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Attorney took on dilapidated Newell building, a project that became catalyst for downtown Medina

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 May 2015 at 12:00 am

Heritage Hero: Andrew Meier

Photos by Tom Rivers – Andrew Meier is pictured inside the second floor of the Robert H. Newell Building, which is now home to the law offices of Webster, Schubel and Meier. The building’s reuse and preservation is one of several reasons why Meier was awarded a “Heritage Hero” award on April 25 by Genesee Community College.

MEDINA – It was 2004 and Andrew Meier had a new law degree from Syracuse University after earning his bachelor’s at the University of Rochester.

Meier was 24 then and many of his law school friends settled into jobs at law firms in the big cities.

Meier returned to his hometown, working with David Schubel and Norris Webster at their law firm on Main Street. Meier bought a house in Middleport, renovated it and sold it.

He liked that challenge, of bringing life back into an old building.

“I love architecture and I really love old buildings,” Meier said.

The Robert H. Newell Building is now home to several different businesses and uses.

Meier had long admired the Robert H. Newell Building at 113 West Center St. The building for 86 years was home to the Robert H. Newell Shirt Factory, which manufactured custom-made shirts, including for many famous customers, including Winston Churchill and Bob Hope.

The Newell company left the historic building in 2004 and moved to Maple Ridge Road. The business closed in 2007.

The Village of Medina acquired the building after years of unpaid taxes. The three-story site had been neglected and was in disrepair. It was put up for sale in 2005, and Meier bought it. He was 25 at the time.

“It had great bones and potential,” Meier said about the building. “I knew the risks going in. It was an opportunity that came up that I could not pass up.”

He set about the task of methodically renovating and preserving the 14,000-square-foot building that opened in 1876, a site that was a hotel for its first 14 years before it becoming the Newell building.

Meier is pictured at the check-in for the Hart House, a hotel with four rooms plus two lofts for extended stays.

Meier first worked on preparing the Shirt Factory Café in part of the first floor. That business opened in September 2006 after 18 months of renovations.

Meier believed the café fit in nicely with the Newell building, given its close proximity to the Post Office and other downtown sites that are popular with the public.

“I thought it was a quality of life issue and the type of business the community needed,” Meier said. “I thought it would thrive off existing foot traffic and hopefully generate some new foot traffic.”

The café remains in operation today, with Richard Sarrero now owning and running the Shirt Factory.

Bryan DeGraw, back left, talks about mead with people on the Ale in Autumn tasting event in September in Medina. 810 Meadworks is owned by Bryan and Larissa DeGraw and their friend Morris Babcock.

While Meier was working on the space for the Shirt Factory, a yarn store and barbershop moved into storefronts at the building. Meier knew it would take many tenants, with different types of businesses, to make the building viable.

He envisioned the second floor for professional offices and he found a tenant in the law offices of Webster, Schubel and Meier. The attorneys would move from Main Street to the second floor of the Newell building.

For the third floor, Meier wanted to honor the building’s original use as a hotel. He would create the Hart House with four hotel rooms and two extended stay loft apartments. The Hart House opened in 2012. Meier owns that business which is managed by Kyle Zunner.

The building has space in the back that has hosted outdoor concerts as part of the Boiler 54 performance venue.

Dave Kimball and Dee Adams perform in August 2013 at the Boiler 54 in the back of the former R.H. Newell Shirt Factory.

“That space is one of the most awesome outdoor venues anywhere,” Meier said. “I love it.”

When the barber in the building retired last year, a meadery serving alcohol moved in. 810 Meadworks has proven a draw for people who like alcoholic drinks made by fermenting honey with water and often fruits, spices, grains and hops.

Cindy Robinson, president of the Medina Business Association, marvels at Meier’s transformation for a building that was empty a decade ago.

“He is a visionary on what’s doable in a small town,” Robinson said. “He knew it would take an eclectic mix.”

Robinson owns two historic building on Main Street. Both have been full of surprises, the same with most older historic structures, she said.

“You don’t know what’s under the dropped ceilings and the plasterboard,” she said.

Meier showed faith in the community when he invested in the Newell site, and Robinson believes that example encouraged others to take a chance on Medina, and has been a big part of the downtown revitalization the past decade.

“He was one of the original risk takers,” Robinson said. “He has been a catalyst for the downtown.”

Civil War re-enactors march down Main Street in Medina in April 2013, when the Main Street was closed to traffic for the parade. Meier and village officials have supported many heritage efforts and community projects.

Meier would join the Village Board in 2008 when he was elected as a trustee. He became mayor in 2011. He worries about neighborhood decline and rising tax rates for the Medina community. He pushed for a dissolution of the village, which failed in the public referendum in January.

“Being mayor and serving on the Village Board is a thankless job,” Robinson said. “You do it out of your hearts and your concern for the community.”

As mayor, Meier has been receptive to heritage projects in the community, most notably Genesee Community College’s Civil War Encampments the past three years. Medina closed sections of Main Street to traffic for re-enactment programs and parades.

He is active with the Orleans Renaissance Group and its effort to bring back Bent’s Hall, a three-story structure on Main Street that includes an opera house.

Meier plays the church organ at Trinity Lutheran Church and the Presbyterian Church. He heard about a Cincinnati church, Christ Episcopal Cathedral, that was dismantling an 1968 Holtkamp pipe organ with 1,800 pipes. Meier helped orchestrate bringing that organ to Trinity Lutheran, replacing a much smaller one. The relocated organ debuted on Easter.

Some of the pipes in a Holtkamp pipe organ at Trinity Lutheran Church are pictured in March while the organ was put together inside the Medina church. The organ was moved from Cincinnati.

Meier said he’s grateful to see so many people working on projects in the community, preserving the downtown and promoting many other heritage initiatives, efforts that set Medina apart.

“We got it and few other places do,” Meier about the community’s historical assets. “If you look at Buffalo, Buffalo is on a huge economic upswing right now, and it’s not because of a huge amount of new employment or because Buffalo’s economy has fundamentally changed. It’s because Buffalo has given new life to historic districts and marketing. People want to come to Buffalo. The tourism market is so much stronger in Buffalo right now because of all the preservation activities going on.”

Preservation can draw tourists, and investment, Meier said, and preservation is also the “highest form of green building out there. Building a new building requires harvesting new resources from the Earth whereas preservation is already using those resources that have been harvested and reusing them. The carbon footprint for preservation is very small compared to new builds.”

One of the rooms in the Hart House includes a picture of Bob Hope, one of the prominent customers of the former Newell company.

The older buildings are also “an art form,” Meier said.

“They will stand for centuries if water is kept from them and they are simply maintained,” he said.

Bent’s hosted wine-tastings in its basement

In regards to Bent’s, Meier said many people are working on a plan to revive the building.

“There are people toiling everyday to bring that project to life and it will come to life,” he said. “It takes a few with the vision to see the potential, and we have those people here. That project could be a real turning point for the village and put us on the same trajectory of what Buffalo is seeing now. It will be a venue unlike anywhere else.”

The Tree Board, Medina Business Association, Orleans Renaissance Group, Medina Sandstone Society and many other groups and citizens are working to better Medina.

“As a village we’ve embraced participation from the community to get projects off the ground, and let them have ownership of them,” Meier said. “There are so many people doing so many things around here.”