Filed Under Suburbs

Heights Rockefeller Building

When it opened in 1931, the Heights Rockefeller Building became a key component of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s new Forest Hill development. Designed to serve as the commercial center of this upscale residential community taking shape just to its north, early tenants in the building included a Kroger grocery store, a beauty shop, a pharmacy, and a grand Cleveland Trust bank branch.

After the death of his wife in 1915, John D. Rockefeller seldom returned to his hometown of Cleveland. In 1923, Rockefeller Jr. purchased Forest Hill, the family's 700-acre summer estate, from his father for $2.8 million. He hired Andrew J. Thomas, a New York architect best known for his low-income housing projects, to develop a portion of this land (bounded by Glynn and Mayfield Roads to the north and south and Lee and Taylor Roads to the west and east) into an upper-middle-class residential community. Thomas envisioned a parklike setting for Forest Hill, with long curving streets and plenty of greenery. Thomas also called for a uniformity of architecture in the neighborhood, with all houses built in the French Norman style, featuring steeply-pitched tiled roofs, exteriors consisting of a mix of Ohio sandstone and brick kilned in a color specially designed for Forest Hill, tall chimneys, and oak half-timbering reminiscent of the Tudor style. The Heights Rockefeller Building, itself built in the French Norman style, exhibits many of these features. Also, to further the neighborhood's beauty, attached garages were placed out of sight behind each house at basement level, and utility lines were buried underground. Stately lampposts and street signs all featured an image of a dove, the Forest Hill emblem.

Construction on the first batch of Thomas's homes in Forest Hill, clustered around Brewster Road, began in 1929. By 1930, 81 Norman-style homes had been constructed. The houses did not sell well at first. By 1932 some empty houses were being rented out, while others eventually sold for nearly half of the original asking price. The Great Depression certainly played a part in the struggle to sell these expensive homes. Also, the development's uniformity of design, touted in advertisements as creating "all the harmonious charm of the delightful villages of old France" while ensuring that "families may establish their homes without the likelihood of incongruous architectural development nearby," may have actually turned off potential buyers. Whatever the case, Thomas did not build any more houses in Forest Hill, and his original plans for 500 more Norman-style houses, a country club, apartment houses, an inn, and other commercial buildings never came to fruition.

In 1939, Rockefeller Jr. donated over 200 acres of his land west of Lee Road (originally intended to be the site of Forest Hill's country club) to Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland to create Forest Hill Park -- a public park. Rockefeller Jr. also sold the Heights Rockefeller Building in 1939, and in 1948 he sold all of the undeveloped lots in Forest Hill to George A. Roose.

Thanks to the post-World War II housing boom and increasing suburbanization, Roose quickly sold the empty Forest Hill lots. New developers built more modest houses on the lots in a variety of styles, largely abandoning Taylor's original plan for Forest Hill. The original 81 houses that Thomas designed, however, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, as was the Heights Rockefeller Building. The Rockefeller Building has changed hands a number of times over the years with various tenants coming and going. Today, the building remains a vibrant anchor for the Mayfield-Lee commercial district.

Audio

"A Higher Echelon of Homes" Oliver Schroeder, Mayor of Cleveland Heights from 1973-74, describes the original, Norman-style homes built in Forest Hill. Source: Courtesy of City of Cleveland Heights

Images

Bank Interior, Circa 1930 The interior of the Cleveland Trust bank in the Heights Rockefeller Building featured a hand-painted ceiling, iron chandeliers, and a stone fireplace. After the bank closed, special events were held in the space. It is now home to a restaurant. This photograph shows several chandeliers, stone archways, and a section of the railing in the bank. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Exterior, Circa 1935 The businesses shown in this image include Kroger Groceries & Meat, Cleveland Trust, Home Bakery, Forest Hill Flower Shop, Addison Tiling Co., and Temple Cleaners. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Exterior, ca. 1985 The Heights Rockefeller Building served a function that was common in planned suburbs. It provided a visually captivating gateway and commercial village, announcing the ambitions for the community it anchored. Similar examples abound across the nation, including in Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, New York; Riverside and Lake Forest near Chicago; and Roland Park near Baltimore. Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Cleveland Trust Entrance, Circa 1930 Customers of the Cleveland Trust bank in the Heights Rockefeller Building ascended a flight of stairs through these doors to gain entry into the bank's grand lobby Image courtesy of Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Brewster Road, 1930 Landscapers work on Brewster Road in the Forest Hill development in 1930. Brewster Road and the streets around it were the first areas to be developed in Forest Hill. In the background, still under construction, is one of the original 81 Norman-style houses designed by architect Andrew J. Thomas. Thomas also carefully designed the landscaping in the neighborhood to maximize its visual appeal, for instance planting flowering crabapple trees, American rhododendrons and Japanese azaleas. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Lee Near Mayfield, 1929 This photograph from 1929 shows the construction of Lee Road north of Mayfield Road. Development of the Forest Hill community by John D. Rockefeller Jr. around this time included the construction of roads through what had previously been open land in the Rockefeller family's private Forest Hill estate. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
House in Forest Hill This undated photograph shows a Norman-style home in Forest Hill. It was one of the 81 such houses in Forest Hill designed by architect Andrew J. Thomas and clustered on and around Brewster Road. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Father & Son, 1915 John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. are shown in 1915. After leaving his father's Standard Oil Company in 1910, Rockefeller Jr. was involved in the real estate and banking industries, and also became active in a number of philanthropic causes.

Location

3109 Mayfield Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

Metadata

Michael Rotman, “Heights Rockefeller Building,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 27, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/206.