Reviving Bent’s proves a tall task in Medina

Photo by Tom Rivers: Contractors have scaffolding up on the south side of the Bent’s Opera House so workers can repoint the walls and restore masonry.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 16 September 2019 at 5:03 pm

‘It would have been a shame to see it knocked down.’ – Roger Hungerford, developer of project

Charlie Spencer, project manager of the restoration of Bent’s Hall for LeChase Construction, shows how the second floor has been reinforced. Spencer said the Bent’s project is the most challenging of his 12-year career in construction

MEDINA – In hindsight, Roger Hungerford might have thought twice about purchasing Bent’s Hall.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Hungerford said. “What I expected to be a several million dollar project turned out to be much more. Still, it is on a key corner of my hometown and I knew I could develop multiple businesses within it that would result in it being economically rebirthed.”

Bent’s Hall was built in 1864-65 by well-known sandstone builder and Medina native, Patrick O’Grady. Built at the height of the Civil War and the Lincoln presidency, it is one of the oldest surviving opera houses in the United States.

It was named for a local farmer who owned the property and had the structure erected. For many years it was a prominent venue for concerts, plays, shows, commencements, elections and other public functions. P.T. Barnum and “Buffalo Bill” Cody were among the hundreds of touring performers who entertained on Bent’s stage.

With the advent of movies, the opera house as a performance venue gradually fell into disuse. Over the years, Medina Elks Lodge had quarters on the second floor and beginning in 1970, the first floor became home to the first of several banks, the last of which was Bank of America.

By the early 2000’s Orleans Renaissance Group had taken an interest in the building, particularly the third-floor opera house, and began correspondence with Bank of America to take it over. In 2010, BOA announced it was leaving Medina and agreed to donate the entire building to ORG.

“We immediately set out to determine the condition of the structure and what might be needed to restore it, and to do an extensive study of its history,” said Chris Busch, president of ORG.

They completed some basic engineering assessments of the structure and discovered the building was in severe distress. It was in need of substantial and extensive structural remediation, Busch said.

The most pressing need was the rapid deterioration of the main beam carrying the entire Main Street façade, most notably the southeast corner of the building. The beam had deteriorated to a point where the corner was visibly shifting and in danger of collapsing. With help from the Preservation League of New York and a “Seven to Save” designation, ORG was able to secure funding to address that issue, stabilize the façade and prevent collapse temporarily.

“However, we were fully aware that there was an enormous amount of additional structural work that would be needed in the future,” Busch said. “This project had only scratched the surface.”

‘We’ve watched the project unfold with untold gratitude and joy. Bent’s Opera House is arguably the most important building on Main Street and certainly one of the top five in Medina.’ – Chris Busch, president of ORG

ORG had also begun developing concepts for adaptive reuse of the structure in the hope a developer could be found to complete the restoration. ORG is a 501(c)3 arts and cultural organization and did not have the resources to undertake a project of the magnitude required.

There have been about 20-25 construction workers at Bent’s for more than a year. “It’s like a city inside here,” said Tessa Hartway, director of marketing for Talis Equity. Contractors have been doing demolition, structural repairs, framing, plumbing and electrical work.

ORG arrived at the conclusion that what might be the best use for the venue would be an event center with restaurant and hotel space or office space. In seeking a potential developer, the most obvious choice would be Roger Hungerford.

“His love of the community and its history are well known, and such a person would have more than just a business interest in the Bent’s project,” Busch said. “It would be a labor of love for his hometown.”

Tessa Hartway, director of Marketing for Hungerford’s medical technology venture capital firm, Talis Equity, said they never intended to be involved in historic restoration.

“It just evolved,” she said.

Bent’s Hall is a dominant structure at the intersection of routes 63 and 31 in Medina’s historic downtown business district.

A conversation was initiated with Hungerford and the sale of Bent’s Opera House came to fruition in 2016, Busch said.

“Since then, we’ve watched the project unfold with untold gratitude and joy,” Busch said. “Bent’s Opera House is arguably the most important building on Main Street and certainly one of the top five in Medina. But its historic significance goes far beyond our community. The people and events appearing on that stage were of vital importance to our nation’s history and culture – not just one person or one event as is usual for any given place – but dozens. As such, this preservation effort by Roger Hungerford is without equal. Among the many historic places in Western New York, Bent’s Opera House is among the few that matter most.”

Since buying the building Hungerford has discovered it is an engineering nightmare. A structural engineer said a section of the building (the southeast corner) was within a decade of falling into Main Street.

“However, the repurposing things we are making it into are a delight,” Hungerford said. “It would have been a shame to see it knocked down.”

This stairway was built in Bent’s Hall for construction purposes, and will be replaced with a grand stairway when renovations are complete.

Hungerford praised the talents of builder Patrick O’Grady. O’Grady lived in a sandstone home at the corner of Catherine and West Center Street. Within two blocks of the former O’Grady home, Hungerford is restoring an 1865 Medina sandstone mansion, as well as his former 1922-built high school. The mansion is to be a bed and breakfast guest house and the high school will be higher-end loft apartments.

“O’Grady was an incredible builder,” Hungerford said. “I can’t account for how he got those huge beams at Bent’s Opera House up three floors using horses and pulleys.”

Hungerford said their first effort in restoring Bent’s Hall was a design phase which started three years ago, and getting approval from the New York State and Federal Historical Restoration Agency approvals. Actual restoration work has been ongoing for a year and a half.

Le Chase Construction was selected by Hungerford’s team to be the general contractor. Charlie Spencer of Clarendon is project superintendent.

“This is the most challenging job of my career,” Spencer said. “I’m honored to be involved in this project, but I wake up in the night thinking about it. This is a great community and Roger is a great client to work for.”

He said their plumber was working outside and two girls stopped by, handed him a bottle of water and said, “Thank you.”

The second floor will be a boutique hotel with 10 rooms.

Recently, media were given a tour of the building by Hartway; Lisa Tombari, director of Talis Historic Restoration; and Kaitlyn Delamarter, marketing associate and graphic designer with Talis Equity.

Hartway said they have uncovered evidence of restoration from all periods from the 1940s to the 1970s, some of which have contributed to the decline of the building.

Delamarter said the history of the building had disappeared over the years, and they want to bring it back.

“We could write a novel on the lessons we’ve learned here,” she said.

While masonry restoration continues outside, work continues inside. All the floor joists in the building have been reinforced or replaced. The entire roof structure, including new steel beams, have been installed, a process which took six months.

“The things we’ve done should last 100 years,” Spencer said.

Photo by Ginny Kropf: The rafters have been reinforced with wood and steel.

Hungerford has also purchased the 10,000 square foot building adjacent to the 20,000 square foot Bent’s Hall. A corridor will connect the buildings.

On the first floor of Bent’s, there will be a farm-to-table restaurant called Harvest. Chefs Lionel Heydel and Jose Ocasio have already been hired and are planning their menus for a late spring 2020 opening.

Next door, a gourmet food store is planned.

A grand stairway will lead to a boutique hotel on the second floor.

An elevator is being built where the bank vault used to be. A dumbwaiter will accommodate catering staffs to transport food and drink to the third-floor Bent’s Opera, which will be an event space.

Spencer said all the time-consuming things are behind them, but there is still a lot to be done. No firm completion date has been identified yet.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series on the redevelopment projects in Medina led by Roger Hungerford and his companies, Talis Equity and Talis Historic Restoration.

The door is open for the many construction workers who have been working to save the Bent’s Opera House and transform it into its new purpose as a restaurant, hotel and events center.

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