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.