Sitting on 10 acres of land high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, Hillforest Mansion strikes an impressive scene. Just as impressive is it’s colorful past. Listed on The National Register of Historic Places, in 1992 it was bestowed the honor of being designated a National Historic Landmark thus placing it on the same level of prominence as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Designed in 1853 by Isaiah Rogers, an architect known as the “father of the modern hotel”, it was designed for Thomas Gaff and his family who occupied it from 1855 until 1891.
Shipping and riverboats were significant elements of the Gaff business enterprises and are reflected in the architecture of the home.
Although based on the Italian Renaissance architectural style, the two-story home’s design reflected Gaff’s involvement in the shipping industry with its full-width front porch being reminiscent of a steamboat’s deck. Among it’s many features include Ventian Glass Windows,elaborate plaster mouldings, a museum room, and an underground wine cellar.
The suspended staircase was patterned after those at the ends of the Grand Salon on the more elaborate riverboats of the time.Reportedly, the Gaff children once rode a pony up these stairs and out the rear door.
Thomas Gaff was born in Scotland in July of 1808. After coming to the United States, he learned paper making and the distillery business. Along with his brother James they became involved in many other businesses,including a jewelry store, A Nevada silver mine, farming, turnpike and canal construction, machine works, and a mill in Columbus Indiana which produced the world’s first ready made cereal.
Needing to transport their brewery and distillery products, they also owned a fleet of steamboats. During the Civil War they supplied the Union Army the steamboats, whence one of them the Forest Queen became the headquarters for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and successfully rammed the Vicksburg blockade.
In their spare time, the brothers were involved in many civic affairs, helped organize the local school system , established the First National Bank of Aurora and served on the city council.
Today Hillforest is a non-profit museum and is open to the public.