Empire Builders: Local author documents the architectural impact of the Van Sweringen brothers

It could be argued the story of Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen—real estate and railroad magnates best known for developing Shaker Heights and the Terminal Tower—should be told through the photographs that depict the grand and signature structures created in the early 20th Century.

Architectural photographer Lauren Pacini’s new book “Empire Builders: An Illustrated History of the Rise and Fall of Cleveland's Van Sweringen Brothers,” released on Tuesday, June 4, uses photos to share the Van Sweringen brothers’ story of overcoming their formative years in poverty, living an elusive life together as they built their empire in Shaker Heights and Cleveland, and their rapid economic demise during the Great Depression.

Empire BuildersEmpire BuildersThe photos illustrate the lasting impact these two enigmatic men made on the landscape of Cleveland and its eastern suburbs, while Pacini illustrates the not-so-known stumbles and failures the brothers encountered in both their rise and fall.

Pacini says he has been interested in the Van Sweringens since he and his family first moved to Cleveland Heights in 1950. He spent his childhood exploring the landscape the Van Sweringens helped shape.

“I went to the Shaker Lakes and discovered some of the old remains of the mills and the quarry and other places,” Pacini recalls. “And then, as I got older, I stretched my exploration farther east and was intrigued by the Salmon Halle Mansion at Horseshoe Lake—a 15,000 square foot Neoclassical.

“Not very far from that, was another huge Tudor [on South Park Boulevard],” he continues. “That was the Van Sweringen’s mansion.”

The 1927 Halle Mansion was designed by local church architect John William Cresswell Corbusier for Halle Brothers department store co-founder Salmon P. Halle. The late French Renaissance/Neoclassical style home was noted as one of the jewels of Shaker Heights.

The 1910, 12,000-square-foot Van Sweringen mansion was the cornerstone to building and marketing an affluent neighborhood.

Those majestic structures that define Shaker Heights to this day prompted Pacini to dig deeper into the men who created this empire

Englist Oak Room FoyerEnglist Oak Room FoyerEccentric bachelor brothers

The Van Sweringen brothers were famously eccentric—sharing a bedroom and a bank account their whole lives—and became railroad barons just to facilitate the development of Shaker Heights. Oris Paxton, or O.P., was the oldest and a master salesperson, while Mantis James, or M.J., was two years younger and reportedly always felt it was his duty to take care of O.P.

The brothers grew up poor in Wooster, Ohio with three younger siblings, an alcoholic Civil War Veteran father, and a mother who died when they were young. Yet the brothers went on to see great success.

“To put it bluntly, they had no right to the success that they had,” says Pacini. “But they did it.”

Published by Indiana University Press, “Empire Builders” is the first biography of the Van Sweringen brothers in more than 20 years. The forward is written by John J. Grabowski, foreword by Case Western Reserve University history professor and chief historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Pacini’s book draws on early Van Sweringen family correspondence, creating a biography that is more personal than previous published accounts of the Van Sweringen brothers. Pacini shares more than 150 of his photos that document Van Sweringens’ accomplishments, which depict their large and lasting influence on Cleveland.

“I wanted to tell what I felt would be a more complete story,” Pacini explains. “To me, their youth and their failures in their early days were an extremely important story to explore and to tell—because if you don't understand that they were born into abject poverty, [and] you don't understand that if in everything they touched, they failed, then why were they so successful?”

Controversial Shaker deeds

While the mansions and stately homes drew Pacini to the Van Sweringens as a boy, it was the deed of his first home in Shaker that further piqued his interest.

Van Sweringen Mansion 1910Van Sweringen Mansion 1910 “We moved here because we wanted our kids to grow up in an integrated community,” he explains. But when he saw the deed to his new home, he was surprised. The original deeds to Shaker homes were discriminatory in deterring Black people, Jews, Catholics, and Italians from buying homes in the city.

In the 1960s, when Shaker officials decided to denounce what the Van Sweringens had originally designed to be an exclusive white protestant enclave and embrace integration, the  discriminatory wording in the original deeds was declared invalid—but was not removed.

“We were signing the deed at Shaker Savings, and we had to sign another document that said that we understood that all of the restrictions that were in that deed were null and void,” Pacini recalls. “Why not just take it out?

But when Pacini transitioned from a career as an IT consultant into an architectural photographer and historian, he started to see the Van Sweringen brothers differently.

“I wanted to set that story straight, but not ignore the negatives, not ignore the deed restrictions,” he Pacini says. “Because they were a very real part of Shaker Heights.”

A series of do-overs

In researching his book, Pacini was surprised to discover that the Van Sweringens’ Tudor mansion in Shaker Heights is a dramatic renovation.

“Having seen vintage photographs of it [the original],” he says, “it was pretty much uglier than sin.”

Pacini says he was also surprised that the brothers recognized their failures in the design and were able to correct them, with some outside help.

“It gave me a feeling of the humanity of the brothers, particularly of O.P.—in his explanation to Philip Small, the architect he hired to renovate the property, [he said] ‘we didn't know any better,’” Pacini observes. “And [for O.P. to say] ‘If I'd known then what I know now, I never would have done it that way.’”

Greenbriar Library and Living RoomGreenbriar Library and Living RoomThe Van Sweringens were so impressed with the job that Small did on their Shaker property, they hired him to convert a cattle barn at Daisy Hill in Hunting Valley into their 90,000-foot Roundwood Manor.

In “Empire Builders,” Pacini illustrates the humanity of the Van Sweringen brothers.

“It's one surprise after another,” Pacini says. “I loved O.P.’s explanation when he was asked why he ever built anything so big. He said, ‘Well, so that he could entertain the board of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads, who were absolute arch enemies at the same time, and they wouldn't have to see each other.’”

In fact, Pacini says the first thing that food industrialist Gordon Stouffer did when he bought Roundwood Manor in 1946 was to reduce the interior square footage.

Pacini says Roundwood’s current owners have been fighting a decades-long battle with Hunting Valley to save the historic building from developers and find a more sustainable model for the massive property.

A lasting impact

“Empire Builders” doesn’t end with the brothers’ deaths (M.J. in December 1935 and O.P. less than a year later in 1936). Pacini documents how the brothers’ holdings changed hands over the years, up until 2022 when Berkshire Hathaway bought the Van Sweringens’ holding company, the Alleghany Corporation.

Pacini  documents what happened to the Van Sweringen companies after their deaths, but also to the properties they owned, the real estate they developed, and the town they created. He shows how Shaker Heights has changed since the deaths of its founders—including photos of the modern architecture found throughout the suburb today.  

“I felt it was important to tell a story that went beyond the Van Sweringens’ rise and crash,” he says.

He says he has worked on and off for more than seven years on "Empire Builders" and has enjoyed ever minute.  "What I have enjoyed most is getting to know the present owners of the Shaker Heights mansion and Roundwood Manor," he says, "to hear their stories, and come to understand their deep connections with their homes."

Pacini has previously published several books documenting the architecture and beauty of Northeast Ohio, and he says pre-sales of “Empire Builders” have been encouraging. 

“I have been amazed, to be very honest, at the response to the book,” he says. “I mean, I have already, in pre-publication sales, outsold any of the books that I've ever done in total.”

About the Author: Katie McMenamin

Katie McMenamin has written across a range of platforms, from broadcast news and published novels to promotional brochures and back cover blurbs.