Jay Bernhardt preserves historic landmarks throughout Central New York

by Dick Case / The Post-Standard
September 25, 2009
Jay Bernhardt stands in front of the Olde Liverpool Shoppe, which he plans to convert to apartments and offices.

Jay Bernhardt stands in front of the Olde Liverpool Shoppe, which he plans to convert to apartments and offices.

Jay Bernhardt stands in front of the Olde Liverpool Shoppe, which he plans to convert to apartments and offices.

Jay Bernhardt made an interesting change of life – from industrialist to preservationist – while he’s still around to enjoy it.

In 1977, after working for a rival rubber company, Jay founded JGB Enterprises, a supplier of hoses and hose assemblies for commercial and industrial clients. JGB eventually established a permanent headquarters in Liverpool. The company employs 250 people, has branches in Buffalo, Charlotte and St.Louis and “business is up every year. I must have started a good management team,” the founder boasts.

Apparently he did. About 1996, recovering from a heart attack and bypass surgery, Jay says he decided to let go of management of the company, day to day. He started spending more time in his hometown of Richfield Springs in Otsego County. That’s when the preservation bug bit, big time.

“I enjoy restoring things,” he explained back then. And there’s money to be made. He started up another company, JGB Properties, which manages his commercial and residential real estate. He signs up limited partners to actually carry out each project, some of which he sells after they’ve been restored.

Jay’s put down a middle-size footprint in Central New York.

Just then, we’re standing in front of his latest project, restoration of an historic building at 401 First St., near the lake, in Liverpool. Most recently, the building held an antiques store. “We’re ready to go,” Jay says, pointing to three stories of brick he plans to transform into apartments with store fronts on the first floor.

The village of Liverpool recently received a Restore New York grant from the state and will be a partner in Bernhardt’s rehabilitation project on First Street across from the Cobblestone Inn.

Jay’s just moved his real estate staff into 238 W. Division St., in Franklin Square, which is a converted fire house, built in 1923 as Engine Co. 14, the “Oil City firebarn” and headquarters of the city fire department’s Foamite Company. Jay bought the landmark in 2008 and remodeled it to include a brass fire pole and a display of fire hose.

Syracuse has a good record of reusing abandoned fire houses. They are offices, neighborhood centers, a florist shop, a fire-fighting museum and private residences.

Last weekend, in Richfield Springs, Jay received a 2009 Historic Preservation Award from a group that covers Otsego and Schoharie Counties for restoring a Richfield landmark, the so-called Park Inn, which had been an eyesore on the village’s main street for years. It’s now part of a Main Street Historic District, proclaimed by the National Register of Historic Places.

Much of Jay’s preservation work has focused on his hometown, where his mother’s family, the Houses, go back generations. He started by rehabilitating the old Richfield Mercury Building on Main Street for his office and headquarters of the Mercury, a weekly newspaper he took over, as well as for newspapers about the Erie Canal and U.S. 20, which runs through the village. He’s had to shut down all of the newspapers – “we put them to sleep,” he says sentimentally – much to his chagrin, because of advertising slumps.

Jay also bought a closed GLF mill in Richfield and turned it into an art center and restored The Gladstone, another Main Street landmark. Five years ago, Jay bought the former Ryerson estate at the north end of nearby Otsego Lake, which he plans to restore, too, perhaps as “an upscale bed and breakfast.”

The Red Mill Inn, on the Seneca River and Erie Canal in Baldwinsville, is another restoration. The former grist mill went up in 1828. Jay developed the property, which he and partner Jay McKenna bought in 2005, into a 32-room hotel with meeting and event space for 150 people.

One of JGB Enterprises most interesting projects was in Seneca Falls, where Jay and McKenna decided to buy the grand, old Gould Hotel, which had been closed for several years. They’ve rechristened the Gould as “Hotel Clarence,” a nod to the local legend that the village inspired Frank Capra’s 1945 film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Clarence is the angel in the movie.

Hotel Clarence reopened in July as a hotel with 48 rooms and a restaurant called “Divine Kitchen and Bar,” which recently passed muster with Yolanda Wright, The Post-Standard’s restaurant critic, much to Jay’s pleasure. He also wanted me to know that “It’s a Wonderful Life” plays continuously on a big screen in the Clarence lobby.

Jay tells me he owns a company that makes jacketed hoses in Miami and has started a machine shop and a generation company. He has real estate holdings in the village of Liverpool and properties on Route 57, north of the village.

He says each of his restorations moves slowly, with proper financing and research. “I do them one at a time,” he explains, “and carefully.”