ORG looks forward to bringing more cultural events to Medina

Provided photos: Bringing world-renown tenor Ronan Tynan to perform in St. Mary’s Church was a highlight for Orleans Renaissance Group. He performed here twice, Sept. 17, 2016 and Oct. 5, 2019. With him, from left, are accompanist William “Billy” Lewis; Paul Joseph Struckmann, ORG Events Committee member; Tynan; Chris Busch, ORG president; and Andrew Meier, ORG board member. The ORG also brought Anonymous 4, world-renowned A Capella singers, to Medina for a concert in April 2013 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 30 December 2020 at 9:34 am

Orleans Renaissance Group has brought stars to community, and helped stabilize Bent’s

MEDINA – Establishment of the Orleans Renaissance Group can be credited to a group of Medina citizens who were engaged in casual conversation as far back as the 1990s.

As the New Year is ushered in, ORG can delight in their accomplishments as the Bent’s Opera House, whose restoration began as a dream of ORG’s, gets ready to open one of its doors to the public.

Photo by Tom Rivers: Matthews House Movers in Rochester arrived in Medina at Bent’s on Oct. 14, 2013 to replace the beams at the corner of the building. Matthews workers were rigging or installing “cribbing” that will serve as a temporary support so the rotted beams could be removed and the new supports installed.

Medina entrepreneur Roger Hungerford, who has been restoring the former Bank of America building on the corner of Main Street and West Center, has said they are planning to open the Harvest Restaurant on the first floor at the end of January, barring any unforeseen obstacles due to the Covid pandemic.

ORG was born one afternoon in the 1990s when Chris Busch and Merle “Skip” Draper were sitting around musing how great it would be to have the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra perform at St. Mary’s Church. A short time later, Busch reached out to the BPO and asked if they would be interested in coming to Medina.

Their answer was “Yes.”

“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Busch said. “We knew then if we were going to pursue this we needed to organize a group to oversee it. With the help of Norris Webster, we formed a 501c3 corporation.”

Original members who formed the Orleans Renaissance Group included Busch, Sally Webster and Marsha Winters.

Andrew Meier, who became a member of ORG, shared a story about their early planning, where someone discovered a story about the famous author John Steinbeck. The story goes that Steinbeck was traveling through the area and passed through Medina. He stopped to ask where he was, and someone allegedly told him “Egg Street.”

Meier said no one can verify the story, but former mayor Adam Tabelski thought it was very interesting and chose Egg Street as ORG’s web address.  The moniker was used for a time for ORG’s production efforts, but they have since rebranded and now use “Medina Alive.”

In 2001, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, with Barker native Paul Ferington conducting, made its first appearance to a full house at St. Mary’s Church. The 700 seats sold out, Busch said. That set the stage for many more cultural events to follow.

Provided photo: A major accomplishment of the Orleans Renaissance Group was securing a Seven to Save designation for Bent’s Opera House from the Preservation League of New York State. Announcing the award in April 2012 are, from left, Dave Callard from the Orleans County Legislature; Tania Werbizky, Regional director of the Preservation League; ORG president Skip Draper; Andrew Meier, Medina mayor and ORG board member; Catherine Schweitzer, board member of the Preservation Buffalo-Niagara League; New York State Senator George Maziarz; and Chris Busch, ORG vice president.

ORG took a short hiatus for a couple of years, but when Meier and Tabelski joined, ORG had a rebirth.

Performances of the BPO Brass were held at the Presbyterian Church on Main Street, followed by the Easy Street Big Brass.

“At some point in our conversations about 2008, discussions of the opera house building with Bank of America evolved,” Meier said. “There was talk of them giving us control of the opera house on the third floor. Their branch manager was very receptive to the idea. That led to more formal talks with BOA corporate.”

Corporate agreed to give ORG the bank building and the drive-thru on the corner of West Avenue and West Center Street.

“That blew us away,” Meier said. “I don’t think any of us expected that.”

Originally, BOA was going to give ORG the building and lease bank space from them. That all changed when BOA announced they were going to close the bank and pull out of Medina.

Photos by Tom Rivers: Victoria Perez, a singer with the Buffalo Tango Orkestra, performed at The Pillars in Albion in May 2015 as part of an event that included tango lessons and dinner. The Orkestra was welcomed to Albion as part of a concert series by the Orleans Renaissance Group.

Meier said everything really popped when they took possession of the building in 2010.

“We were left with an empty building, but we were in control, nevertheless,” he said. “Now what were we going to do with it.”

“We needed to dig deep into its history and find what it was about that place that made it special,” Busch said. “It had been many decades since anyone had been there for any events.”

First, they had to start accessing the condition of the building, Meier said.

And, they had to access what might be the best use of the building as a whole.

“We had a rude awakening as we removed a lot of non-historic additions, and discovered the building was structurally compromised and required immediate attention,” Meier said. “We had to do some major scrambling to take steps to correct it.”

They applied for and received a designation from the Preservation League of New York State as one of Seven to Save.

“That was big,” Meier said. “It opened up emergency funding of $200,000 for emergency stabilization, and we needed all of that to support the front of the building.”

“The front was in immediate danger of collapsing into the street,” Busch said.

“After we stabilized the building, we started to develop a plan of what to do with it,” Meier said.

“The cost and scope of restoring the building was way more than ORG could handle,” Busch said.

The ORG spearheaded having 11 interpretive panels highlighting Medina history placed around the downtown business district in 2014.

Five years ago, Tom Hungerford, a nephew of Roger Hungerford and a member of ORG’s board, contacted some Western New York developers, including Roger.

“Tom opened the door for us,” Meier said.

Roger Hungerford stepped up and purchased the building from ORG, something which, had he realized the cost, he might not have done, he told Orleans Hub a year ago. Restoration, which began three years ago, with several months off due to Covid, has cost millions.

Hungerford did say, however, it would be pretty difficult to see a prominent building on the four corners of his home town fall into ruin, and not do something about it.

“We were all very excited and optimistic about what Roger would do with the building, and its future in the village,” Meier said. “It had become our ‘baby’ and there was a little bit of separation anxiety when we sold it.”

“We learned about all the incredible things that had happened there in the past, and we bonded with it,” Busch said. “There was quite a myriad of emotions when we had to let it go. When we think about it, we’re at a loss for words. We look at the building now and realize it hasn’t looked that good since 1865. That’s since Lincoln was president. It blows your mind. It’s one of the oldest opera houses in the country.”

ORG was instrumental in having a historical marker placed on Main Street, in honor of two speeches given in Medina by famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Shown at the dedication in April 2015 are Lincoln re-enactor David Kreutz; Ulysses S. Grant re-enactor Ed Brodbeck; and a group of Oak Orchard School students.

Meier explained the term “opera house” didn’t come into use until after the Civil War. Medina’s opera house was built as “Bent’s Hall.”

Meier acknowledged selling the opera house to someone with resources to bring it back set the trajectory for its restoration.

Now that ORG is free of its responsibility for the opera house, they have their hands in quite a few things, Busch said. Most recently, they brought renowned tenor Ronan Tynan back for a second performance. Prior to the pandemic, they had plans for several things, including entertainment in State Street Park.

ORG was instrumental in having a pavilion built in the park, and they were planning a blues concert there in the summer.

ORG sponsors the Canal Village Farmer’s Market on the corner where Bank of America donated their drive-thru. They were also responsible for the interpretive signs which are placed throughout downtown.

Until the pandemic, they sponsored an annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Mary’s Church, and hope it can return next Christmas.

They were working to bring a prestigious saxophone quartet from Texas to Medina when the pandemic brought an end to those plans.

“That would be a large-scale event in conjunction with the Genesee Chorale, which Ric Jones of Medina directs,” Meier said.

ORG was meeting quarterly before the pandemic and members hope they can resume soon.

Members are Chris Bush, president, and Andrew Meier, treasurer. Before his death earlier this year, Bruce Krenning was vice president, but that office has not yet been filled. Cindy Robinson, Kathy Blackburn and Jake Hebdon are also members of the board.

Provided photo: The SUNY Fredonia Trombone Choir is one of the musical groups which the Orleans Renaissance Group brought to Medina. Under the director of the late Carl Mazzio, they performed at St. Mary’s Church in 2012 and 2014.