Hawthorn Hill Visitation in Doubt

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

The Oakwood Planning Commission has turned down the request by the Wright Family Foundation, owner of Hawthorn Hill, to open the Wrights’ home to limited public tours.

Stephen Wright, Wright brothers descendant, Oakwood resident, and one of the foundation’s trustees, said that the negative decision has been appealed to the Oakwood City Council.

The proposed tour protocol is very modest. Public tours would be limited to just two a day two days a week between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This is a reduction to the original proposal of four days a week. The other requirements are:

The tours would begin from Carillon Park in Dayton. A specially designated van would ferry no more than 16 visitors to Hawthorn Hill.

No special exemption would be made for opening the home for visits from area schools. An exemption to this policy would be made for Oakwood High School. I am a graduate of the school and I am fortunate to have been able to visit the home several times.

There would be no sales from the home including souvenirs or food.

Lastly, visitors would be able to take photographs of the home’s exterior, limited to 15 people at a time and remaining within 25 feet of the property line.

The City of Oakwood is home to Hawthorne Hill. It is a lovely mansion situated on a high hill and was designed by the Wright brothers. Orville lived there for 34 years until he died in 1948. Wilbur died in 1912 before the house was completed and never lived there. The house is designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Wrights bought the land in 1911 or 1912. It was the site of Oakwood’s first water tower. They named the hill Hawthorn Hill after the name of their boyhood home on Hawthorne St. and also in honor of the prickly-needled Hawthorn tree that once stood in the middle of Huffman Prairie and the Hawthorn trees on their new Oakwood property.

In addition to Orville, his sister Katharine and his father, Bishop Wright moved into the house in 1914. Their old home in Dayton had been badly damaged by the great Dayton flood of 1913.

Many famous people visited Orville while he lived in the mansion including Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, General Hap Arnold, General Billy Mitchell, Admiral Richard Byrd, Henry Ford, and Carl Sandburg. Ivonette Wright Miller, Orville’s niece, was married there with about 60 guests in attendance.

One of the unique things about the house is that Orville designed many of the mechanical features of the house, many of them while he lived there. The National Park Service declared the house a national landmark in 1991.

Upon Orville’s death the house was offered for sale to the public. There was a proposal for the City of Oakwood to buy the house. The Oakwood City Council scotched the idea because they would have to propose a bond issue to raise the money. I guess they weren’t too concerned about how the mansion would be used in those days.

The NCR stepped up and bought the house for $75,000 fearing that it might fall into the wrong hands. Also Orville was a good friend of many top executives of NCR including John Patterson, Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering. NCR used it as a corporate retreat and VIP guesthouse.

The most important thing is that NCR has kept the house in pristine condition. Many other Dayton buildings associated with the Wrights have either been moved out of Dayton, such as their boyhood home and their last bicycle shop. Others no longer exist, such as Orville’s laboratory that was torn down to be replaced by a gas station.

The NCR donated the house to the Wright Family Foundation on August 18th, 2006, the day before Orville’s birthday. Amanda Wright Lane, great-grand niece and Stephen Wright, great-grand nephew, are trustees of the foundation. They are related to Orville and Wilbur by blood and marriage. NCR stipulated that the foundation make an effort to transfer ownership to the National Park Service. The foundation has started the process to do just that but it may take a few years to accomplish the transfer.

What follows may be a partial explanation of some of Oakwood resident’s negative attitude towards opening Hawthorn Hill to the public.

Oakwood is a small city of less than 3 square miles geographically surrounded by the cities of Dayton and Kettering. Homes range in price from about $300,000 to nearly $1 million. It has no industry. Population is around 9,000 residents.

Oakwood is the product of John Patterson, founder and president of NCR. Patterson envisioned Oakwood as a bedroom of Dayton as it is today. His influence led to generous lot sizes and academic excellence in the school system. The school system is still outstanding and regularly sends most of its high school graduates to college.

The early city received a jump-start when Patterson encouraged his executives and later his foreman to move to the new village.

The city’s fixed area is comfortable and livable. The median family income is around $88,000. The absence of industry keeps the city clean. Although most of the housing is older and the tax rate is high, but the excellent schools draw people to the city.

A little known fact is that a secret research facility in Oakwood during WW II produced polonium that made the first atomic bomb possible.

Many residents have lived in Oakwood for many years. They tend to be conservative in philosophy.

Some close neighbors to the mansion are against the proposal. Here is an example: “All I can think of are tacky tourists, feet over running, tacky rubber flip flops, with their slurpees, big gulps, mistys, and frostys tearing my darling Oakwood. It breaks my heart to see it become so pedestrian.”

Not all Oakwood people are against it: “It sounds like the Wright Foundation has taken every possible step to insure these tours are handled in the proper way. Hawthorn Hill is a true treasure that should be viewed by the public.”

Many people in Oakwood are embarrassed by, and cringing at, what has occurred. They have been working behind the scenes to ensure that the city council reverses the planning commission’s decision.

The Dayton Daily News in an editorial wrote: “Oakwood’s elected officials need to do the right thing. Overruling the planning commission doesn’t require courage, just common sense.”

Latest news: The Oakwood City Council on July 2nd voted to open the Wright home for public tours. The vote was unanimous with one abstention. No date was announced for when the tours would start.

Later news: Conducted tours of Hawthorn Hill are to begin on Saturday, Sept. 1, with 45-minute tours planned to follow on Wednesdays and Saturdays thereafter. Dayton History. a historical preservation organization based in Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park, will sell tickets for the tours and conduct them.

There is a maximum of 14 visitors that can be handled at a time. They will be taken by van at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. from Carillon Park to Hawthorn Hill and back. The tours will be conducted throughout the year.

References: Dayton Daily News; Oakwood: The Far Hills by Bruce Ronald and Virginia Ronald.

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