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New art museum on Cleveland's west side
The Transformer Station to electrify the neighborhood
by WKSU's MARK URYCKI


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Mark Urycki
 
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A new art museum is beginning to take shape in Northeast Ohio but it isn’t the one you’re thinking of. The Cleveland Museum of Art renovation continues and the new Museum of Contemporary Art is under construction – both in the University Circle area. But on Cleveland’s west side a whole new art institution is being created. 

WKSU’s Mark Urycki walks us through the Transformer Station.

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The brick block building on West 29th street was built in 1924 to house transformers that powered the trolley cars on Detroit Avenue, which is just one block to the north.

“This is a building I’ve known for many years. I think every architect in town wanted top get their hands on it.”

Architect John Williams describes the brick building as “very stout." “For its age it’s actually in very good shape. It’s built like the proverbial…battleship. The walls are incredibly thick. “

Williams was hired by the owners, Fred and Laura Bidwell of Akron, to find the building. “We were looking right across the street where my office is - at the firehouse and that’s a great building too. But we looked over our shoulders at this building and just fell in love it immediately. It’s like this perfect little temple of industry, so beautifully proportioned. This beautiful brick work,” said Fred Bidwell. 

Bidwell and his wife have been collecting contemporary art and photography since they got married 21 years ago. He retired from the advertising industry this year and now they want a place to store and show their collection

“Over time the whole thing snowballed and we got to the point where things were being shipped directly into storage. We thought about calling our first show ‘the light of day’ because most of our pieces hadn’t seen the light of day.”

Art in a recession
With all the economic distress does art matter? More than ever says Fred Bidwell. “The way that a struggling economy recovers is through creativity and innovation. The bigger idea behind ideas like this is to inspire creativity innovation in the community. “

He also argues that cultural institutions like the Transformer Station will attract or keep educated workers in Northeast Ohio.

The neighborhood
And it won’t hurt the neighborhood either. “There’s been a burst of energy and development in the area. It feels like we picked the right moment in time to do this and there’s going to be a great ripple effect throughout the neighborhood. “

John Williams’ architectural firm, Process Creative Studios Inc. is in the area, on West 25th. But he isn’t just an architect. Like the Bidwells, he’s a fan of contemporary art and photography.  He’s president of Spaces Gallery, which is also on the near west side of Cleveland. To him the project is a perfect match.

The original Transformer Station building has about 1300 square feet of floor space but Williams has designed a modern addition that offers another 2300 square feet of floor space. Both wings have clerestory windows and ceilings as high as 24 feet

“We also have a mezzanine level and up there will be a library. Because one gateway habit to art collecting is art book collecting.”

One heavy hook and chain hangs from a 15-ton crane overhead. It will stay, as a piece of historical/industrial sculpture.

The CMA connection
William’s modern addition is constructed from charcoal colored blocks with a hint of horizontal stripes that recalls the Marcel Breuer addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art. And for a good reason. Fred and Laura Bidwell will share this building with the CMA. They will curate two shows a year and the Cleveland Museum will curate two

“They have both a footprint on the west side of town for the first time and a place to be much more bold, experimental, creative with contemporary art in a way that they could really never be in those very formal fancy galleries over on Wade Oval.”

After 15 years, the Bidwell Foundation will donate the Transformer Station to the Cleveland Museum. But until then, Fred is excited to share the art he loves. Admission will be free. 

“To us the artists are the rock stars and we’re giving them a stage.  And that’s really fun to watch.”

Fred and Laura Bidwell’s project, the Transformer Station, is set to open in January.

Images with audio

Architect John Williams has long been a fan of the Ohio City neighborhood


Architect John Williams has long been a fan of the Ohio City neighborhood

Fred Bidwell.  He and wife Laura made a deal to share the museum with the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Fred Bidwell. He and wife Laura made a deal to share the museum with the Cleveland Museum of Art.

(Click image for larger view.)

The connector section in white will contain the new entrance. A mezzanine level will house the library and allow visitors to see the exhibition from above.
The original door to the Transfer Station can open like a garage door so large works can be loaded.
John Williams (L) and Fred Bidwell.  When the CMA opted in to the project they decided to make two large open galleries to allow more flexibility.
Want a museum cafe?  Try the firehouse across the street.  It was first considered as the site for the museum.
The new addition has clerestory windows on the north. From the mezzanine you can see Lake Erie.
The station was a mundane utility building to power trolley cars but Clevelanders took the trouble to make it attractive.
The addition features a concrete floor and 24 foot ceilings. It all requires special lighting to protect photographs.  Williams and Bidwell may be laughing now but they worked through many different iterations of the museum over three years.
The building comes with a 15 ton crane.
The neighborhood is no University Circle but it's developing quickly.
Drywall will be used for much of the gallery but brick will be exposed at the top.
The heavy grill allowed air to flow through the building and cool the transformers.  The grills will be backed with glass for the museum.
 
The subtle horizontal bands in the new addition mimic the 1970 Breuer addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
 
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