Lewis Baer ’72 has many reasons to be an advocate for the arts at Lehigh. As head of a New York City-based antiques and prop house, he often raves about his college experience, just like a good friend of his father’s did when Baer was deciding on colleges.
“I thought it would be a real stretch for me to get admitted based on the academic reputation of the school,” explained Baer. “Lehigh had a business school, too, which didn’t have a language requirement. Also, the geographic location was ideal, as I wanted access to both Philadelphia (I grew up in the suburbs) and New York City, where my family’s business was located. Finally, I thought I could play college-level soccer and lacrosse and wanted to give that a try, too.”
Baer is the managing principal of Newel LLC, now in its fourth generation, which deals in fine antiques and the decorative arts. He has directed the company, founded as a prop house for Broadway theatre by his grandfather, since 2001. He started working at Newel as a summer job between his freshman and sophomore years at Lehigh and has successfully guided Newel in an ever-changing industry. The business is one of leading dealers of decorative arts across the world and is still a critical supplier of period sets and furnishings for television, movies and display.
“Working during college was a means to an end, where my grandparents offered to pay me if I worked, and I was motivated by that opportunity,” said Baer. “However, I was never really focused on working at Newel after graduation and never bothered to take any college courses in art history, design or architecture. I took electives in advanced accounting and business and wanted to reap the rewards of my degree and work for an accounting firm. The summer after I graduated, however, I had gotten an internship with a British accounting firm in Malta through AISAC, an international college organization that recruits internships around the world. AISAC was a great college experience, as our Lehigh group made solicitations to Lehigh Valley banks and businesses for foreign student interns.”
Baer was involved in AISAC as well as a fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi, where he was the first brother to play a contact sport (the frat was consistently the inter-frat bowling champs); however, the members were always ranked first or second academically, and that was an important quality of the group.
Sports have always been an interest of Baer’s. He played soccer and lacrosse at Lehigh but gave them both up when he realized he was only capable of doing two out of three activities (sports, social life, academics) in college.
“I eliminated the two sports and the commitment of that time for a better social life and a vastly improved academic standing,” he said. “It was a smart decision for me, but I admire those student athletes who can manage that triple play.”
After his summer internship with AISAC, Baer worked in the Philadelphia office of Lybrand, Ross Bros. and Montgomery, (now PWC), which was the only “big 8” firm based in Philadelphia.
“I felt the need for real-life actual business experience to translate what I was taught at Lehigh; I wanted to see a real purchase order and trial balance, which big businesses create in the real world,” he said.
In the meantime, Baer’s grandfather, who founded Newel, passed away, and after approximately a year at the accounting firm, he was recruited to fill the void in the family business.
“I was also the only family member from the third generation available and had built almost a year of experience working at Newel with all my summer and vacation experience,” he said. “I also found the accounting world at that time to be quite ridged and not as flexible as the potential of a Newel future.”
Baer graduated with honors in the last all-male class, majoring in accounting, and was in Beta Alpha Psi, the accounting honor society. His positive experiences on South Mountain convinced two of his three children to attend Lehigh as well.
Son Noah, who graduated in 2005 with both a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, was definitely influenced by Baer’s attending Lehigh and maintains many friends from his fraternity. He then went on to law school and presently works in the structured finance legal department of Deutsche Bank. Daughter Gabriella graduated in 2015 as a psychology major. She liked the location (not too far from home) and academic opportunities as well as exposure to both her brother and dad’s experiences. She is now working at Newel, the family business, handling social media and learning the various aspects of the business. His other son, Jake, attended Marist College in New York and majored in business and marketing.
“I am proud of all of my children and honored that two of them followed in my footsteps by going to Lehigh,” explained Baer. “I knew they would get a wonderful education and enjoy the social aspects of college life on the campus as well.”
“On the whole, my academic preparation was excellent, but life in the business world is something that a school can never duplicate,” Baer said. “The interpersonal environment of dealing with people and business decisions in the outside world is a big stretch. Certainly, having an internship or some form of outside work experience is important.”
Baer added, “Over the course of my career, I have implemented computer and database systems that have advanced the company into the digital world. With 40 years as a witness to the art and antiques industry, as well as the film and television industries, I have made my observations known with a blog that regularly criticizes industry practices and commentaries on trends.”
A resident of Englewood, N.J., Baer has been an active Lehigh alumnus and volunteer, having twice chaired his Reunion Fund Committee, and was a founding member of the Lehigh Leadership Council. In addition, he has offered his gallery resources to faculty and students in the theatre and the art, architecture and design departments. Also, Baer was a trustee at the Dwight-Englewood School, where he led building fundraising campaigns and a master plan for the school. Presently, he is on the Englewood Planning Board, where he recently directed the 2014 City of Englewood master plan and is a board member of Regency-Superior, Ltd., an auction house.
All in all, Baer is happy with the career path he took.
“The antiques and decorative arts industry has gone from boom time in the 20th century to life support in the 21st century. Newel is one of the last major antiques firms still in operation, as most specialized dealers in the traditional English and French periods have disappeared. We have been able to survive by maintaining a diversity of our inventory and the flexibility of moving into more contemporary styles. Also, we have maintained a strong tradition with supplying period and modern furnishings for set designers in the TV and motion picture industry. Today, the demand for production product through new mediums like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix has allowed us to grow.”
Two business accomplishments he is most proud of are the development of a proprietary database system for his company, which has allowed it to be cutting edge with the use of technology in an industry that has been slow to adapt to this medium. He is also excited to have son Jake as the company’s new CEO, representing the fourth generation in the family business, giving a bright and vigorous vision for the company’s future.
In his spare time, Baer enjoys spending quality time with his wife of 36 years, Lorraine Suhl Baer, his children and his first grandchild, Henry. He plays tennis and likes to jog occasionally. Giving back to Lehigh is something very special for Baer.
“I think it’s all about giving back to the institution what you have accumulated over the years,” he said. “I feel a special opportunity to be able to contribute to two areas of the school that I never thought about when attending Lehigh but now are integral with my business experience: the theatre department and the art, architecture and design department. Also, with the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh, I have a direct relationship in an area of the school that few alumni have a professional understanding of—its operations and development.”