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Many Clevelanders share memories of gatherings at Kiefer’s Tavern

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PHOTO BY CHUCK HOVEN Tuesday, December 20, 2016; The former home of Kiefer’s Tavern at W. 26th and Detroit Avenue. PHOTO BY TED LOBAUGH

by Dominick Ferlito

(Plain Press, January 2017)          An old sign, from a bygone era, still hangs on the pre-WWI red-brick building on the corner of W. 26th Street and Detroit Avenue.  The sign, advertising Kiefer’s Tavern, is a survivor in the Ohio City district that has experienced a brilliant renaissance in the past 10 years.

Kiefer’s closed in 1991, but their sign remains a beacon to Cleveland’s old-timers, who remember the days of city elites and celebrities mingling over weinerschnitzel and cocktails. The restaurant was a staple in the neighborhood, serving classic German food and live music to nearly 1,000 patrons a day during its’ peak.

The Seymour Block Building, which housed Kiefer’s for nearly 55 years, has changed hands and businesses several times since the iconic restaurant closed its doors for the last time. Most recently, The Snavely Group purchased most of the buildings on the block of Detroit and W. 25th Street, and a new art gallery opened up where Kiefer’s once served customers.

The Cleveland Collection art gallery holds showings every few months, featuring pieces created by local artists. The Cleveland Collection opened in November, 2015, and has been hosting exhibitions and discussions with local creatives ever since.

The gallery hosted a holiday show and sale that featured more than 50 pieces of art, all from local artists on November 25th. The Cleveland Collection hopes to be “community centric” and will host more discussions with exhibitors in the future.

Before the art gallery, the Seymour Block building housed government offices and travel agencies, but it is Kiefer’s that remains the most well-known tenant.

Kiefer’s history can be traced back to 1936, when the Kiefer’s served food from a stand at the Great Lakes Exposition. Their beer-and-bratwurst stand was such a success that Anna and William decided to open a restaurant. They settled on a location just south of The Angle, an Irish neighborhood most well-known for St. Malachi Church and boxing gyms.

The Kiefer’s opened Schwarzwald in 1937, but decided to change the name to Kiefer’s once World War II started and the German name became unpopular. William baked and prepared meats and Anna cooked and ran the business. Otto Thun and his band provided diners with entertaining music to dance and sing-along to, eventually garnering so much interest that the music was broadcast live across the country.

Kiefer’s quickly became a well-known spot for Cleveland’s politicians, businessmen, and various different clubs. They came for the famous wienerschnitzel, but stayed for the club atmosphere and the socializing. What once started as a small restaurant, serving 50 patrons a day, became the most popular German restaurant in Cleveland expanding twice over 20 years.

On February 15, 1957, though, tragedy struck Kiefer’s—a lighting fixture and portions of the false ceiling crashed down onto tables while more than 100 diners were in the restaurant. Six people sustained minor injuries in the accident and Kiefer’s had to close for two weeks for an investigation and repairs. The accident made news and affected business, even after repairs were made.

William and Anna kept the business for two more years, but eventually decided to sell to a syndicate headed by Jack and Joseph Klingbeil who continued the traditions of the landmark tavern.

Eventually business bounced back. Clevelanders couldn’t resist the home-style German food and the classic nightlife that Kiefer’s provided. Due to its proximity to downtown, the restaurant once again became a lunchtime staple for businessmen and women.  The Klingbeils brought in modern musical acts from around the city to draw more of a crowd for the weekend evenings.

For 16 years, the Klingbeil brothers successfully ran Kiefer’s, returning it to the glory that was so familiar to Anna and William.  By 1976, however, the tavern had become stale and needed a renovation and upgrades that the brothers were uncomfortable making, so they sold to a conglomerate headed by County Treasurer Francis E. Gaul.

Gaul saw the need for change and immediately started rebranding the business as a German-Irish fusion, capitalizing on the area’s ethnic background and Cleveland’s love of St. Patrick’s Day.

Gaul razed several buildings behind the tavern and installed a new parking lot that could accommodate 100 cars and began giving the business-front a facelift. Inside, the restaurant was updated, but kept the same character that customers had been so fond of for the past 40 years.

Like the interior, the menu was updated, but much of it stayed the same. “The recipes never changed, from the days of Bill and Anna Kiefer to when we closed the door,” Gaul’s son-in-law, Joe Wallison said in an interview with Cleveland Magazine. No one could come up with recipes better than Anna, so they stayed the same.

“We’d be crazy to change the menu. We’ll keep the schnitzel, pig’s knuckles and sausages but we’ll also offer salads and weight watcher specials to attract that part of the luncheon crowd that doesn’t want dumplings,” Gaul said when he took over the kitchen in 1977.

Gaul was drawn to Kiefer’s for a-number-of reasons, but he always said that it was the welcoming atmosphere that made him want to own the restaurant. “I guess my involvement in the project is due to romanticism. I used to work on the beer trucks that delivered to Kiefer’s. Since then, I became a customer. Always, the quality of atmosphere appealed to me,” Gaul said when he purchased the business.

Gaul did everything he could to drum up business. He brought back big-band performers, and even started broadcasting from the restaurant, like Otto Thun had done so many years earlier.  Kiefer’s also bought a shuttle bus, and started providing a shuttle between downtown and Ohio City during the weekday lunch hours.

As Cleveland started changing, Gaul kept the business alive through the seventies and eighties, with Kiefer’s as an icon of the ethnic mixing pot that Cleveland is. In 1990, however, tides turned. When the city began work on the old Main St. Bridge and a recession hit Cleveland, the business began to suffer. People had a harder time crossing the river to grab lunch and nightlife in Ohio City began to dwindle.

Kiefer’s tried to survive the year and half construction project, but Gaul eventually had to pull the plug before construction crews finished. The restaurant closed its’ doors for the final time in the summer 1991.

To this day, people still remember the days when Kiefer’s was the place to be seen. Polly Shilander, a retired government employee, still remembers going to Kiefer’s for business lunches and dancing on the weekends. “You never knew who was going to be there.  Some nights you’d see a famous actor, other nights you’d see Danny Greene. People went there to be seen,” Shilander said. “It was a big deal if you were going to Kiefer’s on a Saturday night.”

Senior citizens throughout Cleveland still talk about Kiefer’s with a fond memory. They remember the world-famous schnitzel and the raucous big-bands. They remember the iconic interior that was replaced by stark white walls when The Cleveland Collection moved in.

The Cleveland Collection opened November, 2015 and hosts works by local artists. Billy Delfs, a spokesman for the Cleveland Collection said, “The gallery is open when we have openings for shows, four times a year at-the-moment.”

Pete Snavely, of the Snavely Group, has taken care of changes in the Seymour Block building since the company bought it in early 2016.  Most recently, the company gave the ground floor of the building a paint-job and is planning to turn the upper levels into low-rent housing.

The Snavely Group also broke ground across the street for a new mixed-use complex in October. The Detroit corridor will once again have buildings lining both sides of the street, as it did so many years ago.

The Snavely Group is doing what they can to modernize corner and draw more outsiders into the area—but the old Kiefer’s sign still hangs as a landmark, sparking memories of “the good old days” for so many Cleveland residents and bridging the gap between new and old

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