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Past party: Cleveland played host to 1924, 1936 Republican conventions

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    A woman from Oklahoma rides on shoulders during a demonstration at the 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

    CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT

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    The May Co. with the GOP banner on the front of the building is shown during the June 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

    CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT

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    The floor of the 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

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    Brand-new Public Auditorium hosted the 1924 Republican Convention in Cleveland.

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    Former president Herbert Hoover arrives in Cleveland for the 1936 Republican National Convention.

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When Republicans came to Cleveland for the 1936 national convention, they stepped into a great American city.

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The May Co. with the GOP banner on the front of the building is shown during the June 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT Enlarge

Like many areas, it had been battered by the Great Depression, but there was still a lot to be proud of. With a population exceeding 900,000, it was the sixth-biggest city in the country. Many of the 13,000 people in town for the convention came by train into the relatively new Union Station underneath the Terminal Tower, at 52 stories the tallest building in the United States outside of New York City.

The tower was built next to the Hotel Cleveland, one of three hotels downtown with more than 1,000 rooms. Public Auditorium, where the convention was held and billed as the largest convention space in the country, had opened 14 years earlier, and a renovation kept it state-of-the-art. And the city, which would host the Great Lakes Exposition on the lakeshore later that month, had an enormous new lakefront stadium to accommodate baseball, football, boxing matches — and a potential speech by Republican nominee Alf Landon.

Landon, who ended up not attending the convention, would go on to what remains the biggest electoral loss in a presidential election. And for a variety of reasons, political conventions stayed away from Cleveland — and Ohio in general — for another 80 years.

The third Republican convention held in the city will be gaveled into order Monday, and unlike the previous two, which were almost anticlimactic, this one promises action — for good or for ill.

“This one, like it or not, is going to be historic,” said John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University and the author of the “Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.”

Ohio history is entwined with that of the Republican Party.

Cleveland, with its New England roots and proximity to Canada, was a natural hotbed of abolitionism, and following the Civil War, Ohio had a prominent role in American history, with seven natives of the state being elected president.

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Brand-new Public Auditorium hosted the 1924 Republican Convention in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT Enlarge

In fact, in 1920, both major party candidates were from Ohio, as former Gov. James Cox, a Dayton Democrat, ran against U.S. Sen. Warren Harding, a Republican from Marion. Oddly enough, both were newspaper publishers as well.

Harding was elected president in 1920, but even then, he was showing signs of the heart problems that would kill him three years later. After his death, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, lobbied to have the 1924 Republican convention in Cleveland as a tribute to him — and to appeal to the city and state’s sizeable Republican base.

“In 1924, you’re looking a city that is firmly part of the Republican establishment,” Grabowski said.

And Public Auditorium would be the perfect venue. Opened two years earlier with a capacity of 10,000, the venue had no support pillars inside, so everyone could see the proceedings, and was wired to allow radio stations to broadcast the proceedings live — a first. And it was the first convention after women received the right to vote. A total of 120 women served as delegates to the convention, with 277 more being alternates.

But while it was a historic convention, it also was a boring one.

“There was just no drama,” said Mark Souther, an associate history professor at Cleveland State University. “From a national perspective, Coolidge had the nomination sewn up. It was all just a formality.”

The only excitement came in picking a vice presidential nominee. Coolidge wanted U.S. Sen. William Borah, but the Idaho Republican had no interest in the job. Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden — who had sought the Republican presidential nomination four years earlier — declined the nomination for vice president. Finally, the nominee ended up being Charles G. Dawes. Coolidge and Dawes won the election, and after Coolidge opted not to run again in 1928, he was succeeded as president by his Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover.

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The floor of the 1936 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT Enlarge

Four years later, in the throes of the Great Depression, Hoover lost in a landslide to New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt later credited his success to the contacts he’d made as Cox’s running mate in 1920).

It was a bad year to be a Republican in 1932, and it initially appeared little better in 1936. But the Republican convention would still be a big deal for the city, which was becoming a Democratic stronghold as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.

“The 1924 convention was really a feather in Cleveland’s cap,” Souther said. “Cleveland was on the rise. “In 1936, the city had been hit by the Depression, but it was still a lively time downtown and a time to show off the city.”

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Former president Herbert Hoover arrives in Cleveland for the 1936 Republican National Convention.

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Although there were whispers of a movement to draft Hoover to run again, the Republicans settled on Landon, the governor of Kansas. Landon didn’t even show up for the convention — or, it could be argued, the election. He received a total of eight electoral votes, carrying just Maine and Vermont as Roosevelt won the second of an unprecedented four terms as president.

Cleveland’s population peaked in 1950, and began to slide after that. Today, the city itself is half the size it was the last time it hosted a convention. Politically, the balance of power started to shift to the South and the West, particularly within the Republican Party, with nominees like Barry Goldwater and John McCain (both from Arizona), George H.W. and George W. Bush (Texas) and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (California).

And the facilities to host national conventions in Cleveland declined as well.

“For most of the last 50 years, Cleveland hasn’t had a sufficient combination of convention space and hotel rooms,” Souther said. “The hotels got worse and worse.”

But local government and corporate leaders put together a bid for the 2016 convention for both parties, citing Ohio’s importance in each presidential election and new hotel construction, including Aloft and the Metropolitan at the 9, and the Hilton Downtown, which opened last month.

And Cleveland hopes for the best, as Donald Trump — a nominee nobody could have foreseen a year ago — takes the stage, and many other prominent Republicans, as well as some corporate sponsors, are conspicuous by their absence.

“I think Cleveland knows how much is riding on this,” Souther said. “Everyone’s looking for the comeback.”

Contact Vince Guerrieri at 329-7124 or vguerrieri@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vinceguerrieri.



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