Walking through the doors of a once-vacant building, I was completely taken by surprise: A marvelous climbing gym seemed to transport me into the vibrant canyons of the American Southwest.
Built in the 1930s, the Ohio City Masonic Arts Center was originally a fraternal hall and more recently operated as a multipurpose center for events ranging from live music to performance wrestling. Once vacated in the mid-2010s, it was exposed to vandals, looters, and the elements, contributing to its eventual dilapidation.
Now, where W. 29th Street and Franklin Boulevard meet, the Cleveland Rocks building stands revived with a new name and purpose. Cleveland Rocks is owned and operated by business and life partners Karen Thang, 34, and Kevin Wojton, 33.
The unique amenity, which had its grand opening on June 25, 2022, is the latest addition to the Ohio City neighborhood and comes amidst a wave of new apartment buildings, retail spaces, and, soon, new traffic infrastructure once the Franklin Boulevard rehabilitation project is complete.
The building combines three elements, all housed within the now-revived building: Cleveland Rocks Climbing; Cleveland Rocks Yoga Studio; and Flux Makerspace.
The climbing gym is a three-room gym featuring towering walls that top out at 54 feet tall and nearly 18,000 square feet of climbable surface. The co-op yoga studio boasts almost 1,600 square feet of space and will offer instructor-led yoga sessions to Cleveland Rocks members as well as drop-in participants. Members and passholders can also take advantage of a weight room.
Flux Makerspace is an organization that will provide a space for individuals to access a fully equipped “technology ecosystem” with an emphasis on closing the digital divide by offering scholarships to underserved groups. At its opening, Flux Makerspace will offer co-working space and tech programming, with plans to expand into a full makerspace – think 3-D printers and laser cutters – in addition to providing outreach and workshops for entrepreneurs and underrepresented demographics in the tech industry.
“Flux is working to bridge the digital divide that has been widening across race, demographics, and gender,” Thang told The Land in an email. “Flux is laser-focused on getting tech skills into as many peoples’ hands as possible, and then connecting those skilled developers with job opportunities and means to start new companies.”
The yoga studio and Flux Makerspace will launch later this year following finishing touches to those facilities.
Expanding Climbing in Cleveland
So how did this all come to be? Well, Wojton, a native of Cleveland’s east side, met Californian, Thang, while on a climbing trip in Asia. The pair have been climbing together for over a decade, and climbing took them across the United States and the globe. They have even written a book on their exploits, Climb China, that serves as a guidebook to rock climbing and traveling in China.
As the couple pursued careers across the U.S. in the tech industry and crossed the globe chasing their passion for climbing, they decided that they wanted to stop chasing climbing, and instead construct a sanctuary to ground their passion for the sport.
Having grown up in the Cleveland area, Wojton knew he wanted to make climbing more accessible to Clevelanders. Coming back to Cleveland to visit family on holidays, Thang and Wojton would keep their eyes open for a place for them to erect the business of their dreams. The two knew that the location for the gym would be crucial, and they were not willing to settle for something below their expectations. Finally, after years of searching and planning, the two discovered and purchased the Ohio City Masonic Arts Center and moved to Cleveland from New York City.
To acquire the building and finance the project, Thang told me that they leveraged a number of government-granted loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, City of Cleveland, and Cuyahoga County, along with supplemental private loans. The owners declined to share the total cost of the project with The Land.
Once the building was acquired and finances were set, the owners set in motion a full-scale plan to revive the neglected building.
From Vacancy to Vibrancy
Between the purchase date in 2018 and opening, a great deal of effort went into transforming the space into the temple of climbing it is today. Wojton said they spent a lot of time in 2018 and 2019 preparing plans and lining up contractors, trades workers, and building materials – and then in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic caused a massive disruption to their workflow. Supply-chain and labor disruptions were the biggest obstacle that they tackled, even more challenging than building a massive steel and glass atrium and vast climbing walls, says Wojton.
Today, the entrance to Cleveland Rocks is an unassuming glass door set in the plain brown stone facade. Once inside, you’re welcomed at a reception desk that serves as a central starting point for the building. Following check-in, you can proceed into one of the two climbing rooms, or you can take the grand marble staircase up to Flux Makerspace and the yoga studio or down to the weight room or bouldering room.
Cleveland Rocks memberships, day passes, and multi-visit punch passes are available at reception. Visitors can also check into climbing classes, rent climbing gear ($10), or peruse the retail shop that will offer a curated selection of climbing and outdoor gear. The shop will also sell locally made goods in a dedicated local and regional maker section. Wojton and Thang are still seeking additional vendors.
The building’s central features are the two main climbing rooms that offer a plethora of options to both beginner and expert climbers.
Stepping into the first room, I was immediately surrounded by towering, crooked walls that had sunlight beaming in from the sky and illuminating orange accented walls. Gazing up and around the walls, I felt like I had been transported into the slot canyons of southwestern Utah; this was no accident as the room was designed to be reminiscent of climbs that the owners had done outside of Moab, Utah.
All the climbing surfaces were meticulously designed by the couple, and the room’s design was based on the natural forms, flows, and movements that climbers would normally encounter in the wild, says Thang.
“The room designs are inspired by the best climbing experiences that we’ve had. To get these various types of climbing you’d have to travel to, say, Nevada or Utah. Now you don’t have to,” says Wojton.
Then we proceeded into the second room at the center of the building. The central room has the likeness of a grand cathedral, again with its towering walls and skylights illuminating the room. However, unlike the first room, you get the sense that maybe you haven’t left Cleveland.
Standing in the mezzanine overlooking the climbing gym, I noticed a familiar Rust Belt tone. Scores of rust-colored steel girders support the ceiling and skylight windows. Underneath those girders, contrasting against the sleek climbing walls, the original walls of the Masonic auditorium are still adorned by historic, now restored features. Throughout the building are intricate wooden frames, marble structures, and Masonic symbols to be found by visitors.
“There’s a lot of elements that we intentionally wanted to preserve as a kind of celebration of Cleveland,” says Thang. By deliberately leaving the “scars” of the building, the owners wanted to honor the building’s history while conveying a sense of appreciation to the building’s visitors in “history-meets-modernity type of way,” says Wojton.
Moving into view of the bouldering room and soon-to-be lounge space, we talked about how building a climbing gym was not the only thing the two have sought to build within the space. Thang and Wojton are hoping that Cleveland Rocks provides them with a foundation to build a community centered around the outdoors and personal wellness.
Reaching Out, Inviting In
One of the two main elements of their idea to cultivate the community is to engage with partners to make the building accessible to Clevelanders who do not have the opportunity to engage with the outdoors. While these efforts are still in the planning process, Wojton shared with me some of their ideas for making the space inclusive for underserved persons in the community.
“We’re trying to think about how to serve the community best. We’re looking at working with any and all partners to activate the space for the community, whether it is scholarship-based for a youth ‘code and climb’ program, or something else,” says Wojton. “We have a unique opportunity to engage the community in a way that it hasn’t been engaged before, and we hope to be in a place where we can reach out to demographics that have not traditionally had the opportunity to participate in outdoor recreation.”
By the time we had reached the lounge space, which will soon be filled with furniture, Thang had explained the other element to their vision. Cleveland Rocks is planning to lend the space to its members by allowing them to host group meetings and workshops centered around other, related outdoor activities.
“Clevelanders have many varied, tangential interests, so we don’t want this to just be a climbing gym,” she says. “We want Cleveland Rocks to be a community hub where people can share their passions, try new things, and meet new people.”
Information on passes, memberships, and tours can be found on the Cleveland Rocks website. Kevin and Karen also encourage community members to reach out to them via email with any inquiries about Cleveland Rocks.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Cleveland Rocks yoga as 16,000 square feet. It is 1,600 square feet.