Columbus, Ohio USA
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All Over The Place
Diana Lessner lends talent and energy
to neighborhood restaurants, retail and parks
by Dennis Fiely
May 2009 Issue

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Diana Lessner brings a dynamic mix of creativity, good business sense
and fun marketing ideas to Mary Catherine's Antiques. © Photo/ William Bullock

The footprint left by Diana Lessner on High Street began with one giant leap at High and Brickel in 2001 when Diana’s daughter Elizabeth Lessner decided to forgo her college education, mortgage her house and max out her credit cards to open Betty’s Fine Food + Spirits. Mrs. Lessner not only supported her daughter, she became an active co-conspirator in the “crazy” enterprise. “My mother and I spent most of that summer sitting on her porch, drinking wine and plotting,” Elizabeth recalled.

Betty’s has since become a neighborhood staple, spawning three other Elizabeth Lessner-owned restaurants: Surly Girl Saloon, five blocks north of Betty’s at 1126 N. High St., and two Downtown establishments, the TipTop Kitchen at 73 E. Gay St. and Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace at 248 S. Fourth St. in the former Queen Bee location.

Throughout the building of this mini-empire, Mrs. Lessner has been her daughter’s chief decorator and cheerleader. The 63-year old grandmother even briefly bussed tables at Betty’s. “Without her, there would be no restaurants,” Elizabeth said. “She is the person who breathed character into them and brought them to life with her style, taste, and creativity with money. I had no budget, but she was able to furnish and design them on a dime – make that a penny.”

Her involvement in Betty’s thrust Mrs. Lessner into the heart of the Short North commerce, arts and residential scene. The Clintonville resident owns a home in Italian Village, is a dealer/decorator/furniture painter at Mary Catherine’s Antiques, and an Italian Village Society volunteer instrumental in the development of Italian Village Park, a short block east of High at Kerr and Hubbard Streets. “When Liz opened Betty’s, I came down here to support the neighborhood that supported her and I got hooked the wonderful, diverse group of people who make up the Italian Village Society and the Short North,” said Mrs. Lessner. “My home ownership here is an important reason I perform community service.”

The woman who once grew herbs for her daughter’s kitchens helped plant earlier this spring 1,000 daffodils in Italian Village Park, one of her pet projects. She helped found the Amici’s, a volunteer group needed to maintain the park and secure city funding for its construction. With the Martha Walker Garden Club, she also assists in the upkeep of the neighborhood’s other urban green spaces. “She is all over the place,” said Raymond Schwab, vice president of the Italian Village Society.

Her devotion to her adopted neighborhood earned Mrs. Lessner an “Unsung Hero” award from the Short North Business Association in 2007. “She is one of our best kept secrets,” said Melaine Mahaffey, owner of Mary Catherine’s. “I feel very fortunate to have her on board at Mary Catherine’s, bringing her dynamic mix of creativity, good business sense and fun marketing ideas. She doesn’t believe in sitting around and wringing her hands over the projected demise of the antiques business or flat retail sales as the result of the recession. She only talks in terms of new opportunities and the excitement to be found in change and fresh ideas.”

The woman who once grew herbs for her daughter's kitchens helped plant earlier this spring
1,000 daffodils in Italian Village Park. © Photo/ William Bullock.

From the restaurants to the park to the antiques shop, Mrs. Lessner has stamped the main commercial strip with her signature. Her most pervasive reach extends from Mary Catherine’s, where, no doubt, many of her rare finds and reclamation pieces grace the homes, condominiums and apartments in the Short North and central Ohio.

Mahaffey recruited Mrs. Lessner to supplement the shop’s two showrooms of expensive Victorian-era furnishings with more affordable and eclectic stock. “Mary Catherine’s has provided high-end Victorian antiques for decades and still does,” Mrs. Lessner said. “I’m helping to expand the inventory with more kitsch and lower price points in order to appeal to the changing demographics of the neighborhood, especially the young people who are moving down here and visiting our bars and restaurants. They all need bookcases, desks, chests, tables, chairs and accessories, but they don’t have deep pockets. Yet they still want quality, unusual pieces, so we are pulling in more used furniture to serve the market.” For example, she tapped her fingers on a refurbished teak table from the ‘50s and proclaims, “You are not going to find this at Pottery Barn. The bottom line is quality. Young people today are savvy consumers. They know cardboard when they see it.”

Mahaffey described Mrs.Lessner as “a perfect ft” for Mary Catherine’s, one of the pioneering shops in the gentrification of the neighborhood that began in the late ‘70s. They met during the renovation that would become Surly Girl. “I got to know Melaine because my daughter was creating so much havoc next door with a jackhammer,” Mrs. Lessner said. Added Mahaffey: “I must have seen her walk by my window a million times.”

In her multifaceted role for Mary Catherine’s, Mrs. Lessner scours auctions, garage sales, dealerships and even a few flea markets for those “Eureka!” scores such as a wrought iron gate from the New York City subway or the 1950s vintage salon chair with attached hairdryer. Of the latter, Mrs. Lessner pitched its practical value. “If your apartment is drafty and cold, you can sit in this chair to warm up,” she said. Part of her Midas touch is turning trash into treasure with her largely self-taught skills in furniture repair and refinishing.

Her gifts are most apparent in the restaurants, the designs of which are inspired by history, architecture and vision. “Our restaurants have received a lot of press and, more often than not, it has been for our décor and spirit more than our food and service,” Elizabeth Lessner said. “She has been innovative and different with each one.”
Let us count the ways:

• Betty’s reflected Mrs. Lessner’s interest in collection, complementing the pin-up girl theme with flourishes such as Varga girl illustrations and chalkware dogs, ceramic conversation-starters that were carnival toys during the Great Depression.
• At Surly Girl, Mrs. Lessner teamed with manager Carmen Owens and co-owner Marcy Mays, who, playing off the building’s notorious past, fashioned an Old West cowgirl/bordello décor expressed by garage-sale chandeliers strung with plastic beads from Byzantium. Always cost-conscious, “mom traded beers for beads,” Elizabeth Lessner said.
• For the Tip Top design, Mrs. Lessner dove into the Ohio Historical Society archives to find and frame photos of Old Columbus and display a city history that includes relics from the Sells Circus House in Goodale Park. “We gave her a free rein to redecorate and the change was dramatic,” said son Tim Lessner, co-owner and general manager.
• The new Dirty Frank’s may be the project closest to Mrs. Lessner’s heart because she gave it a personal touch, adorning its walls with the original American folk art of her youngest son Tom, a musician and artist in Philadelphia, who also created the Dirty Frank’s logo.

“As the restaurant ideas were hatched, she not only assisted in the decorating, but went out and found everything from props to paint with little or no budget,” Mahaffey marveled. “She also physically helped rebuild their transformations from the bottom up. Armed with a rare mix of creativity and pragmatism, she turned dreams and ideas into real business ventures for her children.”

Her passion, style and talent have been evident throughout her life, but are surfacing professionally for the first time. “She finally is getting paid for what she does best: being creative and creating things,” said Elizabeth.

A native of Chicago, Mrs. Lessner always embraced the urban lifestyle and demonstrated an artistic flair. But she and her husband Bill, now a Nationwide Insurance retiree, chose a conventional life, dedicated to raising their four children in Chicago, Charlotte and Columbus. Mrs. Lessner studied art history at the University of Vienna in Austria and, throughout her life, took the occasional adult education class in subjects such as woodworking. A series of relatively ordinary jobs in teaching, insurance and retail complemented her primary career as a mother and homemaker.

Still, she always found time for creative pursuits such as painting, cooking, picture framing, gardening, sewing and decorating. “She always had some kind of hobby going on,” Tim said. “She made curtains, tables and coverlets for our home and just transferred those skills to the restaurants.” Added Elizabeth: “She used to drive us crazy as kids because she always wanted us to pose for watercolor portraits.”

A family photo taken on Easter holiday, 2009.
(L to R) Elizabeth, Bill, Diana, and Tim.

Mrs. Lessner and her husband were a bit unsettled when only one of their four children – the eldest Bridget, a married mother and nurse in Philadelphia – finished college. “My mom thought that you had to go to college to get a good job; educating her children was a point of pride for her,” Tim said. “But college wasn’t a particularly conducive environment for the skills and interests Liz, Tom and I had.”

Part of that may have been the unwitting result of the values with which they were raised and the example set by their mother. “My mother never was the traditional PTA mom,” Elizabeth said. “She encouraged us to pursue the creative arts instead of sports or cheerleading. I didn’t really understand that as a kid, but I am so grateful for it now.”

Despite some bumps in the road during the childrens’ formative years, the parenting philosophy paid off. “We raised ours kids with a good work ethic and allowed them to freely express themselves and pursue their dreams,” Mrs. Lessner said. “I’ve come to realize that a college education isn’t for everyone. Some of these kids are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and they still can’t find decent jobs. I’m very proud of all my kids. They all have found jobs that they love and that is the key to being happy.”

The children, in turn, are happy for their mother, who has found new meaning and purpose through them. “I think mom is definitely hitting her stride,” Tim said. “She is in a spot right now where she feels liberated and she is taking full advantage of that.”

Added Elizabeth: “It has been fun to watch her reinvent herself.”

The family shares their mother’s desire to spread their wealth of talent and success. Elizabeth and Tim have formulated a mission statement for their restaurants, “the cornerstone of which is to leave our communities better than we found them,” Tim said.

Elizabeth is president of the central Ohio Restaurant Association and co-chair of Create Columbus, a committee established by Mayor Michael Coleman to attract and retain young professionals. She is an advocate for women’s health issues who provides health insurance and an employee assistance program for her staff, gives them a paid day off each quarter to do volunteer work and showcases their artistic and musical talents with her annual Staff Infection entertainment event each year. “This is a noble profession but serving and bartending gets a bad rap as a dead-end job,” she said. Tim, a former theater major, sits on the board of Columbus Children’s Theatre and helps promote Available Light Theater.

As evidenced by her work with the Italian Village Society and Mary Catherine’s, Mrs. Lessner is committed to sustaining the vibrancy of the entire Short North, not just her daughter’s restaurants. She makes it a point to shop locally in support of all the district’s retail shops that often are overshadowed by its restaurants, bars and art galleries.

“I grew up in Old Town Chicago where I saw the demise of one retail store after another and how it destroyed a neighborhood,” she said. “So I am very passionate about promoting retail and keeping it strong because retail is the backbone of the neighborhood. Once the retail goes, the galleries and everything else will go with it.”

Visit Mary Catherine's Antiques at 1130 N. High Street or or call 614-291-4837

© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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