Fred and Laura Bidwell Hingetown Cleveland Fred and Laura Bidwell Hingetown Cleveland
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A long-legged bug is pacing back and forth on Fred Bidwell’s shirt collar. But as he stands across the street from Rising Star Coffee Roasters, he doesn’t seem to notice. 

Behind him, the two-story, red-brick Striebinger Block building is alive with tidy storefronts. Activity spills out onto the sidewalk. Two suits make chitchat as they sip from their cups outside Cleveland Tea Revival. A few yards away, a bearded and tattooed man enjoys a snack he picked up inside Beet Jar Juice Bar and Takeaway next door. Across the street, a “Loitering Prohibited” sign seems forgotten in a different era.

This crossroad, at West 29th Street and Church Avenue, is the heart of Hingetown, as much neighborhood as it is an emerging brand. Located on the near West Side, it’s not quite Ohio City but not yet Detroit Shoreway. It’s gritty, hip and happening — and he and his wife, Laura, are big reasons why.  

“Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of the trend here,” says Fred, who built a successful advertising career and expansive art collection on such foresight. “As successful as University Circle has been, that feels sort of establishment. The West Side is feeling entrepreneurial, younger, more cutting edge. I love that dynamic.” 

In dress slacks and horned-rimmed glasses, the 63-year-old looks less like the guy who started in Malone Advertising’s art department with hipster dreams of being a fine art photo-grapher and more like one who was destined to rise up its ranks to be president of the Akron firm. But Fred’s success has always been due to his ability to not only ride the cultural wave, but chart where it will crest. 

Five years ago, when the Bidwells were looking for space to house their more-than-800-piece art collection, this tiny neighborhood looked very different. Rising Star was an abandoned fire station. The Striebinger Block housed three gay bars, a head shop and a rarely open barbecue restaurant. Drugs and prostitutes were the marquee attractions. 

But they saw potential in the vision of Graham Veysey and his then-fiancee, Marika Shioiri-Clark, who painted a picture of what this place could be. Where a storefront was being used for storage, Veysey and Clark saw the Kutya Rev Ohio City Dog Haven. Where one window housed a bail bondsman sign, they envisioned Cleveland Tea Revival.

“What we wanted to do [in Hingetown] was create a destination with a unique identity,” says Veysey. “It wasn’t creating something new but shining some light on a part of the neighborhood that nobody had focused on for a long time.”

The Bidwells bought in, paying $160,000 for a 1920s power station and turning it into a contemporary art gallery. Through a partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Fred is a trustee, the Transformer Station has since become a cultural magnet attracting valuable eyes and wallets to Hingetown.

The gallery’s front lawn is now the de facto town square. During Cleveland Flea Sunday markets, when the neighborhood becomes a sea of vendors hawking food, jewelry and handmade soaps, the grassy patch is the designated picnic area. 

“People have adopted this neighborhood because they feel like they have ownership — it’s authentic,” Fred says. “People believe it’s real. It’s not a fake thing.”

In June, the Bidwells proved just how real by purchasing the Van Roy Building across Detroit Avenue from the Striebinger Block. And by next summer, they won’t just be boosters anymore. They’ll be residents, living on the third floor of the Romanesque revival structure that will house first-floor retail and second-floor office space. 

And that’s just the beginning. The Bidwells’ strategy goes beyond a single building. By buying strategic real estate, they hope to tie together the near West Side neighborhoods. In May, Fred became co-chair of the board of trustees at the Gordon Square Arts District, a perch from which he hopes to connect Gordon Square assets such as Cleveland Public Theatre, Battery Park and the Capitol Theatre with Hingetown.

“Hingetown is this interesting phenomenon, because two or three years ago it was nothing. It was nowhere in Cleveland,” Fred says. “Now it’s somewhere.”

At Oberlin College, Fred was an art history major — the closest thing to studio art for which his parents would still chip in. 

“I wanted to be a fine art photographer,” he says. “But you can’t just do that. There has to be a way of, like, eating.”

Instead, he worked as a industrial photographer for Gilford Instrument Laboratories, a medical electronics firm. 

In 1976, one of his fine art photographs — he can’t remember of what — managed to nab a special mention at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s now defunct May Show. He was one of 54 exhibitors — in just the photography section. 

Fred needed a change. Out of desperation, he talked himself into a job as the third man in a two-man advertising firm in Warren. In 1982, when the commute from Oberlin got to be too much, he landed a job at Malone Advertising in Akron.

But as he began to work as a designer, Fred had a little trouble. “I did not know how to draw worth a rat’s ass,” he says, only half-joking. 

“That [job] was my lucky break in so many ways,” he says. 

It was at Malone that he met Laura Ellen Ruth.

“Laura, she’s very nice,” he says. “But I’m sure she was thinking at the time, Why the hell did they hire this guy, this no-talent?”

What Fred lacked in artistic ability, he made up for with a knack for guiding clients toward tomorrow’s trends. “I got involved with clients and the ideas behind projects,” he recalls. “That was the key.”

Laura, on the other hand, had always surrounded herself with art. Her mother, a layout artist, would paint with her toddler on her hip, lecturing on composition as she worked. Her father was a copywriter at Malone. 

So when Laura enrolled in the University of Akron’s studio art program, creativity flowed naturally as blood.

During one summer, she took a job as a portrait artist. But her fascination with drawing the human face, trying to capture every contour, was a bit of a handicap. “It took me almost an hour because I would get so involved that it wasn’t so successful,” she says.

After school, Laura took a Christmas break job at O’Neil’s department store in downtown Akron selling junior sportswear. She worked the night shift in central receiving, tagging merchandise. Then, she moved to public relations, sorting customer comment cards, before being promoted to the advertising department. In 1977, Laura moved across the street to Malone. 

There, she cut and pasted, laid out campaigns by hand and put her drawing skill to use. When the first Macintosh computer showed up in the office in 1984, she put her name on the sign-up list to try her hand at digital design.

“I was perfectly happy to keep rendering type and drawing,” says Laura. 

Her creative output was constant. Once, for Oscars season, she sketched dress designs for all the women in the office. She made her cubicle into a destination, a large-scale collage of sorts. From floor to ceiling it was plastered with posters from Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and the Clash, scraps from magazines and postcards.

“Like most artists, I’m ripping things and clipping things constantly,” says Laura. “There was inspiration all around.”

The cubicle next door wasn’t nearly as cool. Except for the tall, lean go-getter in it, it was damn near empty. 

One day, Laura popped her head over Fred’s cubicle wall. 

“Lunch?” she asked him. 

Behind an electronically locked door in Transformer Station’s basement, the temperature is kept at exactly 62 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Ideal conditions for art storage, Fred explains. A wooden box with a red label, “Bidwells” scrawled on it in marker sits in an alcove. The ends of canvases bristle out unevenly from a set of shelves. 

It doesn’t look it, but this room is full of treasures, such as a 365-foot-long piece of photographic paper created by Mariah
Robertson, a New York-based artist who creates hybrid works that use photography as a component. The resulting piece is akin to an abstract expressionist painting, all lines and a kaleidoscope of color. It’s a photograph but just barely.

“We’re more interested in artists who use photography, rather than photographers who are exploring traditional processes,” explains Fred, over the whir of a dehumidifier on the floor.

The Bidwells began collecting after having dinner at their friend David Cooper’s house, just a stone’s throw from their former Tudor home in west Akron, where they lived before moving to Peninsula. Cooper, who was an associate editor at the Akron Beacon Journal and an avid collector, had a home filled to excess with street photographs and midcentury classics. 

It was so crowded that there were picture frames in the restroom. “It was chockablock and it was fantastic,” says Fred. 

“He introduced us to our first dealer,” says Laura. “Sounds like drugs, right?”

The Bidwells have accumulated more than 800 pieces since. Fred sits on the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art. And at the Akron Art Museum, where Laura was also a trustee, Fred led the fundraising campaign for the institution’s $35 million expansion and

You won’t, however, find any Jeff Koons-style mega-pop art in their collection. The Bidwells are choosey, and they have no interest in trophies. For a work to make it into the collection, it must pass a vote. Each has veto power. They keep their collection rigidly contemporary — no purchases of anything made before their marriage year, 1991. 

The Bidwells were even picky about the building they selected to house their art. They toured the Ohio City Firehouse, but the 22-foot ceilings and brickwork architecture of Transformer Station better fit their aesthetic.

At first, the Bidwells looked to make a private gallery, complete with an apartment. Then, after working with then-director David Franklin, the pair partnered with the Cleveland Museum of Art. For six months of the year, the museum programs the space, with the Bidwells filling the other six. And in 2027, the Transformer Station will be donated to the museum.

In 2011, the Bidwells paid $160,000 for the Transformer Station property. Now, Cuyahoga County estimates its worth at $1.2 million. 

Stringency of selection is what makes Hingetown successful, says Fred. Carefully curating businesses that pursue the best things, even niche ones, is what draws customers and, eventually, residents to Hingetown. 

Veysey and Shioiri-Clark could have chosen anybody to fill the Striebinger Block, he argues, and perhaps have made more money. But instead, they chose artists, people who pursue their passion — even if it’s fresh-squeezed juice.

“Like $8 juice — you’ve got to be kidding me,” he says. “Yet it’s amazing and people come from all over and they’re successful. They sell out every day. It’s about really making a commitment to

In Peninsula, the Bidwells driveway is lined with red maple trees. In the fall, their leaves swirl down crimson and orange, a fiery path to their villa beside the lake. Sequestered behind an automatic gate, it’s a world away from Hingetown.

“Welcome to planet Bidwell,” says Laura, standing on the driveway. The couple’s dogs, Roxy and Liza Lou, skitter out the door. Both are named after sculptural installation artists — Roxy Paine and Liza Lou.

The Bidwells moved after they married to escape the bustle of Akron city life. Perched beside a perfectly ovular lake — drained, terraformed and refilled to achieve symmetrical roundness — the sleek house was designed by Richfield architect Thomas MontAlto. A crisp white box of sure, minimalist lines, it was inspired by the villas of the ancient Italian architect Andrea Palladio — a favorite of Laura’s.

In the entryway, eight photographs by Timothy Briner line up neatly on the walls. Briner visited every U.S. town named Boonville, making richly tonal black-and-white portraits of rural American life. “They’re all, as the name would imply, sort of shit-ass towns in the boonies,” says Fred.

One at the end of the row, a simple landscape, has a quiet power. A field stretches to the horizon, dotted with a barn. Behind it, twin plumes of smoke rise from an unseen source, industry or tragedy marring the idyll. “I think shit-ass is a little harsh,” says Laura. 

Even in their living room the Bidwells are surrounded by thoughtfully selected art. There’s a black-and-white daguerreotype depicting a shining gold-tinged skull by Jerry Spagnoli, the modern master of the original photographic process. Beside it, in a wooden box, is a white life mask of the face of local artist TR Ericsson, whose show Crackle & Drag closed at Transformer Station in August. 

Fred walks up the stairs to the second floor, where an incredibly high-resolution print by British photographer Richard Learoyd leans against the wall. A seated female nude, bare-chested and model-thin, stares into the middle distance, photographed with a room-sized camera obscura that produces an image without a negative. She is slightly hunched, the hair on her arm a swirl. 

“It’s a phenomenal technical feat, but they’re also just hauntingly beautiful,” says Fred, noting that a curator from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles called about the piece. 

For a second, he pauses in a pose familiar to docents the world over — a silent, singular attention, slightly hunched. He is transfixed.

“It gets back to the original fascination with photography,” he says, “this idea that you can capture reality, which, of course, you can’t. But maybe this is as close as it gets.”

Then the moment is gone.

Eventually, they will sell the property. After 18 years in what passes for the wilderness in Northeast Ohio, urbanity is calling. They’re thinking about getting rid of one of their two cars, and Fred already uses his bicycle to commute to meetings downtown. “It’s really about consolidating our lives,” says Laura. “He can walk [in Hingetown], and we can enjoy the neighborhood.”

“I’m looking forward to being able to order delivery,” he quips. 

“I want to hear cars, I want to see people walking around,” says Laura. “It’s lovely living in paradise, but it’s very isolating.”

Five years ago, Hingetown did not have a name.

Prostitutes owned the neighborhood, competing with a smattering of drug dealers. The Striebinger Block’s most reputable tenants were three gay bars, The Tool Shed, A Man’s World and The Crossover. Beside them, a barbecue restaurant kept suspiciously odd hours, and the chefs spent more time in the back room than they did serving food. 

Dean Rufus, a former radio disc jockey and owner of the Dean Rufus House of Fun, was there for all of it. His store — equal parts head shop, vinyl emporium and sex toy purveyor — distills the best parts of the bad old days. He’s one of the few longtime tenants of the block left, and that’s for the best, he says. “I went from drug dealers and prostitutes to people eating scones and drinking organic tea.”

Graham Veysey and Marika Shioiri-Clark brought in all the tea drinkers. A U.S. House of Representatives candidate turned entrepreneur and architectural designer respectively, the pair purchased the Ohio City Firehouse and the Striebinger Block. Both properties were extensively renovated. The seedier tenants moved on, unable to comply with retails basics, like posted hours. Higher-end establishments replaced them, such as cycling studio Harness Cycle and Rising Star Coffee Roasters.

The way Veysey and Shioiri-Clark see it, the intersection of West 29th Street and Detroit Avenue is the hinge between Gordon Square, downtown and Ohio City. It always was. Until they were phased out in the 1950s, the corner was a junction on the city’s streetcar line. 

Transformer Station, the building that once housed electrical equipment for the streetcar system, provides a different sort of energy now, says Veysey. “Instead of a physical streetcar,” he says, “it’s culture that’s making the connection.” 

Similarly, the Van Roy Building is at the pin of the hinge. Built in 1895, the building housed the Van Roy Coffee Co. from 1938 to 2003. The Bidwells purchased the 30,000-square-foot building, estimated by the county to be worth $1.3 million, to complete Hingetown’s stretch across Detroit Avenue. The now-vacant first floor will be turned into retail space, to be filled in with a “signature occupant,” says Fred, although he won’t say who that will be yet. The second floor will be rented to a professional services firm. 

While Fred commissions the blueprint, Laura makes sure the result looks spectacular. Where he is cerebral, she is visceral. 

Laura purchased her first professional camera in 2007 and began shooting portraiture of art world denizens — curators, photographers and interesting faces. She assembles books of found imagery, such as  pinups. Her Instagram account is a stream of imagery, a modern way to do what she calls “serious sketching.”

For the Van Roy, Laura is working with architect John Williams, who most recently completed the renovation of the downtown Heinen’s Fine Foods. 

A corporate honeycomb of cubicles and offices used to populate the building. Outside each cubicle was a numbered plaque. They've all been demolished, opening the shadowed space to the brilliance shining from rows of windows, 78 in all. On the third floor, Laura will have her first proper studio.

The Van Roy’s interior will be reconstructed, with new rooms clustered around the inner core of the building. “We’ll hang all the rooms off the central core so there are no walls touching the outer walls,” says Laura. “We want space and light.”

By establishing themselves at a key intersection, the pivot point between neighborhoods, the Bidwells are hoping to link up disparate districts. That means attracting businesses to the open plots and storefronts between Hingetown and Gordon Square.

“A lot of those missing teeth are going to get filled in, and the Bidwells’ idea of having mixed-use retail and including space for arts organizations is just perfect,” says Judi Feniger, president and executive director of the Gordon Square Arts District. “The more we have within basically a 2-mile area, the more we’ll be able to attract collectively, and the Van Roy Building will certainly be a big piece of that.”

Fred’s phone is ringing. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is calling. 

“I’m just fine,” Fred says into his iPhone, looking uncomfortable to be taking this call at in inopportune moment. “I’m in a meeting and I can’t talk. Yeah, that’s great. I hate to do this to you. Bye.”

Strickland is running for the Democratic nomination to
challenge Republican Sen. Rob Portman. It’s election season, and Strickland is dialing for dollars. 

“I happen to know why he’s calling, and it’s not because he’s asking my advice,” says Fred with a laugh. 

In his office on the second floor of Transformer Station, on a bookcase, are two aluminum busts of Marx and Lenin. “The craftsmanship is great, and they’re beautiful objects,” Fred says. 

He’s quick to make clear: “I’m not a communist.” What he is, though, is a “capitalist with a strong socialist leaning.”

And a remarkably successful capitalist at that. When Fred took controlling interest of Malone Advertising in 1996, the company was in trouble. That year, Malone had lost its biggest client, Goodyear, along with more than 50 percent of its revenue. 

Fred started dialing the phones, trying to connect with a national client. “It was really about selling,” he says, “which is a very difficult thing to do if you start off in the business thinking you want to be an artist.” 

After scores of fruitless meetings, Malone cultivated relationships with brands such as Sherwin-Williams, Nestle, Kimberly Clark, John Deere and Mazda. Each year, the company grew in volume by an average of 20 percent and margins grew from very little to approximately 20 percent. Since, the company has gone through two mergers and is owned by the WPP Group, one of the largest holding companies in the advertising world. In 2012 Fred left the company, now called Geometry Global.

Chris Jackson worked for Malone for 34 years and is now retired. As a co-creative director under Fred’s leadership, they sometimes butted heads.

“He and I often disagreed but I was always free to voice my opinion, and I always did. But it always worked,” says Jackson. “I can still see Fred in tough client presentations. That was his strength, when they asked the really difficult questions. You could see the wheels turning and he always thought before he spoke.”

That measured approach was exactly what the Cleveland Museum of Art needed back in fall 2013. A member of the museum’s executive committee, Fred assumed the post of museum director after David Franklin was forced to resign after lying to the board about an affair with a museum employee who had committed suicide.  

Fred was installed as interim director and oversaw the completion of the museum’s eight-year, $350-million expansion and renovation. Although questions about the board’s transparency remain, the museum has moved on from the scandal. 

In 2014, William Griswold took over the director’s post, ushering in an era of transition. The former director of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York — where Fred’s brother John is a curator and department head of the printed books and bindings department — Griswold celebrated his first year as director in August.

Now, Fred spends his days at Transformer Station, handling the day to day of running the gallery and advocating for the renewal of Cuyahoga County’s cigarette tax. Finally, he is able to embrace a more artistic existence.

“I have never seen him happier,” says Jackson. “When I worked with Fred all those years, I didn’t know whether he was happy or sad. But I see now that there’s a new Fred.”

On the second floor of Transformer Station, the Bidwells are lounging on low, chic couches. Roxy jumps on and off the glass-topped coffee table at will, claws clicking. A balcony looks out over their gallery, where a piece of video art is looping silently. Shelves of vinyl records, art books and small prints line the walls, a delicately built space.

“We do what we love and we hope others will do what they love,” says Laura. “That’s why we’re moving into the Van Roy.”

One print is Laura’s, a portrait with a dark vignette surrounding the illuminated face of a young man. It’s her favorite format — a sitter, a black backdrop and a single north light. She shot it a few steps away, in an alcove across from Fred's office. 

“[The arts] create an environment where entrepreneurs, whether they’re in the tool and die business or the graphic design business, feel more willing to take risks, more open to innovation,” Fred says. “That’s what Cleveland needs.”

He sees Hingetown not just as a single node of development, but also as the starting point for more widespread capital investment. “I think there’s opportunities for people in other neighborhoods to say, ‘OK, all the basic bones are here, if you make a substantial investment, it will all just happen,’ ” he adds. 

Just outside Hingetown, it already is. Down Detroit Avenue from the Van Roy, the luxury apartments at Mariner’s Watch were completed in April. Toward downtown, the Snavely Group is planning two mixed-use developments at West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue. In Gordon Square, too, new investment is coming to the fore — in February, Near West Theatre moved to a $7.3 million, 24,000-square-foot building on Detroit Avenue. And in September, R.A. Washington’s Guide to Kulchur bookstore moved from its small West 65th Street storefront to a roomier space at 5900 Detroit Ave. 

“Before, everyone was looking at these little hot spots and trying to fan the flame and see if they can get it to catch fire,” he says. “Now it’s all about connecting them.”

“People talk about the arts as an economic driver,” says Laura, waving her hand around her, at the art, the building and the neighborhood. “Here’s your proof, right here.”

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