Memories of the Higbee Building before Cleveland transformed it into Ohio's first casino

Years ago, thousands flocked into Higbee's

CLEVELAND - My mother and I stood outside the Higbee Company building on Cleveland's Public Square, as the revolving door turned, inviting us to enter a wonderful building, where the sights smacked us in the face and the sounds of the interior of the building resounded, heightening my sense of excitement. We knew there would be wonderful things awaiting us.

The time was many years ago, long before the building became the home of the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland, first of the casino gambling operations in the state of Ohio. As I stood outside the doors of the historic Higbee Building, my mind raced back over the decades to my earliest memories in the building when it was a department store.

During the days of my youth, most of my family's department store shopping was done in downtown Cleveland where the major stores were headquartered. 

This story is about when I was child, holding tightly to my mother's hand as we went into the department store where Christmas shopping awaited us. That was many years ago.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, Cleveland shopping centered primarily in the downtown area. The suburbs had not yet reached the point where the bigger stores would make more footprints in the outlying areas of Greater Cleveland.

As I covered the story of the grand opening of the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland, the old Higbee's building looked impressive. It was scrubbed and polished and the brass doors gleamed just as I had remembered them. As it was during my childhood, especially during the Christmas shopping season, people outside the building were shoulder-to-shoulder to enter the building to spend their dollars.

Higbee's, and later Dillard's, which took over when the Higbee Company was sold in 1987, was a mainstay in Public Square. It boasted four entrances -- from Public Square, Ontario Street, Prospect Avenue and from inside the Terminal Tower complex.

One of its highpoints was when it played a major part in the 1983 Christmastime classic move, "A Christmas Story." In the film, the building brought back my memories of an earlier time when my mother and I shopped for Christmas gifts.  

The Higbee Building was a vibrant part of the downtown area for generations. It was part of the historic Terminal Tower complex that was built between 1927 and 1931, when Cleveland bulged with a population far larger than today. Only when the decline of the downtown shopping area hit Cleveland and the suburban shopping became large enough to woo away the business did the old department store building close its doors.

However, the old doors have swung open again. They are to remain unlocked for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Casinos are not designed to close.  Just as there were legions of shoppers walking through the doors with money in their hands looking for whatever was for sale, there is a new generation of shoppers who are elbowing through the doors. They, too, have money in their hands as they are hoping to hit it big on the slot machines or the table games.

The old building is still spry on its feet, having been given a new use. Millions of dollars have been poured into it to ready it for its new mission as a gambling Mecca. It's good to see my old friend, the Higbee Building, which is on the registry of historic buildings, back in business. It was a friend in my childhood.

I expect it will be a friend in my maturity. In my childhood, I used to go to see Santa Claus in the building. When I play the games of chance in the Higbee Building now, I still hope Santa Claus smiles on me.  I am betting on it.

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