In 1945, designer Norman Bel Geddes created Toledo Tomorrow, an exhibit that imagined a bold new direction for his Ohio hometown. At least part of it came true.
The Fourth of July, 1945, brought unbridled optimism to Toledo.
The war in the Pacific was winding down, and the booming Ohio industrial city was making big plans. On that July day, city leaders unveiled a 61-foot diameter scale model called Toledo Tomorrow in a display at the Toledo Zoo. The huge exhibit, designed to showcase the city’s speculative future, was masterminded by the famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, who’d spent some of his childhood in Toledo; it was funded by the city’s largest newspaper, the Toledo Blade, and its owner and publisher, Paul Block.
The plan, the paper boasted, depicted “the kind of city Toledo can be if its citizens hitch their wagon to a star and set out to transform their community.”
Bel Geddes was best known as the creator of the Shell Oil City of Tomorrow of 1937 and its bigger follow-up, the Futurama exhibit/ride at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. There, visitors marveled at his detailed depiction of a 1960s metropolis, with elevated walkways carrying pedestrians over roads full of self-driving autos. At its end, visitors were handed a button that said, “I have seen the future.”
Toledo’s leaders were hoping that those who gazed at the huge exhibit would feel the same way. Thousands of visitors, including governors of three different states, came to see the $150,000 display, which featured “congestion-proof” sunken superhighways, freight terminals, a riverfront park, and as its centerpiece, a multimodal transportation center downtown for trains, buses, and even airplanes—one of five (!) airports Bel Geddes saw coming for the Midwestern burg.
Such confidence was once coin of the realm in the Great Lakes region. Toledo’s population had been trending steadily upward since the days of the Civil War, as “The City Where Rail and Water Meet” became a center for industry, home to thriving glassworks and automotive plants. The stew of immigration, expansion, and industry inspired the city’s 1913 slogan: “You will do better in Toledo.” But with the end of World War II in sight, Toledo’s leaders were keen to lure a new generation of residents and businesses. The message of Toledo Tomorrow, The Blade warned, was that “cities which fail to plan for their own regeneration after the war are destined for oblivion.”
Neighboring cities were also caught up in that spirit in the heady postwar era. Youngstown, Ohio, was planning for a population of up to 250,000 people. Detroit put in a bid to host every Summer Olympics between 1952 and 1972. Chicago and Cleveland each independently considered the idea of airports along their respective great lakes.
The downtown airport that Bel Geddes dreamed of for Toledo didn’t materialize, but Toledo Tomorrow did lay the groundwork for a new train station: On October 11, 1945, New York Central Railroad announced it was allocating $3.5 million to replace its aging Toledo train depot, a Victorian structure so disliked that, when a fire swept through it in 1930, residents gathered around and cheered. (The building, however, was repaired and put back in service.) A disgruntled local businessman had gone so far as to put up a billboard nearby saying, “Don’t judge Toledo by it’s (sic) Union Station!”
The new Central Union Station opened five years later amid great fanfare, with as many as 100,000 people touring the facility on its first day. The sleek Modernist building, designed by Robert Crosbie, was laden with windows and bands of glass blocks to represent the city’s best-known product. Upon debarking, travelers were greeted with a map of the world made of Vitrolite, one of the city’s signature products, and a sign with a familiar promise: You will do better in Toledo.
The Blade’s Block served as the chairman of the committee for the celebration, which merited a 28-page special section of the newspaper and week of station-related festivities that the paper dubbed “the biggest civic celebration in the history of Toledo.” New York Central President Gustav Metzman was there, too. “In the 110 years since Toledo was incorporated, you have gone far—and you will go much farther,” he said. “Of that we are thoroughly confident. That is why the Central is spending several millions of dollars for your new station.”
But reality fell short of the vision, for the train station and for Toledo. By the time the new facility opened, it was already becoming a white elephant: It was one of the last new passenger rail stations built in the U.S.
In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.
In Toledo, the economic fortunes of the city turned as well, in part because of the fall of the railroad industry, which employed even more than the glass industry did in 1950. A generation later, the Glass City would be part of what had become known as the Rust Belt. The city has shed more than 100,00 residents since its population peak of 383,000 in 1970.
If Toledo Tomorrow turned out to not be an accurate portrait of the city’s prosperous future, that was in part by design. “All he wants to be is a visionary,” says Donald Albrecht, who curated a Bel Geddes exhibit that was displayed at the University of Texas and in New York City and edited an accompanying book. “His best design was himself, his own persona, his own showmanship. The capacity to do everything he envisioned would have been impossible. The plans collapsed under their own weight.”
Indeed, unworkability was something of a hallmark of Bel Geddes’s urban planning. “In the 1930s, not a lot was being built,” he says. “Fantasy was reality. You could get a lot of press on that in the 1930s. He refused to be practical.”
Like many mid-20th-century urban visionaries in the Robert Moses mold, Bel Geddes was determined to instill order on the city’s somewhat chaotic urban fabric: Expansion in Toledo came haphazardly, leading to low-income neighborhoods put up quickly (and sometimes abandoned just as quickly). “Today’s cities present a pattern of growth without rhyme or reason,” said the Toledo Tomorrow program. “Springing up originally alongside waterways, highways or railroads, they expanded according to the dictates of chance.” The program also railed against “pattern of congested city life with homes huddled together shutting off life and air from each other.”
Instead, Bel Geddes envisioned multi-unit housing, with smaller roads reclaimed for green space while other roads were expanded. To do so, he recommended demolition of dozens of buildings through the use of eminent domain, a technique that had become popular in the days of the New Deal.
Toledo Tomorrow was long on ideas and short on details, a point conceded by The Blade when a $30 million downtown improvement plan was announced in 1959. The 1945 plan by Bel Geddes had been presented “not as a blueprint but as an inspiration,” the newspaper said. But the real-life downtown plan did contain elements identified by the design, including lots of highways and parking lots.
Meanwhile, Toledo’s Central Union Terminal gradually decayed through the 1960s as passenger service declined. The station itself was in an important location—it remained a major switch-point for freight railroads. But by 1969, only three employees served a total of 13 trains daily—a far cry from its opening just 19 years earlier. In the 1970s and 1980s, only a handful of trains were coming through every day.
Then the station enjoyed a slow-but-steady rebirth. In 1994, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority took ownership of the building and began a renovation process. Paul Toth, now president and CEO of the Port Authority, was a project manager at the time, and oversaw an $11 million renovation, funded largely by federal grants. It was a challenge, he recalls, to adapt to modern use a facility that was built in and for another era. “It was built for a completely different use,” Toth says. “There were lots of public telephones, public restrooms, and locker rooms.”
The main lobby has been restored to its original décor and is now available for rental as a banquet or meeting space; other parts of the building are used for offices, in addition to remaining Amtrak service. And in 2016, the station moved one step closer to Toledo Tomorrow’s vision of a unified transit hub, when the Port Authority convinced Greyhound to relocate their bus service to the train station. Toth says it’s a nice complement, since Amtrak stops at night, and most of the bus service comes during the day.
“We have a Subway, too,” Toth says, chuckling. (He means the sandwich shop.)
Bel Geddes’s powers of prognostication may have been limited, but in certain ways, Toledo did became the city the designer imagined. The superhighways he wanted to converge on downtown eventually arrived: The Ohio Turnpike opened in 1955, skirting along the city’s southern edge, and within a decade, Interstate 75 to Cincinnati bisected Toledo between east and west, going through downtown. The city opened a new $3.85 million express airport in 1955—built not downtown but on its western outskirts. And the beautification of the riverfront, another Bel Geddes priority, remains one today.
“Once a thriving center of influence and industry, the Maumee River has long influenced the vitality of Downtown Toledo,” says the Downtown Toledo Master Plan developed by the 22nd Century Committee and Downtown Toledo Development Corp in 2017. “Across the country and the region, the downtowns that are successful are the ones that are reinvesting in their riverfronts.”
Citing an “influx of young entrepreneurs, residents, and visitors,” that plan opened with a familiar-sounding note of optimism.
“Downtown Toledo,” it read, “is at the cusp of a renaissance.”