William J Van Aken: mayor and a founder

William J. Van Aken (1884 - 1950) devoted his adult life to his real estate business and to the service of Shaker Heights. (ECH). He is well known as the first mayor of the City of Shaker Heights (1930) who served until his death in 1950. His support of the Van Sweringen brothers was so strong, some called him "the third Van."

An aspect of Van Aken's service to Shaker Heights that is not as well known began years before there was a City of Shaker Heights. He served as council member, then mayor of Shaker Village until it became Shaker Heights Village. And before that he was actively involved in the founding of Shaker Village when it broke away from Cleveland Heights in 1911. Further, as Dr Virginia Dawson's essay explains, it is primarily at Van Aken's urging that the Shaker Square area of Cleveland is in the Shaker Heights school district.


Southeast Cleveland was home to many manufacturing companies and foundries. Van Aken worked for one of them, National Malleable Castings. A high school graduate, he had started as an office boy and was now a bookkeeper.

In 1910 William Van Aken was 25 years old, unmarried, and living with his widowed mother and two older unmarried step-sisters Anna Hank and Helen Hank. on the north side of North Woodland Road at East 125th Street. He was in Cleveland Heights, on its southern border. Across North Woodland Road - today Larchmere Boulevard - was  Newburgh City.

Below we show the family, as recorded in the 1910 U.S. Census.

William Van Aken with his widowed mother and step-sisters in the 1910 U S Census.


Van Aken was working with his friends, O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen, pursuing a shared vision of creating Shaker Heights. [ For more on their friendship, read Virginia Dawson's essay on his role in shaping the Shaker Heights school district.]

The first step was to create Shaker Village, by detaching an area from the southern part of Cleveland Heights. This was done by a petition to separate. Van Aken was the first to sign it, and he may have been the one who obtained the other signatures.

The first signatures on the petition were from Shaker Village's western-most area, Woodland, where many foundry and factory workers, often Bohemian and Hungarian immigrants, lived.

The petition was swiftly accepted by the Cleveland Heights council and then by the Cuyahoga County Commissioners.

Some time in 1911 the four Van Akens moved to their new home at 2484 East 128th Street, safely within Shaker Heights. The single-family home is on the west side of the street, the first one north of North Woodland. It can be seen on the map below in allotment N owned by his mother Mary Van Aken.

The house still stands, though in 1989 the street was renamed Kendall Road, following the Shaker Heights practice of naming all its streets. William and Florence Van Aken lived here until 1916. Mary Van Aken lived here, with her daughters, until her death in 1938.


www.ShakerBuildings.com includes the building card for the Mary Van Aken home.

This card might not be the original. It has much less data than other cards in the area (no date, architect and cost). Further the house was built when the address was 2484 East 128th yet this card shows the renumbering that we believe happened in the 1920s. Further the house had a single number, which suggests a single family home, and was then changed to show two numbers, 2584 and 2586. But the back of the card, which shows alterations and renovations, does not show its conversion to two family.

One possibility: after William Van Aken and his wife moved out in 1916 (they had two children by that time), his mother converted the house to two-family. To see both sides of the card, click here and download the card.

The picture below was taken near the new house and shows how semi-rural the area was.

Photo courtesy of the Shaker Historical Society

Three young couples on North Woodland, near East 130th ca 1911

Left to right William Van Aken and Florence Swallow, Anne Nickels and Percy Close, Julia Jackel and Ben Brugge. William and Florence became engaged in October 1911 and were married in October 1912. 

On August 8, 1911 Shaker Township has its first election. The new township is clearly controlled by the Van Sweringen interests. Its councilmen are Van Aken (the old friend and devoted ally), John L Cannon (the Van Sweringen's attorney) and O. P. Van Sweringen himself.

Cleveland telephone books for 1911 through 1913 are on microfilm at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Here are the listings for William J Van Aken. Note that in 1911, when he signed the petition, he lived at 12497 North Woodland, on the north side of what today is Larchmere Road.

On October 27 Shaker Village votes to become Shaker Heights Village. [see public notice of referendum]. In doing so it leaves behind the Woodland area which was next to the City of Cleveland. Woodland voters soon petition to join Cleveland.



Van Aken's listings in the 1911 and 1912 Cleveland phone directories


Early in 1912 the Woodland area's petition results in it becoming part of Cleveland. Now Van Aken's own neighborhood is the western-most part of Shaker Heights.

In September 1912 the Shaker Heights Board of Education arranged to move their area into the Cleveland schools. (Learn more about the exchange of school areas.) Now Mary Van Aken's allotment (see map below) is in the Cleveland Schools - specifically Rice Elementary - but still in Shaker Heights.

On October 12 William Van Aken and Florence Swallow are married.

On Election Day in November. Newburgh City votes to be annexed to Cleveland.


Now Van Aken's neighborhood is in the Cleveland school district and its neighbors just across the street are in Cleveland, Newburg City now being part of Cleveland. On June 23, 1913, a majority of the voters of his neighborhood petition to be annexed to Cleveland.

We assume that those leading the effort to detach from Shaker Heights wanted to include East 128th Street and perhaps other streets to the east. That would have brought Van Aken's home into Cleveland. Virginia Dawson's narrative explains that the Van Sweringens placed the border just east of the Van Aken home. That would keep Van Aken's home in Shaker Heights Village, so he could continue to serve officially. The result is that we find him in 1913 residing on what will in 1915 become the Shaker Heights side of the Cleveland - Shaker border.

The homes on East 128th through East 130th Streets were two-family, with porches, on small lots. Certainly not Shaker standards, as defined by the Van Sweringens. Further, their occupants were largely foreign born factory workers.

Our conclusion: it is reasonable to assume that without William Van Aken's key role in the shaping of Shaker Heights, the annexation would have extended east to include the lots on the east side of East 130th Street. Thus we maintain that Mary Van Aken's home is of historical importance, as it determined the western boundary of Shaker Heights.


The map labels "N" as the "Mary Van Aken proposed allotment." The Van Aken home is the first one on East 128th in her allotment. The red line (North. Woodland) marks the border between Shaker Heights and Cleveland, (In early 1913 Newburgh City became part of Cleveland.).

The land north of Northwood Road, up to Fairmount (now Fairhill) Road, was a sandstone quarry. It would become the home of an armory and is now owned by the Cleveland Skating Club.

Source: 1914 Hopkins map of Cleveland plate 3


How could the Van Sweringens have "moved the border" to keep the Van Aken home in Shaker Heights? They may have persuaded the group petitioning the county to detach from Shaker Heights and join Cleveland, to move the eastern boundary, as stated in its petition, to between East 127th and East 128th. What they could have given in exchange was a promise not to oppose the petition. Whatever was done, the petition took a very long time - 18 months - from its initial presentation until annexation.


In 1916 the William Van Aken family, now including two children, moves out of Mary Van Aken's home.


William Van Aken and his family have moved to a new
six-bedroom home on Warrington Road in Shaker Heights.

The William Van Aken family in the 1920 U S Census.

The 1920 Census (above) shows William Van Aken, now 35 years old, his wife Florence and five children: a boy and four daughters.

He is mayor of Shaker Heights, active in real estate sales and development, and a community leader. The man who in 1911 was single, living with his mother, and working as a bookkeeper in a foundry, has come a long way in nine years.



In an interview in the February 27, 1930 Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mayor William Van Aken remembers the start of Shaker Heights. Click here.

The 1930 census shows them living in the same house, with a fifth daughter, Ruth, born in 1922. He declares his occupation as "president" (of his realty firm).


William Van Aken died in December 1950, while serving as mayor of Shaker Heights. [read obituary].

At his memorial service held at Plymouth Church it was announced that in his memory South Moreland Boulevard would be renamed Van Aken Blvd. [read Plain Dealer story.]


1930 Plain Dealer photo

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