What may be the most heart-rending exhibit created for the 9/11 museum in New York City sits in storage near a railroad overpass on Elmwood Avenue, tucked inside an unassuming brick building flanked by metal siding.
Packed away are photographic images, mounted with steel and acrylic, of the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who died that infamous day. The images will eventually make up a 12-foot-tall display across four walls for the "In Memoriam" exhibition, which will stand above a remnant of the South Tower seen through a glass floor.
Hadley Exhibits, a longtime Buffalo company, manufactured the display. The company, which produces exhibits for museums, zoos, trade shows and visitor centers, also fabricated interpretive graphic panels, touch tables, murals, metal frames and furniture for the 9/11 museum.
The firm's contributions include attractions inside the entrance pavilion, located between where the two towers once stood.
The long-stalled 9/11 project has been one of the most complex - and rewarding - for the family-operated exhibit specialists, whose client list includes the Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History, and Rosa Parks Library and Museum.
"You never quite forget what it's about. It is hard, sometimes, to work on it," said project manager Chris Emo. "We're doing photo retouching of photos of every single victim, and some of them are children.
"The key is that everybody understands the significance of it. Other jobs are jobs; this one is more than just a job."
The images posed difficult challenges. For some of the victims, only low-quality, grainy images were available, requiring major restoration. For a small number, no known photos could be found, so an icon was developed to depict them.
The "In Memoriam" exhibit also includes large touch tables Hadley manufactured, which allow visitors to read short biographies and learn other information about those who died.
Hadley works directly with Thinc Design, a New York City design firm, and 9/11 museum staff. The company drew praise for its memorial from Amy Weisser, the museum's director of exhibition development.
"Hadley Exhibits has brought a great deal of sensitivity and intelligence to the construction of exhibitions," Weisser said. "The beautiful array of portraits will reveal the magnitude of the loss and the individuality of each person killed."
Last week, a political dispute that halted construction on the museum for more than a year was resolved. The delay has meant the museum is unlikely to open before 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as Freedom Tower, is expected to be completed in early 2014.
Hadley Exhibits was incorporated in 1946, but its history stretches back to 1923, when the company began creating three-dimensional experiences under founder Norman Hadley.
The company moved to its current location at 1700 Elmwood Ave. in 1997 after purchasing the building from Borden, owner of Gioia Pasta Co., which had been based there for nearly half a century.
The cavernous, 180,000- square-foot site has 95 exhibit specialists working, though the number fluctuates based on need. Multiple shop spaces feature metal fabrication, Plexiglass, model making, lamination, and fine woodworking and cabinetmaking.
Other services include graphic design, art direction, sculpture, and animal and plant replication, including taxidermy. Warehouse space takes up about 40 percent of the total area.
Building space also helps set Hadley apart. The largest of two setup rooms is 250 feet long by 70 feet wide - and 38 feet high. For baseball fans, think the Green Monster, only a foot taller.
"What's great about that space, and what a lot of our museum and corporate clients love about it, is that we can literally set up their exhibit in that space the way it will be set up in their museum," said Paul Warner, Hadley's national account executive.
Changes can be done, conveniently, on the premises. Once approved, the exhibit is dismantled and shipped to the location, to be reassembled by Hadley staff for display.
For a large and complicated multipanel audiovisual exhibit planned for the 9/11 museum, the production team, designer and museum representative spent a month and a half in the setup room, doing a full-scale mock-up to get everything just right.
The 9/11 museum is one of three big projects Emo is overseeing. He's also preparing a show on Prohibition for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and exhibits for a new visitors center at Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Other exhibits that Emo, one of the company's six project managers, has presided over include the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the six Smithsonian museums that the company has worked on; the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History, which won a major award from the American Association of Museums; the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center; and the Museum at Bethel Woods, located on the site of the Woodstock Festival.
A photo in the lobby shows an installation meant to depict the famous psychedelically painted "Further" bus purchased by author Ken Kesey and driven to the legendary rock concert by the Merry Pranksters.
"We found an age-appropriate bus in North Dakota, had it put on a flatbed and shipped it to Buffalo," Emo recalled. "Then, we took it completely apart, took out the chassis and the engine, put it back together around a wooden platform, painted it and turned it into a theater with content rear-projected onto the front windshield."
Hadley often finds itself bidding for museum jobs against companies in New York City, northern New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, according to Warner, who said 60 percent of the company's work is on museums, with the remainder on trade shows.
"Hadley is doing work on a national stage, and we do a lot of it, and it's coming right out of Buffalo, and a lot of people don't even know," Emo said.
Local museums do.
Hadley has a presence in most of the city's museums, the Buffalo Zoo and, soon, the Colored Musicians Club, for which the company has designed and fabricated exhibits expected to be installed in the next several weeks.
"We really love them," said Donna Fernandes, the zoo's president. "They really work with the staff. We come up with concepts and some idea of what we want to see done, and their incredible staff of industrial designers come up with the best physical manifestation of our idea."