By Rachel Bevel
Rendering courtesy of UCI
With its open front porch, large arched windows and hipped roof, the Cozad-Bates house at Mayfield Road and East 115th Street is an architectural gem. It’s chilling to imagine that a terrified, hungry and exhausted slave could very well have sought refuge here. Although there is no official documentation to prove that the Cozad-Bates home was a stop on the underground railroad, the Cozad-Bates family and surrounding neighbors were part of the abolitionist movement.
Now, after standing vacant for decades, the only pre-Civil War home remaining in the University Circle area is being renovated into an interpretive center that will help tell that story. Phase I of the construction process, which will be completed in the fall, will cost $1.5 million and will make the front yard, porch and portions of the interior accessible to the public. The nonprofit Restore Cleveland Hope will help to provide educational programming and volunteers.
“Phase I is the interpretive use that is under construction now, which is going to open up the pre-Civil War portion of the house with an interior exhibit that tells the story of the area where many residents were active in the underground railroad and providing assistance to freedom seekers,” says Elise Yablonsky, Planning Director for University Circle Inc. (UCI), the agency spearheading the project.
University Hospitals donated the property to UCI in 2006 with the hope of saving the home and revitalizing its rich history. It’s taken this long to renovate the property, which is recognized as a City of Cleveland Landmark and registered under the National Register of Historic Places, because of the need to fundraise and properly plan for the property’s future.
“A lot of the early dollars, which we invested half a million, were used for planning and stabilization,” says Yablonsky. “There was work to do with our community partners to figure out what was the vision for this space. There were a few different alternatives explored, including using it as office space. What we did know from the very beginning is that we wanted to have a portion of the house saved as an interpretive element to kind of tell the story of the house.”
Western Reserve Historical Society is the partner that will help bring the indoor and outdoor exhibits to life. Everything from educational signage, sustainable greenspace and outdoor learning will be included in the first phase of development, which is also guided by long-time community partner Restore Cleveland Hope, which helped save the house from demolition.
Established in 2003 by activist Joan Southgate, Restore Cleveland Hope is a community nonprofit with the mission of educating the public about the abolitionist history of Cleveland. The Cozad-Bates house will operate as an Underground Railroad education and resource center for Restore Cleveland Hope.
“When the space opens, Restore Cleveland Hope will offer their educational programs at the house and will ultimately serve as docents in the exhibit space inside,” says Yablonsky.
The Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center will help tell the story of the abolitionist movement during the era of the unprecedented Black Lives Matter racial justice movement. Cleveland was considered to be a crucial player in the anti-slavery movement. University Circle, formerly known as East Cleveland Township, was a stop on the underground railroad and many local residents sheltered slaves during their voyage to freedom.
Yablonsky says the goal is to use exhibits and educational programming as tools to connect the past with the present. Local activists and their stories will be acknowledged in the center, including Lucy Bagby, a Cleveland resident who escaped slavery but was later returned to Virginia due to the Fugitive Slave Act.
Phase II of the renovation, which is estimated to cost around $2 million, would expand amenities to patients residing in the Transplant House of Cleveland. The Transplant House is a nonprofit organization with the mission of providing affordable housing to organ transplant patients and their families. Fundraising is currently underway for Phase II, which would renovate additional portions of the house to provide living suites and community rooms for those patients.
Yablonsky says that while the exterior portion will be made accessible to visitors, it’s uncertain given Covid-19 restrictions how the indoor space will be made available to the public. It may only be open by appointment, but weekend hours are also possible. Details will be announced before the center’s opening in September.
UCI and its partners say their long-term goal in renovating the home is to preserve the hospitality narrative that began during the abolitionist movement. “This plan continues to build on an emerging Hospitality District in University Circle, with multiple organizations providing supportive housing services in this immediate area including Hope Lodge, Abington Arms, and Maximum Accessible Housing of Ohio,” says Yablonsky. “There is a really beautiful programmatic tie between the Transplant House and the histories of freedom seekers and activists on the Underground Railroad.”