When we think of heavyweights in Cleveland history one name comes to mind, Winston E. Willis. In 1958 Willis arrived in Cleveland via Detroit and soon thereafter went on to form a real estate empire around East 105 and Euclid Avenue. At it’s height Winston’s University Circle Properties Development Inc. (UCPD) owned 23 businesses that defined action and entertainment in the city.
The Scrumpy Dump, Winston’s Place, and The Jazz Temple which Winston opened at the age of 19, were just a few of the more notable holdings in his portfolio. Also under his direction were a handful of adult establishments which during the mid 70s where commonplace in Cleveland.
Initially a darling of Cleveland newspapers Winston fell out of favor with local editors and was continually given bad press over what right-minded people would agree were manufactured skirmishes with law enforcement.
During the same weeks that the Plain Dealer described him as a “pornographer” and operator of “cheat spots” the Call and Post reported on the charity dinners and bridge club luncheons being held at the very same establishments. This isn’t to say that 85-year-old bridge players don’t enjoy underworld gaming and adult movies but the difference in perception is curious.
Also during the 70s the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and University Circle Inc. sought to strip Willis of his land holdings. Forever the showman Willis communicated his displeasure with these entities by erecting billboards to voice his dissent. At the time he was considered a loon for accusing the Clinic of making secret land acquisitions under assumed names and leaving land vacant to drive down neighboring real estate prices. However, having spoken with many of the former shop keeps on Cedar Avenue, Winston now appears to have been anything but crazy.
The point of this story is not to say that Willis was a man without faults; during his life he appears to have suffered from his own hand, but who of us hasn’t? Despite his misgivings he, for a time, defined the hustle that made our city great.
Winston’s world on 105 was one of polar opposites, retail action, buyers and sellers who lived in the neighborhood, and most importantly a density that has not been seen since his reign. Cleveland SGS is appreciative of men like Winston E. Willis for giving us memories of greatness. We can only hope that his is the model for the Cleveland of our future.
Mr. Willis if you have anything to add (or correct) please contact us using the link at the bottom of the page.
Photos courtesy of Day Street