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Tri-Main celebrates 25 years of art, commerce

On the fifth floor of the Tri-Main Center on Main Street, the pockmarked concrete floors still bear the faint impressions of painted yellow stripes that once guided workers and machinery through the building during its heyday as an automobile and windshield wiper factory.

But today, instead of serving any practical purpose, those lines serve an aesthetic one. They run beneath the drywall partitions that separate the airy studios and exhibition spaces of Buffalo Arts Studio, the center’s longest-standing tenant and a central reason for the building’s success as one of Buffalo’s most visionary and successful adaptive reuse projects.

This year, the Tri-Main Center and Buffalo Arts Studio are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the building’s transition from a moribund former factory to a bustling mixed-use center for art and commerce with a trio of exhibitions reflecting on the former Ford and Trico plant’s history.

In Peter Sowiski’s “DopeDupe,” huge panels of handmade and screen-printed paper depict pieces of military hardware and aircraft, obliquely referencing the Tri-Main Center’s brief stint as a Bell Aircraft factory responsible for producing America’s first jets during World War II. In Mark Snyder’s “Auto-Cannibalism,” rusted tools, diagrams and drawings of internal combustion engines and elegant installations made from auto parts more directly suggest the building’s original function as an auto factory that produced more than 600,000 Model T Fords from 1915 until Ford sold the factory in the early 1930s. Later, its workers pumped out countless Trico-brand windshield wipers.

Along with Snyder and Sowiski’s exhibitions, the gallery also hosts a brief look at the construction and history of the building that captures the purpose-built elegance and simplicity of architect Albert Kahn’s steel-frame design.

Taken together, the exhibitions represent a nostalgic look at the Tri-Main’s rich history and a tribute to its reincarnation as a space for creativity and entrepreneurship – the economic building blocks of the 21st century.

For Snyder, whose work has long been tied up with America’s obsessions with cars as well as his own family history, the show was an opportunity to reflect on the building’s legacy while at the same time celebrating its transition into something new.

“One of the things I like about the evolution of this building is that it hearkens back to the idea that Americans are reimaginative of their future,” Snyder said. “They can restart. When things fail, they pick up the pieces and try something new. They have that ability to re-create themselves, reinvent themselves. And that’s what this building has done over the years.”

Not on its own, of course, but because of visionary partnerships like the one that Joanna Angie forged with Toronto-based developer Elgin M. Wolfe and his partners, who poured $7 million into the building in the early 1990s on a long-shot bet that it would draw enough tenants to be successful.

It took several years, but by 2000, the building had nearly reached capacity and was delivering on its promise as an adaptable incubator for all types of businesses and organizations, from photography and design companies to small manufacturing firms to arts groups like Hallwalls and the Just Buffalo Literary Center.

“There’s one thing about coming to Buffalo as a developer,” Wolfe told The Buffalo News in 2000, “You bloody well be ready to persevere, or don’t bother coming.”

It would be hard to argue the perseverance of Wolfe, his son Matthew and others involved in the redevelopment of the building hasn’t yielded impressive results. In a city with huge amounts of vacant office space even as developers scramble to put up new buildings, the Tri-Main’s occupancy level floats around 90 percent, according to Buffalo Arts Studio Curator Shirley Verrico.

What’s more, the continued presence of Buffalo Arts Studio as an anchor tenant is a testament to the importance of the arts as a scene-setter for broader economic development. In too many cases in other cities, artists and arts organizations have been exploited as mere path-pavers for development, which soon prices the very artists who made that development possible out of the market.

That this hasn’t happened at Tri-Main speaks volumes about the Elgins and their visionary approach, which has been copied with varying success in other parts of the city including Larkinville, the Great Arrow Building on Elmwood Avenue and potentially at the city’s other major former Trico factory at the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

For Verrico, the health of the project 25 years in is evidence of a genuine synergy between culture and development in Buffalo.

“When the building was built, we were going through a transition from an agrarian culture to an industrial culture,” she said. “Now, this isn’t just a space of creativity, but of mixed-use and I think the diversity of actions that take place here and the diversity of people who come here is a very interesting counterpoint to the mundane assembly mentality of the original building. It is in fact the diversity, the creativity and the technology, but also the individual that is central to its success.”