The brick cottage at 2256 Bailey Ave. doesn’t look like much.
Set well back from the road on a weedy lot, bracketed by an anonymous warehouse on one side and a pair of patchwork duplexes on the other, the vacant structure doesn’t announce itself as one of the oldest houses on Buffalo’s East Side, dating from 1860 or earlier. It once belonged to the prominent attorney and politician Godfrey H. Wende, after whom a nearby street is named. It has been empty for more than a decade, overlooked and underappreciated.
That’s about to change.
Between now and the end of 2017, the house will serve as the East Side headquarters of an ambitious effort to recruit and train underemployed Buffalo residents to become high-end carpenters and craftspeople.
The project, called the Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts or SACRA, is the result of a collaboration between Buffalo artist and architect Dennis Maher and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s newly founded Innovation Lab.
Its specific goal is to create a pipeline for aspiring craftspeople from local colleges, high schools and underserved neighborhoods into union apprenticeship programs and ultimately into a workforce hungry for highly skilled workers. It also aims to infuse a reviving city with a renewed understanding and appreciation for the care that went into the residential and commercial buildings of Buffalo’s Golden Age.
“It’s clear that we’re undergoing a renaissance in Buffalo,” said Russell Davidson, the first director of the Albright-Knox Innovation Lab. “The economic situation is changing. The psychology is changing. But it’s also clear that this has not reached every neighborhood in Buffalo. … We believe, as the leading cultural institution in the area, we can bridge that divide that exists between east and west.”
The project, which goes beyond the scope of a typical art project, is inspired by the work of social practice artists such as Chicago’s Theaster Gates, whose Dorchester Projects are an internationally admired model for revitalizing struggling neighborhoods through culture.
Dennis Maher's Assembly House 150, housed in the Immaculate Conception Church at Edward and Elmwood, is part of a new job training program. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)
But the Albright-Knox and Maher are taking their work even further than Gates and many of his social-practice contemporaries: They are attempting to use their collective clout and experience to create opportunities for a chronically underemployed segment of the population.
This level of social engagement is rare for an art museum. Davidson said its intent is to serve as an incubator for the program, helping to secure local, state, federal and foundation support for its initial phases and then to “step back” once it is running. The project has a specific fundraising strategy and envisions the creation of earned revenue streams from the sale of work created by participants as well as the formation of teams of SACRA-branded designers and builders for hire.
While the East Side site is renovated and expanded to include an addition where the program’s workshops will be held, the project will start with a pair of pilot projects in the architectural workshop and laboratory Maher created in 2014 in the former Immaculate Conception Church at Elmwood Avenue and Edward Street.
The first is the creation of a mosaic wood floor in the church that Davidson said will “hearken back to the architecture and design heritage of Buffalo” with students and instructors from Erie Community College. The second is the build-out of a contained lecture space within the church that will involve students from Cornell University’s architecture program, Buffalo’s Center for Employment Opportunities, ECC students and participants in the emerging leaders program of Open Buffalo, a George Soros-funded progressive advocacy organization. Maher said those projects will likely be completed by late June.
Project organizers have recruited some of the top carpenters and craftspeople in Buffalo, including the Martin House Restoration Corp.’s master carpenter Steve Oubre, the Roycroft Campus’ Jim Cordes, Megan McNally of the Foundry, instructors from ECC and other working tradespeople. It has also developed relationships with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, along with local developers and small businesses such as Kittinger Furniture and Hadley Exhibits, whose owners say finding highly skilled workers is a challenge.
For Maher, the project is a link: between Buffalo’s east and west sides; its economic upswing and the people it can benefit most; and the city’s proud architectural history and its current feverish building boom.
“In my opinion, the level of craftsmanship and that marriage of art and architecture which were so integral to spaces here in the past, it doesn’t really exist.
“One of the reasons why the Albright is invested in this as a project is because they understand the value of that artistic and design excellence that existed in the city. Allowing for that culture to flourish I think is really important, especially at a time when so much development is happening,” he said.
“I think the lofty ideal would be to empower citizens with the capacity to reimagine their environment and equip them with the tools that are essential in order to do so. If you bring the individuals together, the things you can realize collectively are often so much greater than the sum of the parts.”