Albert Fairchild Holden (1866-1913) found wealth and inspiration in the ground. His roles as founder of the Island Creek Coal Company and managing director of the United States Mining and Smelting Company made him millions. But his lifelong passion for botany created a heritage for which northeast Ohioans may be thankful.
Albert Holden was a child of privilege, the son of Liberty Emery Holden, a silver-mining magnate and early owner of the Plain Dealer. Growing up on the family estate in Bratenahl, Ohio, Albert built greenhouses and grew and cataloged plants and trees. As a young adult, he traveled to England where he visited the famed Kew Gardens. He attended Harvard University where he often explored the Arnold Arboretum. The seeds of Holden’s legacy clearly were planted early.
Family tragedies also played a role in forming what would eventually become the Holden Arboretum. Albert’s wife Katherine, barely 30, died in 1900 and one of his three daughters, Elizabeth, passed on at the age of 12 in 1908. In 1912, at age 46, Holden himself was diagnosed with cancer. Acknowledging his imminent demise, he set out to establish a living memorial to his wife and daughter.
His first vision—an institution of higher learning in the botanical sciences on his family’s Bratenahl property—was deemed unworkable due to land-size constraints and objections from the family. So shortly before his death, Holden agreed to place the newly named Elizabeth Davis Holden Memorial Arboretum on 50 acres at Lake View Cemetery. In the coming years, however, Albert’s sister, Roberta Holden Bole (who assumed custody of the couple’s two surviving daughters), grew uncomfortable with the idea of a “cemetery arboretum;” so although a site plan at Lake View had already been completed by the famed Olmsted Brothers, the Lake View agreement was terminated before any development was undertaken.
In 1929, the Bole family offered the project a 100-acre site in Kirtland, far from Cleveland’s pollution and an ideal “mini-climate” that could accommodate the planting of myriad specimens. C. Gordon Cooper, a consulting architect with A.D. Taylor and Company (which also designed John D. Rockefeller’s Forest Hill), was hired to oversee the project.
Two years later, Cooper recommended a change. In addition to an educational institution, he asked the family to consider a novel initiative to re-create the flora and ecosystems of different areas of the country and the world. These dual missions (academic and archival) would mesh well with the interests of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which was providing the undertaking with guidance and legal governance. The strategic foundation of the world’s first “ecological arboretum” thus was planted.
The size of the Kirtland site grew quickly, with large donations of additional land from the Bole family and financial assistance from Emery May Holden Norweb, Ben Bole, Jr., and Warren H. Corning, whose property was nearby. The institution’s “soft opening” came on October 17, 1937, with a tour by members and trustees of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The next year, Corning Lake was constructed and the lilac, rhododendron and azalea gardens were planted. World War II and a disastrous flood slowed the institution’s expansion; but when the war ended, vast new initiatives—buoyed by large gifts from Warren Corning and Emery May Holden Norweb—were undertaken. Trails and roads were constructed, gardens were added and expanded; and the Albert Fairchild Holden Shelter was built.
Despite growing pains, Holden Arboretum took firmer root and flourished after World War II. In 1951, disagreements between Holden staff and Cleveland Museum of Natural History boiled over, and the latter’s board of trustees proposed that Holden be “spun off” as an independent, not-for-profit institution. This new incarnation became a reality in 1952. By 1956 Holden Arboretum comprised nearly 1,000 acres. New gardens and plantings were implemented constantly and adjoining forested properties were acquired for preservation and protection. To this day, wild places like Bole Woods, Stebbins Gulch and Little Mountain—navigable but essentially unaltered—are vital untamed elements of the Arboretum.
The 1960s were no less fruitful. During this decade a large horticultural library was constructed. The Corning family also moved to a pair of converted farmhouses in the center of the Arboretum grounds and offered their Lantern Court mansion to the Arboretum for a modest yearly rental. Additional land and financial donations by the Firman and Holden families were made in the 1970s. In 1985 Katherine Holden Thayer—the last surviving child of Albert Fairchild Holden—died. This put the Arboretum on firmer financial footing, since additional funds could now be released by the Albert Fairchild Holden Trust.
Today, the Arboretum is supported by funds from the Albert Fairchild Holden Trust, as well as the contributions of members, donors and business partners. The largess of these groups and so many others have helped create an extraordinary outdoor living museum on 3,500 acres. Holden grounds feature more than 20 miles of trails that meander through cultivated gardens and native forests. The Murch Canopy Walk (an elevated walkway 65 feet above the forest floor) and the Kalberer Family Emergent Tower (a wooden tower that rises 120 feet above the forest floor) provide breathtaking views of the landscape. Moreover, the Cleveland Botanical Garden in University Circle is now part of an expanded and renamed entity known as Holden Forests & Gardens. Together, the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden offer a unique fusion of urban greening and forestry initiatives, community outreach, environmental research, educational programs, and world-renowned visitor experiences.