Inside a former church, construction arts program transforms the space and students

Interior of a former church in Buffalo that is now home to a construction arts program.

Inside a former church in Buffalo's historic Allentown neighborhood, a new program is giving underemployed, underrepresented participants a fresh start by teaching them skills in construction arts and design. Photo: Douglas Levere. See more photos.

Release Date: May 31, 2018 This content is archived.

“It’s a program that uses the arts to talk about issues of design, artistic excellence and construction in a more holistic way. ”
Dennis Maher, founder/director
Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When she came to Buffalo from Texas two years ago, Donna Neiberline had no experience with making things. She only knew the world of fast food and serving. “A screwdriver was probably the only tool I ever used,” she says. Now, Neiberline is the proud owner of a circular saw — and she knows how to use it, among other tools.

Roofing was the only world native Buffalonian Anthony Lidge ever knew. He wanted to branch out and learn new skills to broaden his job opportunities. Now, he can tell you all about working with wood, from the best type to use for a project, to how to manipulate it. The next time he works on a house, he won’t have to start at the top. “Being here taught me how to build a house from the ground up,” he says.

Neiberline and Lidge are among the graduates of the spring term of a program called the Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts, or SACRA.

It’s a collaboration between the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Innovation Lab and Assembly House 150, an organization founded by artist and University at Buffalo architecture professor Dennis Maher, whose work has been exhibited around the globe.

The program began last fall out of Assembly House 150’s headquarters inside the former Immaculate Conception Church in Buffalo.

SACRA THIS SPRING (Photos by Douglas Levere)

Program’s mission is rooted in Buffalo’s architectural history

SACRA aims to transform Buffalo’s future by educating students about the city’s architectural past, whether it be delving into a book on classical architecture, or taking a walking tour of Victorian homes in Buffalo’s historic Allentown neighborhood.

Meanwhile, as the program graduates more students, SACRA will infuse the region’s workforce with skilled craftspeople who can contribute to a range of construction jobs, including the growing number of historic preservation projects happening throughout Buffalo.

“There is such a legacy of artistic and design excellence in much of the architecture in Buffalo. We want to graduate students who can contribute to bolstering that culture of contemporary craftsmanship excellence, both from a design and a making standpoint,” says Maher, who co-directs the program with Russell Davidson, manager of the Innovation Lab at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

“We are seeing more restoration projects as the city’s housing stock ages, but there is a lack of trained workers for those projects,” adds SACRA Program Coordinator Alexandra Johnston, who holds a dual degree in architecture and art history from Yale and is a founding member of the SACRA Advisory Council.

Neiberline sees SACRA as an opportunity to find jobs that will enable her to work with her hands. The program has taught her skills she can employ both in the workforce and in her own home. “I’ve learned something new here pretty much every day,” Neiberline says.

“Even the first project we did — we made sawhorses — that was the first thing I’d ever built. Being able to finish something and say ‘I made this’ was a good feeling. Before, I never would have thought I could do that, and now it seems kind of simple.”

That feeling, Maher says, is the driving force behind SACRA. “It’s so rewarding to see their confidence build and the pride that comes from visitors entering our space and saying, ‘Wow, this work is amazing.’”

Students are referred to SACRA through Erie County’s Department of Social Services. The 15-week program is offered in the fall and spring, with last September’s group serving as the inaugural class.

The spring group graduates on June 6 with a ceremony at Assembly House 150. It’s a chance to celebrate the students’ accomplishments since February, while showcasing some of the projects they’ve worked on.

Signature piece for new workforce training center

One of the spring group’s signature pieces will be prominently on display inside the Northland Workforce Training Center, a $44 million hub that is expected to open later this summer. The project is a 40-by-17-foot decorative wooden wall that will be installed in the training center lobby, for all visitors to see.

The decorative wall began with a basic mapping of the City of Buffalo. Then, students began to build special components that focused on different joinery conditions or aspects of detailing and inlay. They combined those pieces with wooden-molded relics from the former Niagara Machine and Tool Works, the more than century-old building that is the site of the new training center.

In a sense, every project inside Assembly House 150 begins as a seed that grows into something larger. For example, “Quarter House” — a two-story construction that includes components of traditional Victorian architecture — began as an exercise in basic house framing before moving into wainscoting, stairs and windows.

“The idea was that each phase in the construction of the house became part of the curriculum,” Maher says. “Everything in here is an opportunity to teach a skill or technique.”

Earlier this month, “Quarter House” was appropriated as a stage for an event featuring Eva Franch i Gilabert, director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City.

Maher, who is also a clinical assistant professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, often involves his UB students in Assembly House 150 projects.

For example, with “Cabinet Cabinet Cabinet,” Maher’s graduate students explored the work of renowned 18th century English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale by designing and building a collaborative cabinet that examined some of the themes of Chippendale’s work.

‘Not a traditional vocational program’

“SACRA is not a traditional vocational program,” says Maher. “It’s a program that uses the arts to talk about issues of design, artistic excellence and construction in a more holistic way.”

Toward that end, students learn from a rotating cast of skilled craftspeople who give lessons tied to a particular project the class is working on. A few weeks ago, Kitty Mahoney, a stained glass restoration artist with Buffalo-based Swiatek Studios, gave a demonstration.

Other collaborators have included Jim Cordes, the woodworking artist-in-residence at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora; Steve Oubre, the lead carpenter at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin-Martin House in Buffalo; and John Gulick of J.A. Gulick Window & Door Co.

SACRA instructors also include Daniel Salomon, who was trained at Cornell University, and Quincy Koczka, one of Maher’s former students at UB.

For Maher, SACRA offers an opportunity to move into projects that focus on collaboration and civic engagement, while still feeding into his artistic practice that is rooted in sculpture and environmental design. “It’s a way of thinking about being and making in the world and bringing people and materials together in order to create new opportunities and relationships,” he says.

For SACRA participants, the opportunities could be life-changing.

“The ultimate goal is to find our students meaningful, gainful employment,” says Johnston, the program coordinator. “As the semester winds down, we talk with each student about which aspects of the program they liked most and try to match them up with jobs. We want them to be happy with what they’re doing.”

That sounds good to Lidge, the Buffalo roofer who plans on bringing his two children to graduation. “I went through a couple stressful times recently but this program has helped keep me levelheaded,” he says. “It’s like a family. I’m happy every day I’m here.”

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