On October 26, two Ohio Liquor Enforcement agents, posing as husband and wife, arrived for a clambake at the Hillbrook Club. They submitted their tickets -- $60 each -- and ordered cabernet. A barmaid poured the wine. At 8:06 p.m. they left, with a sample of the wine. They returned with a search warrant and a summons for Hillbrook's proprietor, Ernest Mishne.
Now, one of Northeast Ohio's great mansions faces possible closure for being a "public nuisance."
It may seem goofy -- perhaps downright ludicrous -- that the illicit serving of cabernet could prompt the fall of the august retreat. For a half-century, Hillbrook has served as an exclusive clubhouse for industrialists, socialites, and monied East Siders. Yet Hillbrook's troubles involve more than wine: They offer a glimpse at the often comic battles played out in Greater Cleveland's wealthiest neighborhoods, where wine can bring undercover agents and backyard music can create a flurry of lawsuits.
Built in the 1920s by Edmund Burke, a former Federal Reserve chairman and Republic Steel executive, Hillbrook was originally constructed as an annex to a 15th-century mansion Burke transported brick by brick from England. The home's English portion was eventually moved to Lake County, and Burke sold the rest to Paul Johnston, another Republic official, whose parties became so elaborate that he converted the manse to a private club in 1951.
Yet the glimmer of days past has dulled in recent years under owner Mishne. The estate still consists of about 50 acres, but a neighborhood has grown around it, which makes hosting fund-raisers, concerts, and wedding receptions a contentious matter. In summer, neighbors living on a cliff that overlooks Hillbrook's grounds can hear music from the outdoor bandstand. And backyard music is a tough sell in Russell Township.
Just across the Geauga County line, Russell offers an escape for the East Side's well-to-do. It's a place of wooded, rolling hills, country estates with man-made lakes, long driveways with the word "private" prominently displayed out front. To Hillbrook's misfortune, Russell is also a dry township. Restaurants and the public sale of liquor are strictly prohibited. That means Mishne can serve drinks only to club members and their guests.
None of this seemed like much of a problem until September of 1999, when neighbors Christine Gibbons and Marleen Leventhal attended an outdoor concert under the pretense of a social outing. In reality, theirs was a covert mission to gather incriminating information on Mishne. They reported to police that the band, "The Outsiders featuring Sonny Geraci," was "deafening" and that, as nonmembers, they were nonetheless permitted to purchase alcohol.
When Hillbrook parties went outdoors again in May, agents from the Ohio Liquor Enforcement Division were there, noting the availability of alcohol at a Russell Women's Community Committee meeting and again at a second Outsiders concert. In June Mishne received his first citation for illegal liquor sales. The evidence: white zinfandel and a Bloody Mary.
Over the summer, the Gibbonses and Leventhals would complain about "obnoxious noise and music" on eight more occasions. At Hillbrook, Russell Police SUVs became as common a sight as limousines.
William Gibbons, an attorney and Christine Gibbons's husband, has been the most frequent caller to police. Though William did not return calls from Scene, Christine asserts in court documents that the club has evolved from hosting private, sedate gatherings to becoming a "public party center" and that "music, noise and disturbing conduct from the Hillbrook Club [have] become extraordinarily loud throughout most weekend evenings."
A beleaguered Mishne retaliated by suing William Gibbons, charging that his neighbor's "campaign of harassment has reached epic proportions." He asked for more than $500,000 in damages and for a temporary restraining order barring Gibbons from calling police or club members. The restraining order was denied; the suit is still pending.
Christine Gibbons, Marleen Leventhal, and her husband Sheldon returned fire with their own suit, charging Mishne with operating a "public nuisance," which could be grounds for closure. They seek compensatory damages of at least $25,000 for each plaintiff, though their attorney hints the amount at trial will be much higher. The Leventhals also declined comment.
Mishne, however, wasn't content to wait for the court. He went directly to voters with a November 7 ballot initiative that would grant Hillbrook a liquor license. In campaign fliers, he explained that approval would not change the way the club operates and that, despite a few complaints, "we have always been a good neighbor." He further noted that the club's 1951 opening predates the arrival of the Gibbonses and Leventhals, who bought homes in 1986 and 1995, respectively. Hence, argues Mishne, they should have known that an occasional outdoor concert would occur.
Yet fliers by the Committee to Protect Our Neighborhood -- Marleen Leventhal and Christine Gibbons, president and treasurer -- informed residents of the club's June liquor sale violation. Worse yet, Mishne's second bust came less than two weeks before the election. It may not have mattered. In a precinct vote involving only those near Hillbrook, the measure was trounced by a 2-1 margin. Though Mishne would not agree to an interview, he said the loss has him thinking about selling the mansion. Either way, he still must answer for the two busts, which could mean $500 in fines, and for the public nuisance charges contained in the civil suit.
The election result didn't surprise people familiar with Russell Township, where commercialism of any sort is shunned. That's what differentiates the spacious rural refuge from just another suburban development. "People have chosen this as their way of life," explains Russell Police Chief Robert Schneider. "People like their large lots and their big houses. Life is good in Russell."
Still, Schneider hints in a most diplomatic tone that the Hillbrook affair is much ado about nothing. For a supposedly raucous party center, the club's gift for noise pollution remains modest. "It's more of a methodical percussion," he says of the music. "You don't really hear it. You just sort of feel it."
The chief adds that, apart from the Gibbonses and Leventhals, no one has complained. Of the few neighbors within hearing distance of the club, the issue is best left alone. Most of them gently, apologetically decline comment. One, John Beeby, calls the music "mildly annoying," but says he supports the club for no other reason than to keep its 50-plus acres intact. After all, if Hillbrook is sold and sliced into smaller lots -- Russell Township's minimum lot size is 3.5 acres -- the club's detractors could be trading in the sound of music for the construction of a dozen new homes.
"If they break up that big lot," says Beeby, "those people are going to really hear some noise."
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