Forest Hill Park: John D. Rockefeller’s summer estate, modern day Cleveland Heights park

John D. RockefellerBorn in Richford, New York in 1839, John D. Rockefeller moved with his family to a farm in Strongsville by the early 1850s. Educated at Cleveland’s Central High School, he began his business career as a clerk for a commission merchant in Cleveland’s Flats in September 1855, where he learned remarkable self-discipline and sound business skills.

Before long, Rockefeller found himself a partner in a firm of his own.

in 1864, he began what proved to be a 50-year marriage to Laura Celestia Spelman. They lived in a brick house at the corner of Euclid and Case Avenues (today’s East 40th Street). While substantial, this brick building was unpretentious by Millionaire’s Row standards.

Prosperous by the late 1860s, Rockefeller reached a turning point in 1870 when he founded the Standard Oil Company with a refinery located in the Flats. The new firm’s principal product was refined oil intended for use in the household lamps that were universal before the advent of electricity.

Armed with a new fortune, Rockefeller in 1873 bought a tract of land straddling the border of East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. Ultimately reaching 235 acres, the property in 1878 first housed a large building to serve as a sanitarium. When this enterprise floundered after one year, it became the Rockefeller family’s summer home.

The property became known as Forest Hill. It provided elevations with dramatic views of Cleveland. Much of the land was wooded, but creeks and ponds were also notable. Improvements began immediately, and eventually included miles of bridle paths and a full-sized golf course.

Business requirements made it necessary for Rockefeller to move to New York City in 1884, making his principal residence there. His interest in Forest Hill didn’t wane, and the family made an extended visit there every summer.

Unfortunately, these visits took an ugly turn in 1914. Mrs. Rockefeller became seriously ill during her visit in 1913, and Rockefeller decided to extend his stay rather than subject his ailing wife to the rigors of a long train trip back to New York City.

The Cuyahoga County Auditor seized upon this private misfortune to present Rockefeller with an immense tax bill on the grounds that he was therefore a Cuyahoga County resident. This rube somehow got the impression that Rockefeller would meekly pay this unjust tax bill without protest. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Rockefeller prevailed—at a terrible cost to Cleveland.

Incensed by the incident, Rockefeller never returned to Cleveland after his wife’s funeral in 1915, despite outliving her by decades.

While New York City, Atlanta, and Chicago benefit to this day from Rockefeller generosity Cleveland was deliberately excluded.

In December 1917, a suspicious fire destroyed the sprawling Forest Hill house the Rockefellers had occupied for almost 40 summers, casting doubt on the property’s future as a summer retreat.

By the early 1920s Rockefeller began divesting himself of real estate. Comfortably living in his Kykuit Estate in Sleepy Hollow, New York, he chose to sell Forest Hill to his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr.

A.D. Taylor, ca.1937Planning began to determine how Forest Hill could become a public park for the benefit of area residents.

This was a slow process that took years to complete. Cleveland landscape architect Albert Davis Taylor was hired to manage this transformation. Taylor’s professional training was impeccable. He studied under Warren Manning, perhaps the greatest landscape architect of his generation.

Bridges and roads were built, and other improvements made where Dugway Creek and Doan Brook crossed the property. Existing landscape features were enhanced, and Taylor declared that that property provided an ideal basis for development into a park.

A real estate development also came about on the estate—creating a group of 81 houses, designed in French Norman style by New York architect Andrew J. Thomas

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had planned to build 200 homes, but stopped when none of the homes sold. He sold the remaining land to other developers, who built homes in different architectural styles.

Those 81 original homes eventually sold in the 1930s for a fraction of original price, according to the Forest Hill Preservation Society, and are prized by their owners to this day. 

Also known by the name Forest Hill, the development would have been even larger if not for the financial constraints introduced by the stock market crash in 1929.

Forest Hill Park opened to the public in 1939 to great acclaim.

Eighty-five years later, the park spans Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, providing year-round recreational facilities in a pastoral setting. There is a nature trail, multipurpose trail, playground, tennis courts, ball and fields.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.