Inside the former Immaculate Conception Church at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Edward Street, where the last Mass was held on a midsummer Sunday in 2005, a dozen squares of plywood paneling hang on the walls in place of the stations of the cross.
Slivers of blue sky are visible through holes in the church’s roof, through which water has trickled into the building for years on either side of the empty sanctuary, warping its wooden columns and causing the plaster to flake away like dry skin. Polycarbonate panels cover many of the remaining stained glass windows, though most of the church’s chandeliers and wooden pews remain perfectly intact.
Given the deplorable state of Buffalo’s many disused churches, the structurally sound Immaculate Conception is in remarkably good shape. Which is why Dennis Maher, a Buffalo architect, artist and teacher whose work reorganizes the detritus of Buffalo’s past into radical visions of its future, purchased it earlier this week for $35,000.
He plans to convert it into a living laboratory for artistic and architectural experimentation, a place he calls “A Center for the Urban Imaginary” designed to nurture the city’s collective imagination.
Assembly House 150, as Maher is retitling the former church, will house classroom space for students, a gallery and studio where artists and tradespeople will collaborate on architectural and artistic projects and a for-profit design and building studio that will help foster a new crop of buildings in the city.
The repair of the building also will be central to Maher’s project.
“I’m really interested in engaging with the repair of the building as an artistic process,” Maher said, adding that he has invited the Buffalo tradespeople he worked with for a recent exhibition in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to work in the new space. “Over time, what I’m imagining is that the place will start to accrue these interventions and installations ... One of the things that is very important to me is that this presents the opportunity to have a more public site, to have people come and to do projects of a larger scale and to involve university students.”
Assembly House is an extension of his ongoing Fargo House project, Maher’s home and studio on the West Side that he has turned into a fascinating living sculpture. As word gets out about his Fargo House project, Maher is getting more and more requests from arts educators and others who want to tour the space. The church, he said, will allow more of the public to view and participate in the work.
“I have a really strong interest in collective projects. By that I mean projects that involve different hands in the mix, multiple authors,” Maher said. “I see myself more as a director or facilitator rather than as a kind of top-down orchestrator. I’m interested in understanding more about what other people’s ideas and interests are and in trying to create synergies among like-minded groups of people. I see myself as a kind of a synapse. That’s what I want to be.”
The immediate issue facing the project is the repair of the church’s slate roof, a project Maher is undertaking with the help of contractor Chris Ziolkowski, who worked with him during his Albright-Knox residency. Beyond that, Maher characterized the water damage as largely cosmetic and said it is likely to remain exposed as evidence of how the building has changed over time.
“If you look at that, you might say wow, that looks really challenging to repair,” Maher said. “I would respond, that’s a cosmetic thing, and it doesn’t even need to be repaired as much as it needs to be exposed, shored up, attended to, in ways that aren’t necessarily the ways we would approach development projects.”
In addition to the educational prospects of Assembly House 150, the project also represents a happy achievement in the local preservation movement. For a constellation of complex reasons, from stringent church regulations to historic preservation standards and new building codes, old churches are notoriously difficult and expensive to successfully repurpose.
Maher was able to clinch this property with the help of local real estate agent J-M Reed, a fellow artist and a behind-the-scenes leader in the Buffalo preservation movement. After years of potential buyers and plans that turned out to be unfeasible, Reed convinced the owner of the church and its adjoining rectory to split up the parcels and sell them individually. On the strength of his idea, Maher was able to get the property at a steal.
“Honestly, it’s one of my prouder moments in real estate,” Reed said. “These buildings are so tough, and everybody blogs about them and rants and raves. It is really complicated to figure out how to deal with them, whether it’s a church or whatever. How do you make this space actually viable and not just say we’re going to ‘preserve’ it.”
Maher’s plans for the church are in some ways as grandiose as those of its original builders, who saw the building as a tribute to a higher power. In his view and that of his collaborators, Assembly House 150 is not only a meeting place for educators, students, artists, thinkers and builders, but a living temple to the human imagination.
What will replace those plywood panels where the stations of the cross once hung will have more to do with architecture and artistry than ecclesiastical narratives. In a city full of crumbling churches, Maher’s project has the potential to be a national model for progress.