Longtime businesses – galleries, retailers and restaurants – coupled with an infusion of festivals help Larchmere maintain its status as an arts capital of Northeast Ohio
By Jonah L. Rosenblum
Larchmere, a district that has long stood out for its arts and antiques, as well as its lack of chain stores, has maintained its identity – and charm – even in the face of tremendous change in its surrounding neighborhoods.
That’s largely a good thing.
It hasn’t experienced the infusion of renowned restaurants that its neighbor, Shaker Square, has, nor has there been an Uptown-like building boom like that of nearby University Circle. But neither has it experienced the decline that Buckeye, a once-thriving Hungarian neighborhood, has over the years.
Instead, Larchmere has maintained its spot as an arts capital of Northeast Ohio.
“It is perpetually changing and forever the same,” says Harriett Logan, who has owned Loganberry Books on Larchmere Boulevard for the last 21 years.
She says the neighborhood, which straddles Cleveland’s eastern border and Shaker Heights, has been “up and coming” for a long time – “we’ve been on that ledge for decades” – and has somehow remained on that ledge.
However, the addition of annual festivals like Larchmere PorchFest, the Larchmere Festival and the Holiday Stroll in recent years, and the 2014 completion of an artistic streetscape project overseen by LAND Studio, suggest positive momentum that may just help push the neighborhood over that ledge.
Just ask Larchmere denizens Heide Rivchun, owner of Conservation Studios, who says she gets visitors from all over Northeast Ohio, or Michael Wolf, owner of WOLFS Gallery, who like Logan has witnessed the neighborhood’s ups and downs. “It was the arts and antiques that essentially stabilized the community,” he says. “It’s the reverse of what usually happens.”
A walk down Larchmere Boulevard carries one past windows replete with antique chairs, fine paintings and odd collectibles. Every storefront tempts the eye.
Most of the buildings are brick and old-fashioned, and certainly the neighborhood is marked, quite proudly, by its lack of chain institutions. There are outliers – an auto shop tucked in among the galleries – but that’s OK because Larchmere is not about one look, it’s about nooks and crannies and interesting sights.
WOLFS is a fitting starting point. Perched on the boulevard’s eastern border, the gallery features a piece of distracting art right on the grassy lawn outside its doors.
It’s as if to tell passersby, “Welcome to the art world.”
On a Thursday afternoon, Wolf is standing on the gallery’s second-floor open balcony finishing lunch. Paintings and sculptures surround him, many of them spectacular.
Among the works are those by Clarence Holbrook Carter and Carl Gaertner. In one case, Carter’s mammoth tarantula painting is mounted just above Gaertner’s pig. It’s spectacular, as if the former is about to munch on the latter.
Gaertner’s depiction of Chagrin Falls is another showstopper, not just for the falls, but also for the painting’s unusual portrayal of other painters sitting around the falls.
Beyond WOLFS, the boulevard is lined – for 10 blocks – with small shops selling art, furniture and collectibles.
Sometimes, places aren’t that clearly defined. Take Loganberry Books, which has more than 100,000 tomes, some occupying spectacular arched bookshelves. But it also hosts art and music events. The first Wednesday of every month features an art opening.
“(The artists) find us, for the most part,” Logan says.
The second and third Wednesdays feature community conversations, while the fourth features book club meetings. Not to be outdone, the first Thursday means an open microphone for musicians, the second an open microphone for writers.
To some extent, what defines an arts neighborhood is the answer to a simple question: Are there enough institutions for someone to walk around aimlessly and enjoy?
“Critical mass is absolutely the key,” Wolf says.
It’s the key to Larchmere’s success, though Wolf advises that potential visitors come Thursday through Saturday. Small businesses along Larchmere Boulevard aren’t always open seven days a week.
For a while, Larchmere did experience a decline. Businesses, notably Sedlak Interiors, left the neighborhood, and Wolf said there was a time when you couldn’t get into the boulevard’s famed and beloved Academy Tavern on a Friday night, implying that’s no longer the case.
And yet he says resilient Larchmere is on the rise once again. Among the promising developments is the move of Holzheimer Interiors Incorporated, a longtime Cleveland designer, to Larchmere. Meanwhile, the long vacant Sedlak Building is being converted into a mixed-use space, with artisan shops, perhaps including a blacksmith and glassblower, on the first floor and residences above.
“Even though it has undergone a lot of transformation, it still maintains its identity as the arts and design district,” Wolf says. “What had transpired over decades is it became less and less known in the region and it’s now being rediscovered by young folks who really had no idea there was such a collection of unique and really fine small shops, galleries and even restaurants.” CV
The Larchmere PorchFest has grown to become a destination event. The annual festival, scheduled this year from 1 to 10 p.m. June 18, features 30 different musicians playing on porches throughout the neighborhood, along with a couple of headline acts. It is not the only festival in the area – but it’s arguably the most popular.
“While there are other annual things, PorchFest is certainly the best,” says Michael Wolf, owner of WOLFS Gallery.
Like many things in Larchmere, a boulevard of ambitious and dedicated individual proprietors, its PorchFest is the result of close collaboration among a group of about eight people.
“It’s such a pleasure to work with an organization that works,” says Heide Rivchun, owner of Conservation Studios. “It’s a really tight group of people. Everyone takes their job very seriously.”
Genres for PorchFest range from Americana to funk, hip-hop, rock and world.
– Jonah L. Rosenblum
Lead image: A look at some of the artwork inside WOLFS Gallery. Photo by Jonah L. Rosenblum.