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Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio
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The House on Hogsback Hill
By Gary Swilik
In May 2007 we received an old photograph of a big house, virtually a mansion, which included the intriguing hand-written caption "located on top of Hogsback Hill in Metropolitan Park, now site of the Stinchcomb Memorial." The photo came from Aileen Norton and her nephew, Dan Norton, descendants of a prominent West Park family.
"I was told this was the first home of my Aunt Kittie Norton and her husband, Frank O'Brien," Aileen explained. "They lived there after they were married in 1905 but only for a short time. My aunt told me Hogsback Hill was a lonely place to live so she asked her father to find her another home."
Once part of old West Park, Hogsback Hill is an isolated high point on the east bank of Rocky River in the Cleveland Metroparks, just south of Hilliard Boulevard bridge. Since 1959 it has been the site of a 30-foot-high memorial to William A. Stinchcomb, the far-seeing engineer who established the park system. The monument overlooks the first parcel of land bought for the park in 1919.
Could the big house in the picture really have stood on Hogsback Hill? The photo had not been discovered by Aileen Norton until 1998 while she was going through an old family album she'd inherited. The author of the caption is unknown and the people in the photo are unidentified. The site in the photo looks flat, not hilly.
We were unable to verify that Frank and Kittie O'Brien had ever lived on Hogsback Hill. Early atlases showed no dwelling on the site. City directories and the federal census listed no residence at that location.
Officials at the Cleveland Metroparks were contacted and we shared our old photo of the house with them. No one recognized it but they kindly put us in touch with retired Metroparks employee John R. Gerlach, of Westlake, Ohio, who shared valuable information.
"There used to be a riding stable on top of Hogsback Hill," Mr. Gerlach informed us. "It could have been that the stables up there included some part of the house shown in your photograph. But to the best of my recollection there was never any house there. Unless it burned down, but I never heard of any such thing. Just after the stable was removed they were looking for a place to build Stinchcomb Memorial and chose the top of Hogsback Hill."
So we'd discovered Hogsback Hill was occupied by a stable before Stinchcomb Memorial was built there, but what about the house in our old photo? Had it ever stood there?
Our research led us to another retired park employee: Mr. Noble Gaudreau who worked for the Metroparks for 32 years. He told us a very different story.
"I'm absolutely certain there was a big Victorian-style house on top of Hogsback Hill," Mr. Gaudreau assured us, thus becoming the first person who had actually seen the house to corroborate its existence.
"I remember like it was yesterday,' Mr Gaudreau continued. "It was painted yellow and the porch was gone. It was a big house. A mansion! I believe I saw it up there as late as the 1970s. There was definitely a home up there, and two or three barns as well. The house was part of a stable run by Mr. Walters and his son called 'Sonny.' "
We redoubled our efforts to uncover the full story and contacted several more current and retired park employees, as well as older neighborhood residents. None of them remembered the house in our photo, and many insisted no such house ever stood there. Eventually we made contact with Mrs. Rita A. Walters of Olmsted Falls, Ohio.
"My late husband was Homer Wallace Walters," she explained. "Everyone called him 'Sonny.' My husband and his father, Homer Walker Walters, ran a stable on top of Hogsback Hill. It was the original 'Lakewood Stables.' I believe my husband's family took it over in the 1940s. They had a barn built right into the hill with two levels, and upper and lower stalls. There was also an exercise ring for the horses. And a little shack where someone stayed on the property. But I never saw a house up there."
We pressed on and uncovered a 1927 Cleveland plat book showing the outline of a large structure on Hogsback Hill. Was it the house in our photo Mr. Gaudreau remembered so vividly? Or was it the stable Mrs. Walters and everyone else remembered? Or were they one and the same? Why did so many other sources show no residence at that location?
At this point architectural researcher Craig Bobby, of Lakewood, Ohio, took an interest in the matter. He dug through property cards, tax records, deeds, and old newspapers. He uncovered a property assessment record which included a diagram that clearly matched the house in our photo. With this evidence in hand, we were able to solve much of the mystery.
The house, apparently called "Walnut Hills," did indeed stand on Hogsback Hill near the site of the Stinchcomb Memorial. It was built in 1894 by grocer Patrick O'Brien, father of Frank O'Brien who was the husband of Kittie Norton. So Aileen Norton's account of her Aunt Kittie once living in the house makes perfect sense. It had belonged to Kittie's father-in-law.
Why had this information been so hard to uncover?
"No one must have believed there was a residence up there," says Craig Bobby. "It was missed by two early 20th century plat books as well as the federal census."
When Patrick O'Brien died in 1905 the property passed through several owners but was not sold to the Metroparks until 1952. Who would have thought a remote hilltop, surrounded by park land and chosen for a memorial because it overlooked the very first tract purchased for the park, did not itself become part of the park until many years later? Most people, including us, had believed the Stinchcomb Memorial stood directly on original park property. No wonder information on the site was scarce.
Once again, our fascination with West Park history has been reinforced! So much of it is unrecorded or forgotten. When West Park was annexed to Cleveland in 1922, Cleveland's past became our past, and much of our unique local history has been lost or ignored.
Even a home as impressive as Patrick O'Brien's mansion can escape the attention of many and quickly be forgotten. However, thanks to the help of the Norton Family, Noble Gaudreau, and expert researcher Craig Bobby, the story behind the house on Hogsback Hill and its part in West Park history has been rediscovered.
We still don't know when the house was demolished or why so few people recognized it for what it was. We have been unable to identify the people in the photo but they are probably members of Patrick O'Brien's family.
If any of our readers have memories of the house on Hogsback Hill, or the stable that later operated there, we'd be very glad to hear from you.
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Updated by: Charles C. Chaney
20 May 2011