of magnificent architecture, much of it classical in manner and inspired by the enormous success of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Conceived to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, the Chicago World’s Fair opened a year late, but was a spectacular success. Special white trains with porters in white suits converged on Chicago from all points. By the time it closed, the Fair had drawn 27 million visitors, nearly half the population of the United States at the time, which then stood at just a little over 62 million. Described as the Great White City, the Fair was indeed the size of a good-sized city, covering 690 acres with buildings in classical style all painted an antiseptic white, a color that clearly signified purity and cleanliness. In a stroke, it introduced a new vision of civic order: cities which were clean, orderly, and magnificent, with parks and boulevards and grand civic buildings, richly adorned with statues and classical ornament.

Cleveland was one of the first American cities to follow suit. The Chicago World’s Fair was largely constructed of perishable material—a mixture of plaster and straw, known as staff, which crumbled after a few hard winters. Cleveland constructed something similarly magnificent—but of enduring stone—by hiring Daniel H. Burnham, the principal architect of the Chicago World’s Fair, to devise an overall plan including a Federal Building, Federal Reserve Bank, courthouse, city hall, public library, board of education building, and public auditorium. Private business joined the project, and built structures such as The Union Trust Building, The Cleveland Trust Building, and the Statler Hotel. A mile from downtown, in University Circle, another classical city took form: one devoted to cultural institutions such as the Cleveland Symphony and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

These projects engaged some of the most notable architects and artists of the period: architects like Burnham, John Wellborn Root, and George Post; sculptors like Daniel Chester French; muralists like Kenyon Cox, Edwin Blashfield, Frank Millet, and Jules Guérin; as well as local figures of notable talent such as the architects Walker and Weeks, and Hubbell and Benes; the mural painter Elsa Vicks Shaw; and the sculptor Herman Matzen. While some of this work has been demolished, much of it still stands, despite Cleveland’s financial downturns, and surely it remains one of the most magnificent examples of civic planning anywhere in the United States. Interestingly, one of the most eloquent spokespersons for civic preservation was the late great Cleveland architect, Peter van Dijk, who produced masterworks in the modernist style, such as the Blossom Music Center, and who also worked hard to preserve Cleveland’s great historic legacy, both as a proponent of careful architectural renovation and as a member of the Cleveland landmarks commission. When hired to fill in the lobby of the Huntington Bank Building, for example, he protested that to do so would be a crime and worked out an ingenious scheme so that it could be saved.

This book by Jeannine deNobel Love provides the first detailed account of this architectural and artistic flowering, and of how Cleveland was transformed, rather abruptly, from a cluster of jumbled, ill-designed commercial tracts into an architecturally distinguished city. While well-written, this is not the sort of book one generally reads through from page one to the last page. It’s a guide and a reference book—and a very good one. In clear prose, based on very extensive research, she describes the evolution of these various projects and the large cast of artists who created them, who are not unlike the assemblage of creative talent needed today to make a movie. The well-chosen illustrations make it easy to follow the text. This is a book that anyone who lives in Cleveland, and cares about the city, should own.