This Church-Turned-Studio Teaches Craftsmanship Through Community


two tower like structures in a church library and space that makes up Assembly House 150

Creativity feels far from a quiet, staid affair inside Assembly House 150, a non-profit art, design and construction incubator mushrooming from a deconsecrated 19th-century Catholic church in Buffalo, New York. The air hums thick with sawdust and the snarl of saws as students learn craftsmanship from artisans and master tradespeople—in a space that is part active workshop, part ever- growing art installation.

The building, like the program, “is a living, breathing hybrid space,” says founder and director Dennis Maher, an artist and architecture professor at University at Buffalo. Launched in 2014, Assembly House “brings together creative production and learning as an integrated whole.”

Regardless of experience, anyone from the local community can train for construction careers and explore specialized crafts like plasterwork and stained glass fully funded. Classes in turn become experimental playgrounds. Together, students and experts work to create Assembly House’s labyrinth of immersive art installations and off-site commissions. Upon graduation, students activate their newfound skills through a job placement program.

The experience offers “this wonderful intersection of practical application and art,” shares Frances Parson, a former student now working in custom cabinetry and historical restoration. “It was life changing for me, germinating the seed of confidence to move forward in this profession.” For volunteer instructors like stained glass artisan Kitty Mahoney of Revival Glassworks, the program too provides “an opportunity to play with our craft, empowering craftspeople and artists to layer our ideas together for a community purpose.”

Weaving through the church’s naves, each installation embodies this fusion of disciplines, materials and techniques new and old: from intricate millwork, to the behemoth towers of Black Mass—a jigsaw sculpture altered by consecutive classes that houses a library and presentation space.

During their popular Second Saturdays tours, visitors can explore this madcap maze and a new limited line of furniture and objets d’art which also fuels the House’s legacy of craft. Every project feeds this collaborative continuum, and “that for me, is the ethos of Assembly House,” Maher adds. “A wonderful material and social unity.”