Genesee County Landmark Society Preservation Award: Eli Fish Brewing Co.
The fourth recipient of this year’s Landmark Awards goes to Eli Fish Brewing Company for their Adaptive reuse of the building known as J. J. Newberry at 109 111 Main Street in Batavia. Matt Gray and Jon Mager are here tonight to receive the award.
I am sure most of you in the audience tonight are familiar with Eli Fish and the story of their creation of Batavia’s first brewery in many, many years. There has been lots and lots of press coverage of the project and many happy diners and beer lovers have paid a visit since their opening in March of 2018.
Many of you have memories of what was there before- I have fond memories of Main Street Coffee and Pieces (the jewelry, frame spot, art gallery) being there in the early parts of this century. After that, Brian and Beth Kemp’s T-Shirt ETC found a home there as did The American Red Cross. Of course, the biggest memory jogger for Batavians and folks from Genesee County was the decades that the building was known as Newberry’s.
The three-story Italianate style building was constructed in 1881. The architect was George J King who designed several buildings and residences in the area. The building was built by C.H. Turner & Son Company, a prominent local furniture maker and undertaker, before the J.J. Newberry Company, a national five-and-dime store, purchased the building in 1929.
Downtown Batavia was a hopping center of commerce during those years –both sides of Main Street were lined with late 19th century 2 and 3 story buildings, filled with every kind of business needed for a county seat. Shops were on the ground level floor and offices above. On the corner of Jackson and Main the Bank of Genesee, the building stands still, next it the now long vacant Carr Building remains as well. Between Carrs and Newberry a theater once stood, but a fire devastated it in the mid-thirties and was eventually replaced with a single story addition onto Carr’s.
Following World War II, storefronts in Batavia and all across the country began to change. In an effort to embrace the sleek new look in vogue, many buildings were altered by covering up the brick facework with steel or aluminum. The Newberry building’s storefront was altered- but not to the extent that other Newberry properties experienced across the country. In 1948 a single story building was erected to the rear of the original structure, more than doubling its length. The
renovation included a relocated lunch counter with a curved Art Moderne hood. Main Street Coffee incorporated into their operation and Eli Fish left a portion of it exposed in the entry area of the brewery. The modern storefront configuration with large plate glass windows was a marvel at the time; it even warranted a full article and large picture in the paper announcing its completion.
Newberry maintained its façade between the 1920s and 50s, even to the point of utilizing hand-cut
wooden gold lettering across the signboard to advertise its presence on Main Street, which was much more
sympathetic to its Italianate Design. The use of gold-painted wood is noteworthy given the proliferation of
plastic molding techniques which have become the dominant sign making style since plastic became available en-mass in the 1940s. Indeed, the Batavia sign was reportedly done by H.H. Upham Company out of New York City, one of the city’s most distinguished sign companies.
When thousands of square feet of Batavia’s downtown meet the wrecking ball in the sixties and seventies, the Newberry Building remained. In 1996 it closed and was briefly home to another 5 and dime before it was sold to Andrew Mistler in 2003. That’s when the building was divided into two elongated spaces available for rent. Main Street Coffee and Pieces rented floor space for a period of time, then T-Shirts ETC and The Red Cross followed them.
In 2015, the building was sold to AGRV Properties with the dream of drastically overhauling the building into a Brewery, restaurant and living spaces. Matt Gray and Jon Mager consulted with the Batavia Development Corporation and arrived at the concept of Fresh Lab to bring in two start-up kitchens to supplement Eli Fish’s own operation. Shortly after purchasing the building, Gray and Mager brought in Buffalo’s Preservation Studios to start the process of listing the property on the National Park Services Register of Historic Places. That highly detailed process resulted in the J J Newberry building attaining a position on the list on September 11, 2017. It joins 23 others on the Register in Genesee County. The achievement, in addition to the historical significance, greatly enhanced the financial feasibility of the project to do a 20 percent tax credit at both the federal and state levels.
Construction began in the spring of 2017. During the construction process, the original plans for the brewery evolved from having the brewing operation on the first floor to moving it into the rear portion of the basement, necessitating the removal of portions of the floor and altering the project’s use of the interior space. The final layout occupies more restaurant space than was originally intended.
Since opening last year one of the two start-ups has left the operation but Eden ( featuring vegan fare) has been very well received as has Eli Fish’s beers and food. The operation at the brewery continues to evolve with additional soundproofing to reduce interior noise levels and adjustments to their menu to meet the demands of the clientele.
Quote from The Preservation Exchange Blog entry by Matt Shoen
“The density of our streets have decreased as companies attempt to gain their own spaces, damaging the feeling and cohesion of our cities. Simply look at images of old Batavia to see how the city's commercial district used to be dominated by three-story Italianate buildings, filled with large stores and commercial tenants on the upper levels. Much of these are gone, replaced by box stores and the downtown mall. The Newberry Building is actually a bit of an albatross, standing between buildings put up in the 1950s. The fact that the building maintained its form from 1881 to the present day is remarkable, even more so considering Newberry's company-wide remodeling plan from the 1950s that sought to sheath many of its buildings with metal siding. The Newberry Building in Batavia escaped this treatment, making it one of the few buildings in Batavia to survive relatively unscathed from the city's heyday….., reminding pedestrians of the shape of their old Main Street.”