UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS was originally part of the farming community of WARRENSVILLE TOWNSHIP, established in 1816. By the early twentieth century, selling land became more profitable than farming it, and property owners on “the Heights” east of Cleveland began to sell their farms to real estate developers who marketed them as desirable suburban homes. The East side’s most prominent developers, ORIS P. and MANTIS J. VAN SWERINGEN, persuaded officials of the new CLEVELAND HEIGHTS village to allow a streetcar line to run up Fairmount Boulevard (then North Woodland) to Lee Road in 1907 to better develop their elegant subdivision, now known as the Shaker Farm Historic District.
Long-time residents just to the east in Warrensville Township, including the Penty and Silsby families, took notice. They had bought and sold land in the area for decades, and their neighborhood had just been annexed to Cleveland Heights in 1905. Perhaps to avoid the assessments for improvements like paving Mayfield Road, they, and others, voted in 1907 to detach from Cleveland Heights and establish Idlewood Village out of their southeast corner of Cleveland Heights and the northwest section of Warrensville Township. They then started to sell their acres to developers in 1909. Idlewood’s first elected officials were mayor A.R. Silsby, assessor George W. Penty, and village councilor G.E. Penty.
Idlewood’s boundaries were Fairmount on the south; Idlewood Rd. and Taylor Road on the west but including Bradford, East Fairfax, and Clarendon Roads; East Scarborough Road and Cedar Road on the north; and Green Road on the east. (The irregular boundaries corresponded to the property lines of the families involved.) Idlewood developers hoped to take advantage of the Van Sweringens’ streetcar, but most of Idlewood was a long walk from the end of the streetcar line at Fairmount and Lee. Sales lagged far behind those in the Van Sweringen allotment to the west, and Idlewood may have had difficulty financing the infrastructure necessary for suburban living. At any rate, in 1914, at residents’ request, the section of Idlewood west from Canterbury Road was re-annexed to Cleveland Heights, which was then enjoying a population and building boom. A strip along the north side of Fairmount from Green to Eaton was annexed to SHAKER HEIGHTS village, then being developed by the Van Sweringens.
The re-annexation left Idlewood Village with only 70 residents. Its town hall was re-located from Fairmount and Warrensville Center Road, on land leased from the Van Sweringens, to Warrensville Center and Silsby Road, its current location. During the 1920s, most of the village was laid out for development by the Rapid Transit Land Sales Company, in conjunction with the Van Sweringens. It was later also sold by smaller real estate companies.
The major impetus for Idlewood’s development was the purchase in 1923 by John Carroll University of a 45-acre site to the east of Warrensville Center. The university, originally St. Ignatius College and very briefly Cleveland University, was relocating from its original location in OHIO CITY to attract more East side students. ST. IGNATIUS HIGH SCHOOL, the university’s parent institution, remained on the Ohio City site. This purchase inspired the Van Sweringens to envision a group of academic institutions on boulevards radiating from a traffic circle created at Fairmount and Warrensville Center: John Carroll in Idlewood and UNIVERSITY SCHOOL (1926) and HATHAWAY BROWN SCHOOL (1927) in Shaker Heights. The Van Sweringens hoped this cluster of institutions would rival UNIVERSITY CIRCLE and attract elite home buyers. A June 1923 advertisement promised that “University Heights” would be “Cleveland’s New Exclusive Residential District” and “The New Educational Center.” (Plans for NOTRE DAME COLLEGE OF OHIO to locate there did not materialize.)
In February 1925, “University Heights” became the new name for Idlewood. University Heights Village then encompassed 1.8 square miles, with its current boundaries, bordered by Shaker Heights on the south, BEACHWOOD on the east, SOUTH EUCLID on the north, and Cleveland Heights on the west.
The fledgling suburb became immediately embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit, Cleveland Jewish Orphan Home v. Village of University Heights. Anxious to leave its outgrown facility and deteriorating neighborhood at E. 51st St. and Woodland Avenue, the Jewish Orphan Home (JOH) (BELLEFAIRE-JCB) headed for the suburbs. Cleveland Heights rebuffed the institution in 1924. The JOH then bought a 25-acre site on Fairmount, east of Belvoir Boulevard in 1925, and asked University Heights for permission to build its residential cottages there. Idlewood Village had established a planning and zoning commission in 1921 and a zoning code in 1922, and in 1924, the village had added to the code a conditional use permit that gave the zoning commissioners wide discretion over land use. The commissioners, by then University Heights officials, voted in 1925 to deny building permits to the JOH on the grounds that an orphanage would take the large property off the tax duplicate and moreover, would add the financial burden of educating its more than 200 children. (The five acres of the property that fronted on Fairmount and were in Shaker Heights had already gotten building permits.) The JOH’s lawyers, led by NEWTON D. BAKER, former mayor of Cleveland and then Secretary of War under President Woodrow Wilson, immediately filed suit against University Heights in federal district court and won. University Heights appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and lost there too. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case. The JOH then offered the city $100,000 to build a new public school for its children. University Heights turned down the offer. Although University Heights children attended Cleveland Heights public schools free, the orphanage children paid tuition because, officials argued, most children were originally from out of town. In 1929, the orphanage opened its campus with its handsome brick cottages designed in the Tudor style to fit in with nearby homes. The JOH re-christened itself Bellefaire, because of its location at Fairmount and Belvoir, shedding its sectarian identity in favor of its new suburban one. (The Protestant Orphan Asylum moved to Pepper Pike and became BEECHBROOK in 1926; ST. VINCENT’S ORPHAN ASYLUM moved to Parma and became Parmadale in 1925 (PARMADALE FAMILY SERVICES).
By contrast, Catholic institutions got a warm welcome. The new Church of the Gesu, affiliated with John Carroll, celebrated its first masses in the University Heights town hall in 1926; in 1927, the church set up temporary quarters on the John Carroll campus in portable structures donated by the Cleveland Heights school district. In 1937, the congregation bought the property on Miramar Boulevard that the church and Gesu Elementary School occupy in 2021.
Although the promise of nearby Catholic institutions prompted a flurry of home-building, John Carroll itself ran into difficulty due to the Depression. The university broke ground in April 1931 but quickly ran out of money. University buildings sat half-finished until summer 1935. The university did open – buildings only half-completed - in October 1935 with the University Heights mayor giving the welcoming address.
Home-building and -buying continued through the 1930s. In the more expensive subdivisions, new homes were designed according to some of the strict guidelines that the Van Sweringens imposed on homes in Shaker Heights, specifying setbacks from the street, lot width, land use (no vegetables or “unsightly objects” in the front yard). Minimum home prices were set: in 1925, a single home on Hadleigh Road had to cost at least $10,000; in 1930, a single home on Claridge Oval, at least $15,000. Paint colors and architectural styles were not mandated. More important, University Heights’ property deeds did not include the restrictions on sales that made it difficult for non-Christians or non-whites to buy in Shaker Heights after 1925.
University Heights grew more slowly than Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights because the anticipated streetcar lines up Fairmount and Cedar to Warrensville Center never materialized. University Heights briefly but unsuccessfully experimented with running its own public transit, 1927-1928.
But in 1940, as wide-spread ownership of the automobile made the streetcar less necessary, University Heights officially became a city with a population of 5,981. The city flourished during the post-war years. A commercial district developed during the 1940s near the southwest corner of Cedar and Warrensville Center, with a bowling alley, a bakery, a shoe store, florist, drug store, an A and P, and a Fisher Brothers grocery store. In 1952, Reinhart Huge began to sell off his golf course at the southeast corner of the intersection. This large property became the site of a suburban branch of the MAY COMPANY OF CLEVELAND; Wiley Junior High School; the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education headquarters; a Masonic Lodge; and Purvis Park. The suburb gained two new elementary schools: Northwood and Belvoir (now Gearity Professional Development School), part of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district established in 1942; and a new library, one of the Cleveland-Heights University Heights library system.
By 1960, the population was 16,641, and the city was essentially built out. As Cleveland’s Jewish population moved east, University Heights, like neighboring Cleveland Heights, became home to Jewish institutions. (JEWS AND JUDAISM) Yeshiva Adath B’nai Israel bought its school building on Warrensville Center, next to City Hall, in 1961. Congregation Beth Hamidrosh Hagodol Ohave Emuno-HEIGHTS JEWISH CENTER moved from Cleveland Heights to the Masonic Lodge in 1979. When Northwood Elementary School closed, Fuchs Mizrachi, an Orthodox Jewish day school, bought the building in 1996. Bellefaire (now Bellefaire-JCB) changed its mission; its campus became a residential treatment center for troubled children.
John Carroll University expanded its campus, buying multiple properties nearby; in 2021, the university enrolled 3,017 undergraduate and 462 graduate students. Founded at the university in 1970, the University Heights Symphonic Band, an all-volunteer wind ensemble, has been sponsored by the city of University Heights since 1986. The band continues to perform at the university and at other venues around the city. A multi-level shopping center, University Square, opened in 2003, replacing the May Company. After Fuchs Mizrachi moved to Beachwood, University Heights bought the school building in 2012, demolished it, and replaced it with Walter Stinson Park.
The city’s population had peaked in 1970 at 17,055; then, like other inner-ring suburbs’, it declined. In 2010, the census recorded 13,539 residents: 71.8 percent, white; 23.1 percent African American; the remainder were Native American, Asian, and two or more races, including 2.8 percent Hispanic or Latino. The 2019 census estimated 12,797 residents.
University Heights’ longest serving mayor, Beryl E. Rothschild, served from 1978 to 2009. In 2021, the city’s mayor was Michael Dylan Brennan.
Updated by Marian J. Morton
Gavin, Donald P., John Carroll University: A Century of Service (1985).
Morton, Marian J., John Carroll University (2013).