On a late spring afternoon in 1853 the steamer Forest Queen out of Cincinnati glided to a stop at a dock in the Hoosier river town of Aurora. Among its passengers that day was Isaiah Rogers, an architect known as the "father of the modern hotel." Rogers, however, was not in town to design a new hotel, but rather to meet with a Mr. Thomas Gaff, a prominent Aurora financier and industrialist, and examine a plot of land on which Gaff wished to build a new home. In the two days Rogers was in the town, he not only reviewed the proposed homesite with Gaff, but was "well entertained," taking a walk with his new client and discussing with him a number of subjects. "Had a very pleasant day," Rogers noted in his daybook.
Rogers would design for Gaff a magnificent mansion situated on ten acres of land overlooking the Ohio River that Gaff and his family would call home from 1855 to 1891. 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 frontal porch being reminiscent of a steamboat's deck. The enduring legacy of Rogers's design for what came to be known as Hillforest Mansion was highlighted recently when the United States Department of the Interior informed the Hillforest Historical Foundation, Inc., which owns and operates the home, that the mansion had been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Thomas Gaff, the owner of this magnificent edifice, was born near Edinburgh, Scotland, on 8 July 1808. Gaff came to the United States with his parents, James and Margaret Gaff, at the age of three, settling in Springfield, New Jersey. As a young man, Gaff learned papermaking from his father and the distilling business from a Brooklyn uncle, Charles Wilson. In partnership with his brothers, James and John, Thomas Gaff opened a distillery in Philadelphia that was soon a success. The Panic of 1837, however, had the brothers looking for new opportunities elsewhere. Reportedly offered tax incentives and land, the brothers decided to move their business to Aurora; James arrived in 1841, Thomas in 1843, and John followed in 1845.
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