The beautiful stone walls at
Lee Rd. and Fairmount Blvd. surround not only Beaumont School, but a vibrant
history that includes wild animals, exotic birds and a bank embezzler.
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In 1903, John Vickers Painter, a
wealthy banker, railroad man and associate of John D. Rockefeller, purchased
8.5 acres in Cleveland Heights and hired Frank Skeel to design a summer
home. After Painter’s untimely death, his wife and son Kenyon continued
construction. The 65-room Jacobean-style house was completed in 1905, surrounded
by an estate that had grown to more than 50 acres.
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Despite his family wealth and
successful business dealings, Kenyon Painter’s life was marred by
misfortune. He married Mary Chisholm in 1889. Their infant daughter Jean
died in 1894 and Mary passed away in 1901. Painter then married Missourian
Maud Wyeth in 1909, the same year that his mother died. The new couple
had four children, but their five-year-old daughter Leola was killed in
a car accident close to home.
The Cleveland Heights estate served as a refuge throughout Painter’s
adult life. It became the family’s permanent home in 1915. In 1928,
Maud hired a Missouri architect to design an addition, and coordinate
an extensive remodeling to create an overall Tudor style. The main roof
was raised and flattened and the cornice crenellated. The addition of
Gothic details, buttresses and twisted Tudor chimneys transformed the
architecture of the mansion. By that time, the estate contained several
outbuildings, including a garage, stable, zoo/aviary, playhouse, library,
two trophy rooms, and a separate house for Mr. Painter’s secretary.
The former carriage house, now 17412 Shelburne Rd., was converted to a
dwelling in 1919.
Painter traveled extensively.
His favorite destination was Africa, where he hunted big game and collected
exotic birds. The first of his many safaris was in 1907 to Arusha in Tanganyika
(formerly German East Africa). Over time, he bought 11,000 acres of land
outside the town and developed the region's premier coffee estate. He
gave the town its first post office, built a church, a hospital, and then
an advanced coffee research center at a place called Tengeru, sixteen
miles from Arusha. Altogether, Painter invested eleven million dollars
in and around Arusha. His single story New Arusha Hotel was one of the
region’s most noted landmarks, and was headquarters for the Tanganyika
Tours and Safaris Company.
Back home, Painter’s trophy rooms were built to display the numerous
mounted heads and skins collected during his safaris. The aviary, stocked
with hundreds of birds from around the world, was valued at $500,000 in
1912. Many of these specimens and animals were eventually donated to the
Cleveland Museum of Natural History, various zoos and other institutions.
The Dark Side
Kenyon Painter was most famous
for the complicated multi-million financial fiasco that resulted in his
1935 conviction for “abstracting and misapplying funds.” Mr.
Painter was both the director and largest stockholder of the Union Trust
Bank. Over a one-year period, he also became its largest individual borrower,
receiving ten loans totaling almost $3,000,000 using his real estate holdings
as security. Painter claimed he used the money to purchase stock in the
bank, trying to help it during the bank crisis of 1933. However, he was
unable to pay back the loan and the bank failed. The case, which went
all the way to the Supreme Court, was frequent fodder for the Cleveland
papers. In 1935, Kenyon was sentenced to 1-30 years, which he began serving
in a Columbus hospital. Ohio Governor Davey pardoned Painter six months
into the term, stating that Painter was “hounded by certain newspapers”
and that the security for the loan was “more than ample.”
Following his pardon, Kenyon Painter returned to the Cleveland Heights
estate to live the rest of his live in rigid seclusion. He passed away
in March, 1940.
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The Ursuline nuns purchased the
property in 1942, moving from their school at East 55th Street and Scovill
Avenue. Classes opened that Fall with 100 students. The outer buildings
were later converted to a fine-arts complex and offices, and the largest
trophy room became first a gym and later a music and reception room. A
new main building was opened in 1964 and the mansion is now used exclusively
as a convent. Over time, the Ursulines sold off parcels for residential
development and the land that would become Ruffing Montessori. In 1979,
the Painter Estate was declared a Cleveland Heights Landmark. It also
has been featured on the Heights Community Congress’ “Heights
Begun as the summer home for a wealthy Clevelander, the estate has seen
many changes over the years. But the walls and mansion are still there
to remind us of the richness and fluidity that is Cleveland Heights history.