The building has always been a hub.
The Austen BioInnovation Institute’s new headquarters at 47 N. Main St. is an Akron landmark with an unusual history. Most recently, it was the headquarters of Summit County Job & Family Services. Before that, it served as the general offices of the Ohio Edison Co.
How many of today’s passing motorists know that the building originated as a railway station? Good luck finding the tracks. Most of the steel rails were ripped from the pavement or buried in concrete.
As World War I raged overseas, the Northern Ohio Traction & Light Co. opened its Akron Terminal in 1918 at North Main and Federal (later Perkins Street and, still later, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).
“Everything in the building is modern, the aim being to secure the greatest efficiency in service and business,” the Beacon Journal reported. “The convenience of the public has been considered and everything done for their comfort.”
Cleveland architect Franz C. Warner designed the four-story, white-granite terminal and eight-track train shed. The project cost about $850,000 (nearly $13 million today) and was developed in anticipation of the opening of the North Hill Viaduct.
Northern Ohio Traction & Light supplied power to Akron and operated an interurban network on nearly 300 miles of track. The electric rail system linked communities for passenger service and commerce, and owned and operated several amusement parks, including Silver Lake, Springfield Lake, Meyers Lake and Lakeside, which became Summit Beach.
Bright-red trolley cars flitted about the city, carrying passengers on 10-cent fares to Canton, Ravenna, Wadsworth and Cleveland. The new terminal, which welcomed 200 interurban cars and 13,000 customers daily, was the crown jewel of the interurban network.
“When the new N.O.T. terminal station is finished, it will be the largest and finest electric-road terminal station in this country,” publicist E. Burt Fenton predicted in May 1918.
It wasn’t mere exaggeration. National publications heralded the Akron station’s elegance and innovation, and saluted General Manager A.C. Blinn and chief engineer E.D. Eckroad for their leadership.
The stone-and-steel terminal was decked out in old English oak with Vermont, Tennessee and Georgia marble. A wide entrance at the center of the building led to a main waiting room with arched ceilings and a giant double-faced clock.
A three-teller ticket window beckoned customers, who waited on high-backed wood benches as 32 interurban cars entered or left the station each hour. Redcaps and doormen hurried about the station. A public-address system, with “annunciators” installed in the waiting room, smoking room, barbershop and restrooms, kept passengers updated.
Among the station’s conveniences were a restaurant, cigar stand, magazine counter, telephone room, checkroom and one of the country’s first coin-operated baggage lockers.
The building also housed a utility billing counter, appliance store and dozens of offices. Northern Ohio Traction & Light was proud of its “dictagraph interconversing system,” which allowed workers to communicate between offices.
When interurban cars arrived, passengers left the terminal’s waiting room through a tunnel and climbed steps to boarding platforms along numbered tracks. The subway passage allowed people to reach the cars safely without crossing rails. A gong warned of train departures.
The train shed was a marvel of its time. Made of structural steel, the cavernous shelter covered an area of 161 feet by 230 feet and could accommodate 24 interurban cars simultaneously on eight tracks.
“The cars entering the station will circle around the rear end over a single track and then turn to the left into the various tracks in the station,” the Electric Railway Journal reported in 1918. “The switches for both the incoming and outgoing cars will be controlled from a tower so that any trains can be routed in and out as they arrive without the motorman being obliged to make a number of stops to throw switches.”
The company employed 800 motormen and conductors, who earned 35 cents an hour. Interurban cars hummed in and out of the shed all day and night, taking passengers to all points on the electric railway.
It was a good service, but it wasn’t nearly enough as Akron’s population exploded in the early 20th century. When Northern Ohio Traction & Light couldn’t keep up with the demand for transportation, independent companies filled the void with motor bus lines.
The Akron traction company began using motor buses, too. By the mid-1920s, the system had 225 interurban cars and 100 buses. The company, renamed Northern Ohio Power & Light, began to buy up the competing bus lines.
In 1930, the utility agreed to add two floors to the terminal. More importantly, it decided to become part of something big.
The Akron company consolidated with the Akron Steam Heating Co., the Pennsylvania-Ohio Power and Light Co. of Youngstown, the London Light and Power Co. of Springfield and the Ohio Edison Co. of Springfield.
The conglomerate was renamed the Ohio Edison Co. and covered 2,850 square miles.
In April 1932, the interurban lines were abandoned as roads improved and automobile traffic began to dominate travel.
Workers paved over the old tracks in the shed and filled it with motor buses. The terminal served as a bus station for a decade until Greyhound took over the operation in the 1940s and built a terminal on South Broadway. Afterward, the shed was used for auto parking.
Ohio Edison remained at the site for 45 years. For decades, a light display of cartoon mascot Reddy Kilowatt stood proudly atop the Edison building. Older residents fondly recall seeing the glowing character wave to passing motorists.
The old terminal served as Edison’s headquarters until the company moved into a $16 million, 19-story office building down the street in 1976. Today, Ohio Edison is part of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., which has 6 million customers over 65,000 square miles.
The Summit County Welfare Department moved to Edison’s former home in early 1977, transforming it into a hub for public services.
The agency, which was renamed the Summit County Department of Human Services and later Summit County Job & Family Services, expanded into a second building at 37 N. Main St. and the Sojourner Truth Building at 37 N. High St.
This year, the railway terminal has a new station in life.
The Austen BioInnovation Institute is taking over the bottom three floors and basement following a $13.3 million renovation. The county will continue to lease the top three floors to Job & Family Services.
The institute’s goal is to create startup companies that bring jobs to the region.
Next stop: innovation!
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.