A Cherished Past | A Golden Future
A century after the Thompson brothers settled on the 840-acre site east of Columbus that would become the beginnings of Upper Arlington, the idealistic vision the two brothers had for this picturesque community still resonates today.
One cannot discuss the history of Upper Arlington without beginning at the Miller Farm, purchased in 1859 by Dr. Henry Miller and his wife, Almeda. The Millers, affluent and civic-minded, relocated from the heart of Columbus to a country estate overlooking the Scioto River as a promise to their son James—if he recovered from typhoid fever, they would buy him anything he desired. The son only wanted a farm.
Ten years later, James T. Miller married Esther Everitt in 1869, his parents returned to downtown Columbus and the newlyweds took over the farm, raising their eight children over the next three decades. By 1913, the immaculate 900-acre estate and 22-bedroom mansion had become a burden to maintain, requiring dozens of hired hands who also needed housing. So, James sought a solution, asking his physician, Dr. J.A. Van Fossen, for recommendations. Dr. Fossen knew the perfect buyer—King Thompson.
King Thompson, a Georgetown, Ohio native, moved to Columbus in 1897 to study at The Ohio State University, leaving home with nothing but a horse and wagon. In the following years, he was joined by his younger brother, Ben, and the two started the King Thompson Company, helping transform neighborhoods that included parts of Clintonville, Beechwold and Grandview. After Dr. Van Fossen’s introduction, the Thompsons made a deal to purchase 840 acres from James T. Miller on Christmas Eve, 1913.
King Thompson quickly began laying the groundwork for his vision of transforming the rolling, partly wooded farmland into 2,500 lots. He hired architect William Pitkin, Jr. of Rochester, New York, whose design respected the natural contours of the land, creating open spaces and wide streets. No provisions were made for industrial sites—only a few acres for offices and retail shops. And in August of 1914, a team of horses cut a new street north from Fifth Avenue, leading into recently harvested fields. Over the next couple years, the Scioto
Country Club and a half-dozen new homes were built. The King Thompson Company, started marketing the new subdivision as the Country Club District—a nod to the development in Kansas City upon which it was based, “giving opportunity for spacious grounds for permanently protected homes, surrounded with ample space for air and sunshine.” But the start of Upper Arlington was not without struggles.
On June 18, 1916, a presidential decree gave Ohio Governor Frank Willis authority to seize a site where Ohio National Guardsmen could set up base and train for the possibility that more of the Mexican Revolution would cross into the United States. Governor Willis thought the Country Club District was the perfect spot for Ohio’s National Guardsmen, based on the high ground, easy drainage and ready access to Columbus. Camp Willis was built with commandeered lumber from future homes, the area was pitted with latrines and incoming trucks destroyed freshly grated streets. After three months of training, the soldiers were declared ready and Camp Willis was vacated on September 9, 1916. Federal and state officials quickly began to fight over the repayment of the $200,000 that had been spent on the construction of Camp Willis. King Thompson Company’s exact losses were not recorded, but roads were damaged, sewer and gas lines destroyed, and King Thompson eventually collected about half of what he was owed—$46,000. But the brothers cut their losses, pressed forward and a year after the soldiers’ departure, more than 50 houses were either occupied or under construction.
The Thompson brothers understood their vision required more than houses, streets and sewer systems. The community needed a form of government. On March 20, 1918, the Village of Upper Arlington was officially incorporated. In June, the 200 residents elected their first leaders under a mayor-council form of government. James T. Miller, owner of the Miller Farm, was elected the first mayor, along with a treasurer, clerk, six commissioners and a health officer. With adoption of a village charter in 1919, the form of government transitioned to a commission.
Upper Arlington’s government quickly started taking shape. The Upper Arlington Commission appointed a building inspector in 1925, and formed a Board of Zoning and Planning in 1927 to respond to residents’ requests for zoning variances. These new additions upheld the Thompsons’ vision, regulating height of buildings, construction and open spaces.
Upper Arlington became a city in 1941, once its population exceeded 5,000. The population almost doubled again in the next decade. In 1956, citizens voted to amend the City Charter, adopting a council-manager form of government—which remains in place today—with the first two women elected to serve on a seven-member City Council. By 1970, Upper Arlington was home to approximately 39,000 residents, peaking at about 42,000 by 1976.
As the community grew, so did its safety forces. The commission established its first police force in 1921, hiring one day and two nighttime officers. Ten years later, the village bought its first two police cruisers. A year after the police force was established, a resolution was passed to pay the City of Columbus $250 per run for fire protection. In 1929, residents approved a plan to build a municipal building at 2095 Arlington Avenue, to house village officials, police and an independent Fire Division—by 1972, this facility was transformed to Fire Station 71, while other municipal functions moved to 3600 Tremont Road, upon completion of the Municipal Services Center. Today—with 49 police officers and 53 fire/EMS personnel—Upper Arlington’s safety services do more than just protect. Creating programs such as STAY UA, Safety Town and Kind Call, they assist and educate residents with a wealth of safety considerations.
As the decades passed, Upper Arlington grew not only in population, but also its physical size. In 1954 and 1955, the two largest parcels were annexed, nearly doubling the City’s land mass. While growth represented progress, City leaders understood it should be a thoughtful process, creating the City’s first Master Plan in 1962. A key element of this Master Plan was a recommendation that the population should not exceed 45,000, to preserve its “distinctive identity.”
With few opportunities remaining to expand the city’s footprint and a population experiencing a slight decline, 40 years on the City embarked on a major Master Plan update process, with the new plan adopted in 2001. With just five percent of the land zoned for commercial use, finding ways to maximize the business districts’ revenue generating potential were a critical priority. The Master Plan provided the framework for encouraging commercial redevelopment that would meet city goals, while also preserving and enhancing the community’s beloved residential nature. Per a directive of the 2001 Master Plan, the document was revisited after 10 years, with an updated version completed in 2013. In recent years, the city has experienced significant transformations in the Lane Avenue and Kingsdale commercial districts—while managing to respect and preserve surrounding neighborhoods—expanding amenities for residents and growing critical revenue sources to support the schools and the city.
As Upper Arlington neared the milestone of its first century, it was increasingly clear that important infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewer lines, and public facilities, were aging and falling into disrepair. In November 2014, voters approved an income tax increase of 1/2%, with the resulting revenues dedicated to addressing the backlog of capital needs. The city expanded its Capital improvement Program from seven to 10 years, with $113 million in investments identified within the first plan, setting the community back on a sustainable path for maintenance and replacements. In the first four years of implementation, more than $42 million has been reinvested, with noticeable results. Tremont Road best represents this shift in focus, transformed in 2015 and 2016 into a tree-lined, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly main street worthy of our community.
As envisioned by the Thompson brothers, open spaces and parks have been a vital component of the community throughout its history. In 1921, tennis courts and playground equipment were opened to the public at Miller Park. In 1928, the first swimming pool opened its doors, at a reported cost of $16,500. Growth of the parks system was sporadic during the first 50 years. Northam Park was created in 1946, with the original Tremont Pool built in 1955. Thompson Park (formally Lane Road Park) was created in 1960, on acreage that that had been purchased by the Board of Education for a proposed second high school. And in 1973, the City purchased farmland from Benn Blinn along Kioka Avenue that became Fancyburg Park, named after his wife’s pet name for Upper Arlington. Most recently, in 2010 the City created Sunny 95 Park, thanks to a gift/purchase agreement with a neighboring radio station of the same name. Subsequently, in 2011 the City accepted a gift of the Amelita Mirolo Barn rental facility at the park, the result of a signature fundraising effort of the Upper Arlington Community Foundation. Today, as we prepare for the next century, the City’s Parks & Recreation Department is charting its roadmap for the coming decades, through a comprehensive planning process.
One hundred years on, this community of approximately 34,000 residents has much to celebrate. Location, excellent schools, beautiful neighborhoods, a unique sense of community and pride, and an exquisite natural environment. The work of the past decade to plan for the next century has set us on an exciting path for continued success that is sure reflect the sentiments and hopes of our founding fathers.
We have just touched on some highlights of Upper Arlington’s rich history here, pulling from the Upper Arlington Historical Society’s new history book, 100: A Cherished Past, A Golden Future. Click below to purchase your copy today!