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Power House recharges Roycroft; Historic restoration provides meeting place and new source of sustaining income

The former Roycroft Power House was reduced to a charred ruin after a fire in 1997, a sad reminder of how far the Village of East Aurora's historic Arts and Crafts site had fallen.

Now, after a $4 million historic reconstruction, the Power House's faithfully reproduced exterior and modern reproduction of the interior signals a rebirth for the internationally known artistic experiment founded in 1895 by Elbert Hubbard.

"I think the Power House is a great achievement, and it's just a beginning," said Robert J. Kresse, a trustee with the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, a longtime supporter of Roycroft Campus Corp.'s efforts to revive the site.

"Seven years ago, we were absolutely nowhere in terms of defining the future of the campus. They have really made a silk purse out of a sow's ear with great success."

Doug Swift, whose seven-year tenure as Roycroft Campus president ended in December, said completing the Power House was the first major accomplishment since the Roycroft Inn opened in 1995.

"The whole cultural tourism movement is really taking hold in this area, and the Roycroft has got as much or more of a following around the world as Frank Lloyd Wright does. Arts and Crafts have never faded out, and we need to develop this site to be able to tap into that market," said Swift, a real estate developer and architect who served on the boards of two Wright-designed homes, the Martin House Complex in Buffalo and Graycliff in Derby.

The Power House, at 39 Grove St., which once supplied the heat and electricity for the campus, will be used for programming, events, hands-on classes, meetings, lectures and as a hospitality center. It will also generate revenue to support the not-for-profit's goal of becoming self-sufficient.

Empire State Development Corp., a state agency, was the major funder of the project, kicking in $1.5 million.

The two-story, nearly 5,000-square-foot stucco Power House, with green trim, stone beams, terra-cotta roof and 83-foot-tall chimney, is one of six major buildings on the Roycroft site.

Nearby, new roofs and other restoration work continue on the Copper Shop, which began in its infancy as the Blacksmith Shop and includes two early additions. The Copper Shop had served, inadequately, as the only space for groups to assemble.

Discussions are under way to eventually acquire Roycroft's former Print Shop in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension, which has owned and occupied the building since 1953.

The Furniture and Bindery Building, which offers antiques and Arts and Crafts gifts and has an artisan studio, has been under private ownership for more than 40 years. The Roycroft Inn is owned and operated by the Wendt Foundation.

Use of the Chapel, also owned by the foundation, is on Roycroft's radar screen, with the Town of Aurora planning to move Town Hall to another location later this year.

>Partnership planned

Swift said Roycroft Campus expects to work in closer partnership in the coming years with the Roycroft Inn, which plans to use the Power House for bookings.

The landscape also has been getting a face-lift. In 2009, the stone wall along Main Street and pillars forming an entryway to Grove Street were reconstructed and replica street lights added. Also, a small park was created and an information kiosk installed to replace a demolished, run-down commercial structure.

This summer, the National Historic Landmark will get new landscaping, paving and curbing to restore lost green space and give the site more definition.

Visit Buffalo Niagara spokesman Ed Healy said the changes should be well received by visitors who, he said, seek out Roycroft "almost like on a pilgrimage."

"For people who are passionate about these things, the Roycroft brand is really well known and draws people here from across the country and, I think, from around the world," Healy said.

One of the first things visible upon entering the Power House is a mural of an old tax map from around 1910. The information offered architects one of the few clues to the building's early design. Another nearby mural shows three large boilers the building was built around.

The hardwood floors and a remnant of original brick, along with glass and stainless steel, plus a 20-foot metal bridge that stands over a part of the first floor and exposed pipes from the ceiling give the building and its flexible, open spaces the appearance of a modern industrial art space.

"We tried to be very faithful on the exterior architecture, and then have more fun on the interior, while still being able to show what this building was," Swift said.

There are also two small offices, a kitchen and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment.

After Roycroft's success as a community of Arts and Crafts workers and artists ended and the business was sold in 1938, the property was subdivided and many of the 17 original buildings were sold off. Eleven remain, but Swift said several under private ownership may never become part of the campus in its smaller footprint.

>Still relevant

Christine Peters, Roycroft's executive director, said the opening of the Power House and plans for the future demonstrate the mission to preserve the site's history and ensure Arts and Crafts concepts are relevant to today.

"Because of the fire in 1997, and because the community had been looking at [the fire-ravaged Power House] for so long, we decided to do this building first. It shows the community and the world we are serious about what we're doing," Peters said.

Peters is one of five full-time staff members and two part-time maintenance workers. Income from retail sales, programming revenue, membership and annual fundraisers help fund the operating budget of about $300,000, but grants from the John R. Oishei and Wendt foundations, among others, have been essential.

Jay Hennig, Swift's successor as president, said the positive response from National Preservation Conference visitors last October in Buffalo was an encouraging sign.

"I think it validated what we've thought all along: that once we get all of the buildings restored and up in operation, we can attract people from all over the world," Hennig said.

The East Aurora native, who is president of the Space and Defense Group at Moog Inc., said he also was excited about benefits to the local community. "I really see the whole campus is for East Aurora to enjoy and to utilize, and to maintain in good operating order," he said.

Roycroft also is resurrecting an Arts and Crafts conference in October.

"It will be really our first entree back toward being the campus we were meant to be," said Lynn Kinsella, who is in charge of marketing.

The opening of the Power House is the icing on the cake for Swift, who had been at the helm of Roycroft Campus since 2005.

"The Roycroft seemed to me to be the one project that hadn't taken root yet as a big-scale project. It seemed like the time was right there to ensure the buildings fulfilled their highest and best-use potential," Swift said.

"This is the first major, out-of-the-ground project we have to demonstrate what our vision for the whole campus is going to be."

email: msommer@buffnews.com