An Airport Rises Out of Lake Erie II: More Burke History and the Saga of BKL’s Restaurant
In a previous article, I presented a brief visual history of Cleveland’s lakefront airport. Now in its 73rd year of operation, there is still little consensus on its worth and future. Some see it as a valuable aviation and economic asset unmatched for its convenient prime location only five minutes from Public Square. Others see it as an unnecessary asset occupying valuable lakefront land and costing the Cleveland Airport System $1 million per year in subsidy, and one that has never lived up to its planners’ vision and has outlived its usefulness in a much smaller, relatively less-important Cleveland.
While I certainly have some strong opinions about Burke’s future as a life-long Clevelander, amateur aviation historian, and self-proclaimed aviation geek and lover of anything to do with airports, I will reserve those opinions for a future article. Instead, I will focus this second look at BKL on some more pivotal events in its history, including the long, drawn-out paths to open its modern new terminal building and find an operator for its restaurant.
Burke’s New Terminal “Opens”
A new era for Cleveland’s downtown Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL) was ushered in with the inauguration of the modern two-story terminal and administration building in 1960 (see photo above). The new terminal had 3 ground-level gates, a five-story air traffic control tower and a “glamorous” second floor glass-walled restaurant space, complete with a spectacular view of the airfield and lake. It was formally dedicated on October 9, 1960, while construction continued on parts of the building, including the FAA air traffic control tower. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that about 25,000 people came out to see the “shiny terminal whose soaring look itself was an inspiration to fly.”
The airport’s namesake, Thomas A. Burke, former mayor of Cleveland and former U.S. Senator, attended the dedication ceremony. With high hopes, he boasted, “We have a downtown airport that is the envy of every city in the world. In the months to come, it will be even better. You watch and you’ll see.” Burke, when he was mayor, pushed for the development of the field and these efforts were continued by his successor, Anthony J. Celebrezze, and ports director, William P. Rogers. Three airlines had expressed interest in using the new terminal at the airport, TAG Airlines (Taxi Air Group), which had been serving Detroit City Airport (DET) since 1957 as an air taxi operator, as well as local service carriers, Lake Central and North Central.
The terminal was designed by John Rode, Jr., of Outcalt, Guenther & Van Buren, Architects, the same firm that designed the main terminal complex at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE), opened five years earlier. The elegant façade with its three-peaked roof reminiscent of gull wings and its clean lines made quite the statement, and was a vast improvement over the sheet metal structure of the former terminal, built in 1950, and finally demolished in November 1967 to make way for a new paved 800-car parking lot. That former terminal replaced a borrowed precinct polling shelter/voting booth that served as the first terminal at the just-opened airport in 1947.
By May 1961, the terminal was still not ready for use. The five-story control tower was just about completed save for radar and radio equipment that the FAA would soon install. Interestingly enough, if the tower had been a mere seven inches taller, federal regulations would have required an elevator to the top, but none was needed nor installed. A 180-foot long concourse housing Gate 1 and flanked by airport offices still awaiting furniture, connected the control tower with the spacious 12,400 square foot lobby, which still had a gaping hole leading to where the second-floor restaurant should be. No “moving stairway” was installed, awaiting the award of a contract to operate the restaurant (more to follow below).
The 57-foot high FAA-operated control tower was finally ready for use by January 9, 1962 and TAG Airlines began using the new terminal shortly thereafter, almost a year and a half after the terminal was dedicated. Its first nighttime flight from DET, a nine-passenger de Havilland Dove, touched down at BKL at 7:30 p.m. on February 5, 1962. The expected service by Lake Central did not start April 1, 1962, as originally planned. The airline balked at the extra expense involved in operating at two airports in Cleveland and noted the lack of an instrument landing system and other navigational aids that would allow it to operate in bad weather. The FAA would not fund such systems at the time because of obstructions to the approaches from both the east (power plant smokestacks) and west (the new Federal Building and cranes at the Port of Cleveland docks).
By 1967, as the BKL celebrated its 20th anniversary, airport officials were so confident in the growth potential of Burke, that it began planning for a new West Concourse that would nearly double the terminal’s size. The $1.2 million addition was a 260-foot long, one-story addition that was to house two additional gates, airline ticket and baggage counters, a gift shop, barbershop, news stand, lockers, bar, and car rental counters. There were even plans for another four gate “Southeast Concourse” to house similar facilities that was never built, likely due to the disappointing underutilization of BKL by airlines.
Plans for the airfield were also quite ambitious. A new 7,500-foot runway with both approaches over the water was proposed on landfill north of the present runways. This would have allowed unobstructed ILS-approaches for larger jet aircraft, making the airport even more attractive for air carriers. At the other end of the spectrum, the deputy airport commissioner in 1968 proposed that BKL could become a “STOL port,” for new short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft requiring 1,500 feet or less of runway. These planes could link downtown Cleveland with other regional airports in Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Columbus, offering quick and convenient service to commuters. Alas, these fanciful plans never came to fruition.
While the terminal building was still preparing to serve regularly scheduled flights at BKL, the long saga of attempting to attract a restaurant operator for the airport began in April 1961. William J. Rogers, ports director, said that bidders would need a minimum investment of $500,000 plus a guaranteed return to the city of $72,000 per year. The sizable investment had been decided upon “to keep out any fly-by-night operators,” said Rogers. The capital expense would pay for air conditioning, a bar, furnishings and an escalator. This was the same procedure as was used in leasing the restaurant space at Hopkins airport in 1956. Initially, six firms expressed interest in the Burke restaurant.
The first deadline for submission of bids passed on August 10, 1961, and no bids were received. Ohio Sportservice, Inc., of Buffalo, one of 26 interested parties, said the contract requirements were “wholly unrealistic.” Rogers also attributed the lack of interest to the dearth of commercial flights caused by the delay by the FAA to staff and equip the control tower. This caused Director Rogers to ask the city to equip the restaurant space.
By May 1962, firms asked the city for a negotiated contract rather than a competitive bidding process after previous attempts to land an operator failed. Even with a lack of airline travelers, it was thought the restaurant could attract lots of business due to its central location five minutes from downtown, lakefront views, and plenty of parking. It was hoped a restaurant could open by the end of 1962. Finally, the city agreed to air condition the space and install an “electric stairway” for $250,000.
Bids were sought yet again in October 1962. Negotiations with Sky Chefs, Inc., the operator of the restaurant at Hopkins, as well as with famed Cleveland restauranteur and airline caterer (for United Air Lines), Marie Schreiber, were undertaken. In addition, the city sought our recommendations for “other outstanding restauranteurs” who might be interested in the space. The improvements to the space were completed by November 1962 with hopes of a spring 1963 opening. But no successful negotiations were concluded.
It looked like a deal was finally reached after additional bids were sought in January and March 1963. Two bids were actually received this time, one from Brown Derby Restaurants of Akron, Ohio, and another from Sky Angel, Inc., a partnership between Manus McCaffrey, former owner of Top of the Manger restaurant at the Manger Hotel (formerly the Hotel Allerton opened in 1926 and now the Allerton Apartments) at Chester Ave. and E. 13th St., and Nick Pinardo, owner of the Chateau night club in Lakewood. A deal was reached with Sky Angel on April 25, 1963, but no contract was signed. As a result, the City Board of Control voted unanimously to withdraw its award of a 20-year lease with Sky Angel in May 1963. Mr. Pinardo said his reputation was at stake and he was “not going to be kicked around.” City officials learned that Pinardo had a long record of arrests, but no convictions, and this made them wary to enter into an agreement with such a character.
The Board also rejected as too small Brown Derby’s bid for a return of 2% of gross sales or $30,000 per year, whichever is larger. Mayor Ralph S. Locher said the city could seek bids yet again, lease the restaurant space for offices or bring in city offices to fill the empty second floor.
The city eventually sought bids for a fifth time in January 1964, with proposals due January 18. Reportedly eight to ten operators expressed interest this time, including Northern Ohio Restaurant Association, Sky Chefs, Brown Derby, The Black Angus, and Howard Johnson, Inc. The proposals were to have included a minimum rental guarantee or 5% of gross revenue. Available was a total of 12,000 square feet for the restaurant, a coffee shop, storage and lockers on the first floor, plus parking for 250 cars. There was also talk of leasing additional airport property for a motel.
By the end of January 1964, Brown Derby was announced as the high bidder for a Burke restaurant lease—finally! The company bid $50,000 per year or 5% of gross sales for a 25-year contract and agreed to equip and decorate the space for $150,000. April 1, 1964 was optimistically projected as an opening date as well as an annual gross of $1 million. “We can’t miss in downtown Cleveland,” owners of the Brown Derby crowed. Harland Diamond of Executive Caterers was the second highest bidder at $30,000 per year.
Of course, nothing would go as planned. In March 1964, the city’s Law Director ordered a complete study of the situation to determine if the second-floor space was best used as a restaurant or for city offices. Rumors were that the city received complaints from two potential competitors, Captain Franks on the E. 9th Street Pier, and Stouffer’s Restaurants which proposed two new eateries in the 100 Erieview Plaza tower, then under construction, including what would become the Top of the Town on the skyscraper’s 42nd floor.
City Council ultimately approved a 15-year lease for Brown Derby at the end of May 1964, with a goal of opening within 90 days of ultimate approval of the deal in June. However, it took another five months for a new Brown Derby restaurant to finally open at Burke on November 18, 1964. The owners of the company called it a $1 million gamble on renewed interest in downtown Cleveland. There was a lot of new development underway at the time including the growing Erieview urban renewal project, a new Federal Building, and a new convention center.
The restaurant was quite a sight. All decorations and dining equipment were custom made, from the chandeliers extending upward from the floor to the dishes. There was no bar, but a molded cement wall to separate the main dining area from the cocktail area. Don Drumm, a young freelance artist and graduate from Kent State University, along with John P. Mazzola from Akron, designed the interior which was described by Drumm as a “free standing sculpture.” The T-shaped restaurant could seat 400 with another 60 guests in the lounge. It would employ about 100 persons and be open from 11:00 a.m. to 2:20 a.m. The menu famously featured char-broiled sirloin steak dinners for $1.85 (equivalent to about $15.22 today) and lunches for $0.95 ($7.81 today)! The lavish grand opening was celebrated on December 16, 1964.
By April 1965, proprietor Mark Figetakis discontinued the franchise agreement with Brown Derby and changed the name of the restaurant to The Mark (from his first name). After some legal threats from Brown Derby, the name actually stuck for almost 15 years.
Figetakis was declared bankrupt in June 1979, and the BKL restaurant lease (with the same terms as from 1964) was assigned to Metin Aydin of Bath, Ohio, a restaurant consultant who was famous for making over several area restaurants including Heck’s Café in Ohio City. He was given the option to run the restaurant for five years, effective November 26, 1979.
It officially became Metin’s Restaurant and Spirit of Cleveland Lounge, and the new operator invested $240,000 remodeling the space and paying off $60,000 of debts incurred by The Mark, including past-due wages of employees. Business reportedly increase three-fold in the wake of the changes. Of course, City Council got involved and asked to study the lease, and Aydin countered that he had a $1.2 million line of credit and would fight in court any attempt to break the lease. The President of Wright Airlines, Burke’s largest tenant, Gilbert Singerman, also asked for a say in choosing the new operator and recommended it be put out for bid (did he not remember the drawn-out process of the early 1960s?).
Metin’s operated at Burke for another three years until February 1983 when the IRS shut down two of Aydin’s restaurants, including the one at BKL, for owing $139,500 in federal income and Social Security taxes. The airport also had been trying to evict Aydin from Burke due to non-payment of $140,000 in back rent and utilities dating from the latter part of 1981! There was hope that a coffee shop would open again in the terminal, but another restaurant never would operate at the airport.
Wright Airlines leased 9,300 square feet on the 2nd floor of BKL’s terminal in March 1984 to house its expanded accounting and managerial staff after its prior year merger with Aero Mech, in addition to the 15,000 square feet it leased on the first floor. Wright shut down in July 1985.
The restaurant space continues as offices today, still with a killer view of Lake Erie!