At the end of the 19th century, Cleveland was a fast-growing city. Local leaders and wealthy industrialists began to see a need to preserve natural areas and give residents places to escape from the dirt and noise of downtown. Gordon Park opened to the public in 1893 and quickly became a popular east side recreational destination for Clevelanders.
When William J. Gordon died in 1892, he willed Gordon Park to the City of Cleveland under the condition that it would forever bear his name and remain a free, public park. Gordon had made a fortune in the wholesale grocery, iron ore, and real estate businesses. By the time of his death, he had accumulated and improved 122 acres of land along the shoreline near where Doan Brook enters Lake Erie. Gordon had lived in a large cottage he called “Edge water” on the property and beautified the landscape with lush gardens, walkways, and grottos.
Upon opening, it quickly became clear that additional facilities were needed to accommodate the large crowds coming to Gordon Park. A grand bathhouse was constructed where bathing suits and changing rooms could be rented for 5 cents each. There was a bandstand and a dance hall and amenities were also provided for boaters and fishermen. Further inland, the wooded areas and gardens were maintained as quiet retreats for walking and picnicing along Doan Brook.
Gordon and other city parks, like Brookside, Garfield and Edgewater, were showing signs of aging by the 1930’s. Works Project Administration workers were brought in during the Great Depression to build and rehabilitate bridges, roads, culverts, dams, playgrounds and ball fields. They helped to make the parks more able to withstand the amount of heavy use they received. WPA workers also made them car friendly which was not a part of their original design.
The emerging car culture reduced the need for large bath houses near the beach. The grand bathhouse at Gordon Park was eventually removed. The Natural History Museum converted the second, newer bathhouse on the south side of Gordon Park into a Trailside Museum in 1943. Soon construction of Interstate 90 disrupted access to the museum and they relocated their exhibits to University Circle and closed. Upon completion of that section of the freeway, the building reopened as the Cleveland Aquarium in 1954. The aquarium featured 50 tanks with sharks, swordfish, eels, octopus, coral and an alligator. The building closed in 1986 and the animals were transferred to Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.