A fire that ravaged Elmwood Parish Commons 11 months ago opened a door both old and new for the Ashford Hollow Foundation, whose office went up in flames with others in the converted Elmwood Avenue church building.
The devastating event allowed architect and foundation board member Frank A. Fantauzzi to imagine an entirely different base of operations for the venerable arts organization in a vacant corner of the rambling brick Essex Street complex where it was founded by Larry Griffis Jr. in 1969.
"I thought, why not be creative in the renovation itself? Instead of making sculpture, make architecture," Fantauzzi said.
The project would bring the foundation full circle, for its original office was inside these same four walls.
Aided by a former graduate student, Charlie O'Geen, and several current students at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture, where he is an associate professor, Fantauzzi used existing structural elements and surplus materials to reinvent a space that "was built to last."
The striking central feature is a rectangular office-within-an-office resting on raised steel tubes beneath the ceiling's I-beams and set at a slight angle from the outer walls. Viewed from outside through its Essex Street window, the open work space seems to float in front of the boardroom just beyond.
Fantauzzi, who worked without pay, as did O'Geen and the other students, is proud of the way recycled materials were used during the six-month project. The floor consists of upside-down blackboard slates discarded by city schools. Steel tubes and maple plywood sheets were lifted from scrap heaps. Cut-offs and other found materials were incorporated into finishes and furniture.
The undertaking showed how waste can be minimized in construction, Fantauzzi said.
Not until it was finished did Fantauzzi realize that the floor of the inner office is the exact same length and width as the heavy-duty scale right outside the office door of what was once the Webster-Citizen ice house. The company used it to weigh ice blocks harvested from Lake Erie.
"You suddenly realize you've made contact with the past," he said.
For Ashford Hollow Foundation, which operates the Essex Arts Center at the West Side location and Griffis Sculpture Park in Ashford, the functional new office is a prayer answered.
"We didn't need Class A space, but we needed professional space," said Executive Director Simon Griffis, son of Larry Griffis Jr. and brother of Essex Art Center Director Mark Griffis.
They said Fantauzzi brought to the project the same spirit and vision that led their charismatic father, a creator of monumental sculptures who died in 2000, to establish the arts center.
The brick-walled, 50,000-square-foot complex near Richmond Avenue gave birth to Hallwalls, CEPA and Big Orbit galleries, among other organizations, and after four decades remains a beehive of artistic and educational activity.
It still houses Big Orbit, Griffis Studios and the studios of many individual artists. Some 400 inner-city children come after school to learn metal sculpting in the Studio for Youth.
The fourth annual Flash Party, a fundraiser for Essex Arts Center, will be held in the complex from 7 p.m. to midnight Nov. 8.
Tickets are $40 and are available at Terrapin Station, 1172 Hertel Ave., and Everything Elmwood, 740 Elmwood Ave. and 4446 Main St., Williamsville.