Upper Arlington was founded by the real estate developers Ben and King Thompson, who purchased most of the farmland that was to become Upper Arlington in 1913. This land was directly adjacent to the Marble Cliff Quarry Co. They originally wanted to call it the "Country Club District" after the Country Club development in Kansas City, but by 1917, the community became known as "Upper Arlington", in reference to its southern neighbor of Arlington (now known as Marble Cliff). The Upper Arlington Company was incorporated that year and operated out of a field office built on the former Miller farm; that building is presently the Miller Park branch of the Upper Arlington Library (see no. 4 on the map).
The development proceeded according to the Garden City–inspired plan by landscape architect William Pitkin, Jr., which called for following the contours of the land to form curving streets, copiously lined with trees, rather than a gridded street layout. This development style gave the oldest district in Upper Arlington (at its southernmost end) its distinctively pleasant, park-like feel, though the lack of roadway predictability can lead to some frustrating driving experiences even for those familiar with the neighborhood. The area features numerous small green spaces.
In 1916, the development was interrupted (and largely undone) when the National Guard used the area as a temporary training camp called Camp Willis, after Ohio's governor at the time, Frank B. Willis. Eight thousand servicemen were trained at Camp Willis and then dispatched against Pancho Villa on the Mexican border. The camp was dismantled by September 1916. Development resumed shortly afterwards, and on March 20, 1918, Upper Arlington incorporated as a village, with a population of 200 and James Miller, the original landowner, serving as the first mayor. The Mallway business district, which was constructed in the 1920s, was the first commercial district in Upper Arlington. Upper Arlington became a city on February 8, 1941, and annexed surrounding land as its population grew. Most annexation occurred in the late 1940s through 1960. The two largest annexations occurred in 1954 and 1955, by which the city more than doubled its surface area.
As was typical in many developing northern communities of the time, the Thompsons included restrictive covenants in their housing deeds that prevented African-Americans from purchasing homes in Upper Arlington (though the deeds did allow "colored servants" to be domiciled within owners' homes). The covenants also prevented Jewish people from purchasing homes. While today’s population remains predominantly Caucasian, the community is home to individuals representing many different nationalities.
The post–World War II housing boom led to the development of many new housing tracts north of Lane Avenue. The newer developments took on a much different character from the older core of the city, being mostly organized along normal street grids, and with the usually ranch-style houses, this area is called River Ridge. By the 1960s, as the city grew north, the houses were larger and the neighborhoods more consistent with the intent, if not style, of the original section south of Lane Avenue. The southern half of the city, designated as the "Upper Arlington Historic District" (though simply referred to as "Old Arlington"), was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The city is sister cities with St. Andrews, Scotland.
Materials related to Upper Arlington's history and culture can be viewed online at the UA Archives local history website. The site is part of the UA Archives program, the Upper Arlington Public Library's digital library initiative, which works with the Upper Arlington Historical Society, City of Upper Arlington, Upper Arlington School District, and other community groups to digitize, preserve, and provide free online access to historically and culturally significant materials related to Upper Arlington. This is an ongoing community effort, and organizations, businesses, and individuals can participate by allowing the UA Archives program to digitize their items of historical interest. By working with the Historical Society and other community groups, the UA Archives digital library initiative supports the goal of preserving Upper Arlington's history as well as the Upper Arlington Historic District's listing on the National Register of Historic Places.