Hillforest, a Manion on a Hill

Hillforest, an Italian Renaissance beauty from 1855, sits on the hillside of the very quaint town of Aurora, Indiana.  (That’s right, I said Indiana.  We’ll call this post Kentuckiana Historic Travels.)  

Aurora is a river town, sitting along the Ohio River, just under 2 hours from Louisville.  We heard about this beauty when visiting Dinsmore a few months ago, and when I saw the photo I knew we had to visit, even if it was in Indiana! =) 

Aurora’s website states, “Aurora is a historic river town that is situated 35 miles west of Cincinnati, Ohio, located in the Southeast corner of Indiana. Aurora was settled in the early 1800’s and incorporated in 1845 and has strong historic connections to the Ohio River. Aurora is full of unique and historic buildings that preserve its older river city characteristics.”

Now before I get into telling you about this amazingly unique treasure, let’s tell you a little about who was behind the building of such a grand mansion.  

A Family from Scotland

Thomas Gaff, son of James and Margaret Wilson Gaff, was born in Scotland in 1808.  At the age of 3, his parents immigrated to America, settling first in New Jersey.  Once there, Thomas’s younger brothers, James (1817) and John (1820) were born.   Several moves later, the family settled in New York near Margaret’s brother, Charles.  Charles was in the distillery business, and it was there that Charles taught Thomas all about the industry.  

Fast forward several years and we find all three brothers in Pennsylvania being quite the multi-talented entrepreneurs.  They were not only running a whiskey distillery, but they were also running a mercantile and papermaking business.  1837 arrives and the depression takes hold.  Between the depression, rising taxes, and difficulty obtaining enough grain for their distillery, the three brothers decided it was time to move elsewhere.  

Heading West

Indiana, in 1837, was the frontier, and just like in Kentucky, land was given away to get families to move in and develop “the wild west.”  The Gaff brothers were offered free land and tax incentives to move their businesses to Aurora. James was the first to arrive in Aurora, immediately setting up a mercantile.  Thomas arrived in 1843 and began building a distillery, and John followed in 1845.  (Later, after the death of their father, their mother, Margaret and their three sisters, joined them in Aurora.) 

Things were good, I mean really good, for the Gaff family.  By 1850, the distillery was the largest in the United States, so they expanded into the brewing industry, establishing Crescent Brewing Company.  The beer was sold throughout the Midwest and was exported to Germany.  It seems only natural that these entrepreneurs, who were sitting right on top of the Ohio River, would then turn their sights to the shipping industry.  They went on to build and own an entire fleet of steamboats! 

A Grand Mansion on a Hill

Now, let’s talk Hillforest!  While the Gaff brothers were busy building a business empire, they were also busy building families.  Thomas married Sarah Darling Whipple in 1835, and quickly had six children.  (Unfortunately, only 3 lived to adulthood.) Thomas and Sarah’s family, along with Thomas’s mother, where living in the very small living quarters over the mercantile, when Thomas finally saw the right time to build a fine home for his family. 

In the Spring of 1853, Thomas hired Isaiah Rogers, “the father of the modern hotel,” to design and build a twelve room mansion on the hillside of Aurora overlooking his businesses and the Ohio River.  The home was built into the hillside of his ten acre tract, surrounded by Italian landscaping, formal gardens, a lake, gazebo, terraced gardens, and baths. On the hillside above the home were vegetable gardens, vineyards, orchards, and pastures.  As you can imagine, this was one exquisite property, and just as much thought was put into the inside of the home as the outside. 

Hillforest -close up
The Mansion on the Hill

Stepping onto the porch that runs the entire length of the home, you stand before tall double doors.  Step into the foyer and you are greeted by natural wood and etched glass doors.  Beyond those doors, a magnificent staircase, reminiscent of “Gone with the Wind.”  Okay, maybe not that grand, but it will still make you say, “Wow!” out loud just as I did! To the left and right of the grand main hall and staircase are the East and West wings of the home.  Both were parlor rooms where Thomas and Sarah would entertain family and friends once they moved in, in 1855.  The parlors were carpeted, the walls were painted to appear to be wainscot (a very cool effect, I must say!), and the ceilings were 13 feet high.  Each room could be closed off by over-sized, solid wood, pocket doors.  Additional architectural features were added to show their wealth, including over-sized pocket windows!  Each window was large enough for you to open and walk through onto the porches, and the windows disappeared into the wall above it!  

Behind the west parlor, you find the dining room table set with the family’s china place settings.  Behind the east parlor, you find the wine cellar and cold storage.  That’s right!  The wine cellar and cold storage are on the first floor of the home due to being built into the hillside. This room of the home is actually underground!  

You will not find a backdoor to this home on the first floor.  Instead, there is a side “servant’s door” behind the dining room taking you out the west side of the home.  Now, take the beautiful floating staircase to the 2nd floor, and you’ll find the backdoor at the landing!  I was blown away.  Never in all of my historical travels have I seen a home built into a hillside, and then to have a backdoor on the 2nd floor.  My mind was truly blown.  The ingenuity of designers and builders of the 1800’s still gets me.  Boy did they know how to build things to last!  

On the second floor, the personal family rooms were found.  There were four bedrooms all fitted with coal burning fireplaces and presses (very shallow closets).  There was a front morning room, where you are surrounded by floor to ceiling windows.  It is in this room that Thomas and Sarah most likely had their breakfast.  Just to the west of this room, behind a narrow door, was a very narrow staircase that led to the 3rd floor circular rooftop belvedere.  Once there, you are greeted by amazing views of Aurora and the Ohio River because you have a 360 degree view through round-arched windows, designed to look like a pilothouse of a steamboat. If the day is beautiful, you can stop and stay awhile.  If not, you’ll get really hot or really cold very fast, depending on when you visit.  If you lived there in the 1800’s, you would have opened the backdoor on the 2nd floor, opened the windows in the belvedere, and would have been blessed with a breeze, as the home was built for natural breeze.  There’s that ingenuity again! 

Back down the stairs, and behind the west facing bedrooms, you will be shown another small servant’s bedroom.  The ceilings are not as tall, the room is not fancy, but it still had a closet.  Very rare for this time period!   

Servant’s Entrance

Outside of the home is what remains of a carriage house.  It is believed that it was once much larger.  This can not be toured.  Also, you will find a most unusual stone grotto believed to be used as melon storage.  I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it.  

A Historical Landmark

Now, to wrap up this family story.  The family lived in the home until 1891, and the home continued to stay in the Gaff family until 1926.  From there it passed through several hands before a group of local citizens banned together to save the home and the history, in 1955. The Hillforest Historical Foundation was born, and in 1956, the home opened, fully restored, as a historical home and museum. In 1992, the mansion was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior, forever saving this beauty for generations to come. 

While not Kentucky history, it is Ohio River, true American ingenuity history, and the architecture and grandeur of this home makes it well worth the trip!  You really don’t want to miss it. The home is open for tours from April 1st – December 30th, so you have plenty of time to make the trip.  Check their website for days and tour times.  

Until next time, Happy Travels! 

Front View

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