The Kenan Center, shown in an undated photo, has long been a cultural fixture in Lockport.

The main building of Lockport's Kenan Center, a handsome red-brick mansion surrounded by century-old hemlocks, often feels more like a friend's house than a museum.

The front door creaks. Plush carpet covers cold marble floors. Light pours into the living room through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating meticulous woodwork and period furnishings that seem more inviting than ostentatious.

On a recent visit, children ran through the mansion playing a game of hide-and-seek, something stodgier institutions would likely frown upon.

This easy sense of comfort and community has long been a feature of the Kenan Center, a multidisciplinary community institution celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

To kick off its golden anniversary year, the center is mounting a show that honors the center's inaugural exhibition of Charles Burchfield paintings, held about a year before its official opening in 1966.

A 1945 painting by Martha Burchfield Richter is on view in the Kenan Center's exhibition "Three Generations of Burchfields."

On Sunday, 51 years to the day after the original show, the center opens "Three Generations of Burchfields: Works from the Schoene Collection." It features watercolors by Burchfield, as well as his daughters Catherine Burchfield Parker and Martha Burchfield Richter and his granddaughter Peggy Richter Haug.

The exhibition, curated by Gerald Mead, draws from the collection of Louise Simon Schoene, a champion in particular of Martha Burchfield Richter's work.

"This show puts together for the first time all four of them," Mead said, adding that each artist has a room of his or her own. "It's not so much about the similarity of their work, but about showing how they each responded to the same impulse, nature."

Though the show may not be designed to emphasize the similarity among the Burchfields' work, it is tough to deny. The stormy, otherworldly quality of Charles Burchfield's paintings appears in Martha Burchfield Richter's watercolors and to some extent in Haug's more conservative style. Parker's impressionistic work, often inspired by music, makes perhaps the most radical departure from Charles Burchfield's influence.

In addition to bringing together work from three generations of the Burchfields - which Mead refers to as Western New York's "first family" of artists - the exhibition hints at the generations of Lockport residents and others who have been impacted by the Kenan Center since its founding in 1967.

The center is best-known outside of Lockport as an art gallery and a destination for connoisseurs of craft art, owing to its popular annual "100 American Craftsman" show. But in the canal city of 21,000, it's better-known for its many community-based programs: its popular children's soccer program, preschool and arts education activities and long-established affiliate groups: the Kenan Arts Council, Quilter's Guild and Herb Club.

You would be hard-pressed to find any Lockport resident whose life has not intersected with the Kenan Center and its programming.

"The Kenan Center has been the arts, cultural and recreational center of the city for 50 years," said Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey, who ice skated in the Kenan Center Arena as a child. "I really view them as the jewel of our city, and the deep history and philanthropy that emanated from the Kenan Center is still with us today."

From left, Lockport artist William Storrs, Charles Burchfield,  Arts chair Douglas Swick and Charles Rand Penney during the first art exhibition held in the house in April 1966.

The main house of the Kenan Center was built by merchant George W. Rogers in 1854 but soon burned down almost entirely, and was reconstructed in 1859. Like Buffalo's grain elevators and architectural treasures, it rose up from the wealth of the Erie Canal, which also gave Lockport the distinction of having the largest number of millionaires per capita of any American city at the turn of the century.

In 1912, according to a history compiled by Natalie Pitzer in 1985, the eccentric North Carolina industrialist William Rand Kenan bought the house. He later expanded it to an adjacent property that at one time included a cow pasture and a greenhouse that has since been demolished.

Kenan, who worked for Union Carbide and married into Standard Oil money, was childless, which was lucky for Lockport: He left the entire campus to Lockport's First Presbyterian Church upon his death in 1965.

"He was very much a Renaissance man," said Kenan Center Executive Director Susan Przybyl. "Underlying everything that he believed in was education. He even stated in his will that he believed that an education is the most cherished gift that any individual can receive."

A family entertainment event held near the Kenan Center Arena was part of the programming in the center's early days.

Shortly after its incorporation, the Kenan Center launched its arts, recreation and education programs that remain largely intact -- if more diverse -- today. And all of them owe a debt to the philosophy emblazoned on the Kenan family crest: "Vive ut Viva," or "Live that you may live."

"All these years later, still underlying everything we do is his vision, underlying everything is that concept of education," Przybyl said. "You educate yourself through all sorts of things: going to art shows, talking to artists, doing whatever it is you're going to do."

At the modern-day Kenan Center, which supports a staff of 17 and a volunteer base of several hundred on a relatively paltry $900,000 budget, that means hosting an ever-expanding array of events and activities.

These include workshops on quilting, botany and the arts; several youth athletic programs; art exhibitions and tours; summer and school-year art classes for children and adults; a Montessori Preschool; and a theater venue in a rehabbed Victorian carriage house that recently became the home of Lockport's newest community theater troupe.

Performers mount an early production in the Kenan Center's Taylor Theatre, likely by the NOW theater troupe.

In order to meet the growing demand to host events and activities, the center's board is about to undertake a renovation of its soccer arena and annex to create more room for studio spaces and community activities.

Along with "Three Generations of Burchfields," the center's 50th anniversary year will also include an exhibition of watercolors from three centuries drawn from Mead's collection. And it will be a featured participant in a July 8 event that also marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of construction on the Erie Canal. That event will feature a performance by the Albany Symphony a barge in the canal that will culminate in a fireworks display.

"What's great about them is that they're continuing to evolve and make sure that their presence is important in today's society," McCaffrey said. "They really touch so many different aspects of life in Lockport, and it's really important to us."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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