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Hiding in plain sight, Assembly House 150 teaches art through construction

Hiding in plain sight in downtown Buffalo is an 'interactive experiential learning center, art design and construction incubator.' What once was an immaculate conception church from the 1860’s is now Assembly House 150. Coming out of the pandemic, the art center is looking for ways to open its doors to the public.

On the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Edward Street exists a 10,000 square foot building with stained glass windows, lofty arched ceilings and a historic stone and brick structure. As you enter through its large wooden doors, a cacophony of construction based art projects can be seen with students hard at work.

“Our flagship program is called SACRA," said Assembly House 150 Executive Director Dennis Maher. "That's a 12 week program in the building trades which teaches skills over the course of the 12 weeks to underemployed, unemployed adults in the city of Buffalo.”

Maher said they have had 43 graduates over the past three years with a job placement rate of 80%.

“We're working with various industry stakeholders, those in the field of construction and design arts, to help deliver the workshops and also to be sites for placement at the conclusion of the program,” Maher said.

Class sessions take place in the spring and the fall with an aim to teach basic technical skills that can be utilized creatively in everyday environments. Maher said there’s a growing need in the vocation. 

“A lot of people are retiring out from the trades, and particularly the specialty trades, which is an area that we have particular interest in things like the old school plaster work and the wood window building and other preservation related trades that require a higher degree of quality and care,” Maher said.

Students currently have been between the ages of 18 to late 40’s, but that range should expand soon. 

“We are working on piloting out a high school program to introduce high school aged kids to aspects of construction and design arts this coming summer, and hopefully that will ramp up over the year ahead,” Maher said.

Community Engagement Manager Olivia McManus had many plans for Assembly House 150 put on hold due to the pandemic.

“Tours, lectures, events here in space, we're now able to turn our attention towards developing that,” McManus said.

McManus envisions poetry readings and artist collaborations in addition to the site hosting an education program.

“We're also working through the Burchfield Penney (Art Center) project right now. So the guys that were here earlier are installing a wall so that we can see what this looks like assembled," McManus said. "And there's a lot of hands-on development and hands-on learning that takes place here.”

One currently finished hands-on project can be seen at the Northland Workforce Center.

“That large scale wall mural that's 40 by 20 feet, that was produced by Assembly House 150 and SACRA students,” she said.

The pandemic shifted many art institutions towards focusing on public art projects. For Maher and the Assembly House 150 staff, everything they do is a form of public art, like when working on Victorian era housing.

“Things like the wainscotting, things like the inlay floor, even looking at the roof pitches and the difference between a tower and a turret and a bay window," Maher said. "And all those kinds of unique features that make the houses special.”

Maher said it’s that type of integration that can find its way into everyday life. 

“Sometimes you might see something, and it may be it's so touching that you don't even notice it. Right?" Maher asked. "And maybe that's when it's most meaningful. Other times, it might hit you upside the head, which could also be good too. So I think it's finding ways that it works its way in, whatever way it's designed to do. So it is really important in terms of making art, what it's supposed to be at that place in time.” 

Western New York art lovers are just starting to hear about Assembly House 150. But with a mission to educate and collaborate within the community, staff are confident the future is bright.

"Because this building was abandoned for 20 years, there are many people who walk in the door and say, 'I had no idea this was here.' So while we are in many ways, kind of at this key, geographic location, there's also a certain kind of quietness and unexpectedness, which which helps," Maher said. "Because people aren't expecting what they see when they come in the doors."

To learn more about public tours and their educational programs, you can visit here.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.