New owners aim to brighten up historic Slovenian workers’ home in east Cleveland

For 90 years, the Slovene Worker’s House in North Collinwood in Cleveland was a gathering place, a cultural center where families dined, bowled and played balinca or bocce.

Now, an eclectic group of investors are aiming to breathe new life into the largely empty complex, which occupies the largest contiguous site in Waterloo’s arts district. They are preparing plans for a mixed-use project centered around a jazz club that will fill the hall’s historic auditorium.

In May, the 2-acre property at 15335 Waterloo Road changed hands for $700,000. The buyer is a company owned by five investors, including Cindy Barber, co-owner of the Beachland Ballroom, a venerable music club that occupies a former Croatian social hall down the street.

“That’s kind of my vision for the neighborhood, that music saves the neighborhood just like theater saved Gordon Square,” Barber said, referring to the Cleveland Public Theater’s impact on the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood through the city.

Barber’s partners on the real estate deal are Eric Hanson, a booking agent who hopes to open the jazz club, called the Treelawn, early next year; Marius Juodisius, permanent resident of Collinwood and CFO of an automation company; Steven Balogh, a jazz aficionado who oversees the operations of a Chagrin Falls-based plastic molding and injection company; and Dr. Brett Siegfried, a neonatologist from Virginia who grew up in Shaker Heights.

The purchase required a bit of serendipity. After decades of working with groups on the coasts, Hanson, who is 56, missed out on the Midwest. Originally from Shaker Heights, he started toying with concepts for a project in Cleveland and scouting properties on the East Side.

Eventually, he ran into Barber, who was worried about the state of the rambling arts district where the Beachland has been a mainstay for 22 years.

The local Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit steward of the area, collapsed in 2018. Then the pandemic hit the art galleries, entertainment venues and small businesses that populate the streets.

“I became very worried about everything receding and Beachland becoming an island again, like we were in 2000 when we got there,” said Barber, who at 71 finds himself doubling back at the place to age because of the revitalization of the neighborhood. “It felt like we had to do something. And Eric was looking for a place to land. It just made perfect sense.”

Meanwhile, ownership of the Slovenian Worker’s House – which includes adjoining parking lots, vacant land and a freestanding building leased to a headstone maker – was in limbo.

From the venue’s inauguration in 1927 until 2017, members of the community owned the real estate through a shareholding system. However, as these owners got older, it became difficult to maintain the building. A similar story is playing out in other social clubs around town.

At the end of 2017, the Slovenians sold the property to Patrick Hawkins, a local entrepreneur and president of a company that manufactures snow plow blades. He envisions new uses for the site by renting out the auditorium, dining room and bars for private parties and Lenten fries.

Then the pandemic put events on hold — and put the property on tough financial ground.

Hanna Commercial Real Estate listed it for sale in early 2021. The property has generated a lot of interest from potential site operators, said David Wagner, managing director and principal of Hanna Commercial who handled the listing. .

“The number one thing people ask for is a unique event space,” he said.

The Treelawn — a nod to a regional term designating the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street — will complete the Beachland by offering different types of music. Jazz will take center stage, but Hanson also mentioned modern classical.

“I want to have music that they can’t find anywhere else nearby. And I want to have food and drink that they can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

The auditorium can hold a standing crowd of 600 or a seated audience of 300, he said. The partners also talked about organizing weddings and events.

Some of Hanson’s friends think it is crazy to open a new club, as existing operators try to find a new rhythm after more than two years of disruption. Others support it, however, noting the vacuum created when Nighttown closed in Cleveland Heights in 2020.

“I really think there’s more room for good music venues, especially jazz venues,” said Balogh, who plays saxophone and has degrees in music production and engineering.

Hanson also plans to open a bar somewhere in the building, where the Slovenians first added a public watering hole after Prohibition. Downstairs, the dining room and kitchen could become a restaurant. On the second floor, Barber lines up artists and designers to rent office space, while she sorts through artifacts including little league gear and stockholder certificates.

Then there are the remains of the bowling and archery facilities and indoor pétanque courts. The new owners hope to resurrect pétanque and, eventually, bowling as part of the project.

It is not known how much the renovations will cost.

Keith Ari Benjamin, an economic development consultant helping Barber cobble together financing, expects to apply for grants or low-interest loans from the city and county of Cuyahoga. It’s also possible the group is seeking historic preservation tax credits, he said.

The Cleveland City Council has designated the Slovenian Worker’s Home as a city landmark in the spring, which could help the group access tax credits and other preservation assistance.

The project is key to stabilizing and improving Waterloo Region, but it’s also important for nearby communities, said Benjamin, who is a village councilor in the nearby town of Bratenahl and is director of community services and development for the town. neighbor of South Euclid.

Councilman Mike Polensek, who represents the area, said he was ready to help. A former shareholder of Slovenian Workmen’s Home, which describes itself as “mainly Slovenian”, he is delighted that local investors are considering creating another destination in a neighborhood where progress has been halted and hard won over the past two decades.

“Collinwood has huge opportunities and potential, given its location,” Polensek said. “What we need are believers.”

Juodisius, one of the founders of Willoughby-based Integrated Mill Systems, signed on to the project through Barber. “The train was starting to roll, she reached out and I jumped into the boxcar with all the other tramps,” he said with a laugh.

He and his wife live nearby near Lake Erie and try to invest in their backyard instead of putting money into stocks and other intangibles. A member of the Lithuanian community, he finds the opportunity to prepare a cultural asset for a new century attractive.

“It’s like manufacturing,” he said of maintaining the city’s old-world social halls. “If you have equipment, you have to use it. If you don’t use it, it’s not a sustainable model.”

Ada J. Kenney