CLEVELAND, Ohio – In a deal with big implications for the city’s cultural scene, art collectors and philanthropists Fred and Laura Bidwell of Peninsula have purchased the historic Van Roy Building at 2900 Detroit Ave. in Ohio City from developer Michael Chesler.
During a visit to the property on Friday, the Bidwells said that they plan to renovate the top floor of the three-story, 30,000-square-foot, Romanesque Revival building as their new home, making Cleveland their base after having focused much of their energies in the Akron area over the past two decades.
The Bidwells’ decision stands out in Cleveland, because many wealthy arts patrons live in the city’s well-to-do eastern suburbs, not the city itself.
The Bidwells said they’ll rent the lower two floors of the building, possibly with retail tenants on the ground floor and professional offices or a cultural organization on the second floor.
The Van Roy Building is a block north of the Bidwells’ other big local investment, the Transformer Station gallery, housed in the former Cleveland Railway Co. transformer building at 1460 West 29th St. The gallery, which opened in 2013, draws 15,000 to 20,000 visitors a year for exhibitions and programs, and has helped establish the Hingetown area of Ohio City as a rising cultural node.
“It’s kind of cool to be able to double down on the neighborhood,” Fred Bidwell said.
According to the City of Cleveland’s website, the Van Roy Building was appraised in 2014 at roughly $1.3 million in value. The Bidwells declined to say what they paid for the property, stating that they acquired the corporate entity formed by Chesler to own the building instead of buying it outright.
The purchase will have a significant impact because it will add to the burgeoning cultural scene in the Hingetown area, and because the Bidwells are likely to open their new home for parties and cultural events.
“This is about advocacy and setting an example,” said Fred Bidwell, who has long been active in cultural affairs in Akron and who wants to play a bigger role in Cleveland. “I hope Laura and I can get a few other people excited about doing big, sexy things in Cleveland.”
In a partnership announced in 2011, the Bidwells bought the nearby transformer building to house and exhibit their nationally respected collection of contemporary photography. They also agreed to allow the Cleveland Museum of Art to program exhibitions in the space every six months for 15 years, after which they agreed to donate the building and half of their collection to the museum.
According to the Chesler Group’s website, the Van Roy Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, originally functioned as a factory for the Cleveland Steel Range Co. From 1929-35, it housed Thompson Products, a precursor of TRW, which then produced automobile pistons and airplane engine valves.
The Van Roy Coffee Co. bought the building and occupied it until 2003, when the Chesler Group acquired and renovated it. Until its sale to the Bidwells, the building was occupied by the nonprofit Recovery Resources, which provides outpatient drug and alcohol addiction treatment services.
The Bidwells’ purchase is the latest in a string of transactions that have transformed Hingetown over the past 15 years.
Newcomers to the neighborhood during that period have included the non-profit ICA Art Conservation, which bought the Vitrolite Co. building at 2915 Detroit Ave., and Graham Veysey and his partner and fiancee Marika Shioiri-Clark, who bought and redeveloped the Ohio City Firehouse and the Striebinger Block building, both on West 29th Street.
Other developments include Mariner’s Watch, a new 62-unit apartment building at West 32nd Street, and the donation of the Bop Stop building at 2920 Detroit to Music Settlement as a West Side base for the University Circle cultural institution.
The Bidwells said they bought the Van Roy building in part because they wanted to experience urban living after having spent 18 years in Peninsula in a 3,500-square-foot house designed by Richfield architect Thomas Montalto.
“It’s paradise,” Laura Bidwell said of Peninsula. “We’re crazy for leaving.” But she added: “I have at least one more house in me,” and she said that she’s excited about being able to have her own painting and photography studio in the new apartment in Cleveland.
Fred Bidwell said he views the Van Roy building as a strategic investment that could help link the cultural energy of Ohio City and Hingetown to the Gordon Square Arts District, 30 blocks to the west.
“It’s about how we activate the whole Detroit corridor and bring in more people living and working so the arts organizations continue to thrive,” said Bidwell, who recently joined the board of the Gordon Square district as co-chairman.
In addition to his role at Gordon Square, Bidwell serves on the executive committee of the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and is also a trustee on the board of the Akron Art Museum, where he is leading a capital campaign. Laura Bidwell recently rotated off the Akron museum’s board.
The Bidwells said they’ve hired Cleveland architect John Williams to renovate their third floor apartment. Williams also designed the renovation and expansion of the Transformer Station building, and the recent insertion of a Heinen’s supermarket in the historic Ameritrust Rotunda building on Euclid Avenue at East Ninth Street.
“The great thing about Cleveland is that this is still doable here,” Bidwell said of the Van Roy project. “We’d never be able to do this type of thing in New York or Chicago. Are you kidding me? It would be unfathomable.”
transformer station set to energize near-west side’s booming art scene
The Transformer Station was developed by the Bidwell Foundation. It will be jointly curated by the Bidwells and the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is seeking to gain a toehold on the west side and expand its reach into contemporary art.
The stunning building, which includes an addition designed by architect John Williams, features soaring ceilings, clerestory windows and a weighty dangling crane once used to move the transformer into place.
And then there’s the artwork. The recently installed show “Light of Day” features work from the Bidwells’ long-buried collection (it has been in storage for years), including work by internationally-known artists Hiroshi Sugomoto and Adam Fuss as well as relative newcomers like Lydia Anne McCarthy and Matthew Brandt.
“It’s a very high-level overview of our collection as well as a personal statement on where contemporary photo-based art is today,” says Bidwell. “There’s a lot of visual diversity, and some of the photographs almost read as paintings.”
The second show, “Bridging Cleveland,” features photographs of Cleveland bridges taken with handmade pinhole cameras by Youngstown native Vaughn Wascovich. The photos look a bit like grainy old postcards touched up by Jackson Pollock.
“We didn’t want this to be a look at old-timey bridges,” says Bidwell. “It’s a statement on where we are today and where we’re going as a city.”
The celebration of this $3 million project and new arts treasure begins this Friday, when the doors will be open from noon until 9 p.m. with live electronic music from 6-9 p.m. The festivities continue through the weekend. Rising Star Coffee across the street will also be open late, and Touch Supper Club’s food truck will be there.
The Transformer Station is located at West 29th Street and Church Avenue.
Source: Fred Bidwell
Writer: Lee Chilcote