If the walls could talk, oh the stories they might tell. The unassuming brick structure at 1527 Starr Ave. had a storied past as the one-time home of the Circle Bar, as the last trolley stop in the 1930s and 1940s, and later as a carryout store, an insurance office and the original national headquarters of Marco's Pizza.
Time and neglect took its toll on the building, which was erected in 1903, until a pair of Bowling Green State University alumni took a chance and transformed the building into the successful LeSo Art Gallery and Education Space – and their home.
Artists Amber LeFever and Adam Soboleski started dating while taking a course in ceramics.
When Amber took her first teaching job in Toledo, her commute from Bowling Green took her through the East Side. “I’m from Sidney, Ohio and this was my first experience driving in Toledo,” she said. “I started seeing all these old buildings and I was really inspired by the area’s buildings and architecture – there was something so beautiful and tragic at the same time about these abandoned buildings that no one was doing anything productive with.”
|Dr. Christy Mesaros-Winckles and her
husband, Andrew Winckles, a doctoral
candidate, chose to puchase their
home in the Birmingham District in
East Toledo. (Press file photo by Ken
|Brad Scherzer, Amber LeFever and Adam
Soboleski opened the LeSo Gallery and
Education Space in this historic building
on Starr Ave., East Toledo.
|The LeSo Gallery and Educaton Space
building over a half century ago.
Over time, the couple’s relationship progressed and they began talking about what they wanted their next step to be. “We sat down and had a conversation about whether we should get married, or buy a building and start a gallery. We chose buying a building.
“We did some research on buildings for sale and this one was one of the first that popped up in our search,” she said. “When we came to look at it, we just fell in love with it – everything just felt right.”
But to say it needed a little TLC would be an understatement, she said.
It helped that Adam, who graduated in 2010, works full time as a supervisor at Home Depot, and embraces a DIY attitude and could draw on his co-workers’ expertise.
Amber teaches art to K-eighth-grade students at Imagine Clay Avenue Community School, a charter school in north Toledo. The couple was joined in their endeavor to start the gallery by fellow BGSU grad Brad Scherzer, a graphic designer and painter who teaches photography at Fremont Ross High School.
The trio, with occasional help from family members, worked on renovating the building for a solid year and a half.
“The three of us were working full-time jobs; we paid for things as we could afford it,” Amber said. “We took out all the walls, the old drop ceiling and removed layers upon layers of old flooring.
“Throughout the process, we would find little treasures, like old playing cards from when the building housed a bar and beer tokens from the 1930s,” she said. “And when we discovered the original tin ceiling, it was like Christmas.
“Exposing the brick walls was also really exciting,” she said. “We’ve really fallen in love with the way the building is. There are cracks in the mortar and cracks in the bricks, we just decided to leave them – they add to the charm and help tell the story of everything this building has been through.”
Renovations on the second floor, where the couple lives, is a work in progress. “Gradually, we have taken out old plaster, put up drywall and refinished floors,” Amber said. “Some of it is so old and cracked, we’ve decided to just embrace it. For example, there’s one wall in our hallway that has so many holes in it that we just decided to make it a graffiti wall to make it more beautiful.
“When we have artists over, we ask them to leave a little message,” she added.
“When we moved here, we had no idea what it would be like,” she said. “It felt right to us so we did it. Our neighbors to the right have lived here for more than 50 years. They look out for us and bring us cookies.
“Everyone’s been amazing,” she said. “Area residents regularly interrupted renovations to share their memories and photos of the building during its various incarnations.”
The gallery opened Sept. 29, 2012. “It’s been a great year,” Amber said. “At our initial show, we put out a call for artists and received submissions from artists from BG, Toledo, Cleveland and Columbus. Now we’re drawing artists from Iowa, New York and other areas. We’re slowly but surely gaining notoriety and artists are seeking us out,” she said.
They celebrated their success at a one-year anniversary event held Sept. 28, where Amber got another surprise – a marriage proposal. “There were about 400 or 500 people there that night,” she said. “We were so busy I didn’t see it coming – I was completely blown away.”
A sense of community
It was a sense of history and community that led Dr. Christy Mesaros-Winckles and her husband, Andrew Winckles, a doctoral candidate to purchase their home in the Birmingham district in East Toledo.
Originally from Columbus, Christy and her husband met while they were both students at Spring Arbor University, Michigan.
“My husband was originally from this area so it made sense for us,” she said.
The couple rented a home in Springfield Township for six years. Although living in the suburbs was nice, it was also quite expensive for a young couple trying to pay off student loans. Christy said both she and her husband yearned to own a home of their own in an area rich in history.
“We told our realtor we wanted a home in either the Old West End or in Birmingham,” she said. “We both love history and we really wanted a sense of community. We had been going to the Birmingham Ethnic Festival for a few years and we always felt welcomed and at home in the area.”
It didn’t hurt that both of them have Hungarian roots.
Last fall, the couple closed on a home on Valentine Street – a neighborhood that offers a healthy mix of young and older people, blue collar and young professional workers and renters and proud home owners.
“There is a real sense of community here,” Christy said. “When the weather is nice and if you sit on your porch everyone will come to talk to you. I know most of my neighbors and many people who live on other streets around here. It is just a great place to live.”
Christy acknowledged there are a few issues in Birmingham, but, for the most part, she feels safe.
“We have a security system, but you have to have that when you live in a city,” she said. “I feel safe in the neighborhood. There has been petty theft and some cars broken into, but everybody looks out for each other and we let people know what is going on. I am very impressed with the community organization and how people are trying to get the issues resolved.
“I feel a connection to Birmingham,” she said. “It is a nice community and it is a natural fit for us. It is not a wealthy area, but people do take care of their homes. When we were looking for homes on our street, we noticed every home that is occupied had flowers out. There is a lot of pride in the neighborhood and people try to make it look nice. “
Christy is so in love with the neighborhood that she is advising young couples looking to buy a home to look at Birmingham and at Toledo, in general.
“The housing is really affordable and interest rates are low,” she said. “Living here has allowed us to put money into other things like student loan debt. Look, you dream of owning a home and you can do it in a cost effective manner that allows you to not get into a hole you can’t dig out of.”
“A good deal”
Richard and Sally Keenan cited more bang for their housing dollar as one of the main reasons for purchasing their home on West Florence Avenue in 2010.
“When my wife and I met, she lived on Owen Street in Northwood, which is right around the corner from here,” he said. “I grew up in Sylvania, but had lived in the North End and was renting an apartment on Nevada Street at the time.
“When we got together, we started looking for a place that would be ‘ours,’” he said. “We drove by this house every day and one day we saw a bunch of stuff sitting outside, and the house looked empty. I noticed it also had a two-car garage with a bay window at the top of it – something I was looking for.”
With no for sale sign, the couple looked online for information about the property. “I’m not too computer savvy, so I asked my sister to help. After doing some research, she discovered the house was in foreclosure and was about to go up for sale,” he said.
The couple contacted the real estate agent, walked through the house and submitted an offer on the property, which had an asking price of $22,900 – which included the home and two additional lots.
After some negotiation, their offer of $17,000 was accepted. “We feel we got a good deal on the house,” Richard said.
“We’re very happy here; this is home,” Sally said. “In the nearly four years we’ve been here, we’ve had no trouble. We watch out for each other. And there’s a Block Watch too.”