In 1900 Cleveland had a population of 381,786. Much of it was crowded into neighborhoods surrounding factories and other sources of employment. Parks and green spaces were largely at the periphery of the city and playgrounds – outside the schoolyard – were largely unknown. Lower Woodland Avenue (the area near today’s CCC campus) was its most crowded neighborhood and one of the oldest in the city. In 1896 it would become the home of Hiram House, a progressive-era social settlement that sought to better conditions in America’s increasingly diverse urban centers. Settlements offered English-language classes and a variety of other classes, sponsored clubs, taught citizenship, and campaigned for political and social change.
George Bellamy, the settlement’s founder, made certain that Hiram House engaged in all these areas, but his real focus was on recreation and youth. For Bellamy playgrounds were critical. Not only did they take the children off of dangerous streets (not quite as dangerous as they would become when autos became common) but they offered a controlled area where young people could be taught fair play, social deportment skills, and made into good citizens. He would become a major figure in the national playground movement in the early 1900s.
When Hiram House opened a new, large, four-story building at 27th and Orange Avenue, the area behind the building, which fronted on Woodland Avenue, was purchased with a donation from Samuel Mather in order to be turned into a playground. A gated brick wall separated it from the busy street. It was a closed space where play could be supervised. The climbing bars and other apparatus, along with open area for games and sports were an absolute attractant for children in the area. Today’s safety experts would be appalled by some of the apparatus – extremely high with no soft area to cushion a fall!
During summer vacation, the playground became the home of “Progress City” where children were groomed to be good, hardworking citizens. They took responsibility for cleaning the playground and areas in the settlement building and were paid with Progress City money which they could spend at the Progress City store which was stocked with goods donated by area merchants. They also elected a mayor and representatives to govern the youthful community. It was a good experiment, but in some ways it too closely mirrored urban politics of the time – some candidates for office were found to be paying for votes with Progress City money!
This pioneer playground of Cleveland would endure through neighborhood changes until operations ceased at the main building in 1941. Today Hiram House Camp in Moreland Hills continues the tradition of offering play, and other life-building experiences for young people. Its “High and Low Ropes” course provides continuity with the apparatus on the playground – but it was light years ahead in terms of safety. And, today, the history of Hiram House lives on its archives preserved in our research library.