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.
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.