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Building Arts Learning Center Graduates Fourth Class: Students Apply Skills in Porch Project on Normal Avenue

Buffalo has renowned historic buildings, an interest in preserving them and a shortage of laborers skilled in the crafts required for building restoration projects. An acute need for training has been identified by the NYS Department of Labor and local contractors alike; UB Architecture professor, Dennis Maher decided to address that need.

Allan Wexler Field Office: Young Builders Bookmobile
Allan Wexler – study model for Field Office: Young Builders Bookmobile

In September 2017, Maher started a 15-week skill-building, work readiness and job replacement program called SACRA to train qualified candidates in the building arts. SACRA, an acronym for Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts, recently graduated its fourth class. According to Maher, “In the SACRA program, we use design arts in order to foster teamwork, to facilitate create problem-solving, help build confidence and instill values of community, pride and accomplishment.”

Collaboration is at the core of SACRA’s mission. To launch the program, which is stewarded by Assembly House 150, support and funding came from the AKAG and the National Endowment for the Arts. Erie County Department of Social Services has helped to identify, screen and refer candidates with both the need and motivation to train and find work in construction-related fields. SACRA is working with PUSH Buffalo to design and build a new porch at 236 Normal and with Artist Allan Wexler to launch the Field Office: Young Builders Bookmobile (children’s bookmobile project) this fall. These artful design projects serve those who build them, those who use them and those who stop to notice them.

236 Normal

The SACRA program is housed in the former Immaculate Conception church at Edward and Elmwood Avenue, renamed Assembly House. Once neglected, the building provides opportunities to examine peeled back layers, to study and rebuild the environment in ways that teach a wide range of construction skills. The high ceilings and open spaces accommodate a large wood mural construction, a multi-floor house segment and a classroom area with tables and tools for hands on learning. Maher describes the church as “a very unique and dynamic experiential learning center”. To walk inside is to immediately sense that it is not your typical church or training program.

Assembly House experiential learning center

Program Coordinator, Alexandra Johnston, gets to know the students’ interests and goals and makes industry connections in order to match participants with jobs. She arranges interviews and provides ongoing encouragement. As a result, the thirty- four participants have completed the program and 79% of those have been placed in firms, including Hadley Exhibits, Gypsum Systems/Conley Caseworks, Cortese Construction, BRD Construction, JA Gulick, Rodriguez Construction and Habitat for Humanity. SACRA has developed a relationship with the City of Buffalo Pre-Apprenticeship program and the Plasterers Local to funnel graduates into building trades.

Allan Wexler – Field Office with SACRA team

There is an amazingly talented group of people providing workshop instruction and project assistance for the program. They work in the field and understand the importance of skill building that leads to gainful employment. Lead instructor, Quincy Koczka, and Assistant, Nick Wheeler work with the guest instructors who include carpenters, cabinet makers and glassworks specialists. They know fine craftsmanship and understand the time and care it takes to build things at a high level.

SACRA will begin the enrollment process in August for the upcoming Fall program. They are looking for candidates with commitment and a positive attitude with or without experience with tools. Their community and educational partners are helping SACRA to find candidates, with special focus on the range of eighteen to twenty-four years old. There is an ongoing need for volunteers with constructions or work world experiences as well as employers who are willing to make presentations about their businesses and to interview graduates. Materials, tools, donations and possible community projects are also needed. Send email to

Starlight City Gift Shop Display – under construction

SACRA aspires to collaborate this year with Starlight Studio and Art Gallery, in order to build a gift shop for the work of Starlight artists. A prototype gift shop display cabinet is now on view at Starlight Art Gallery at 340 Delaware Avenue. There is another example of SACRA’s artistry in training approach on the wall to the left of the entrance at Northland Training Center. You can’t miss it.

Northland Wall Mural – City of Past and Future Craft | Photo by David Schalliol

Dennis Maher defines SACRA as the intersection of social justice, design and construction. With high rates of poverty and underemployment as well as a high need for skilled workers, training programs like SACRA provide a bridge to results that serve individuals and the community, preservation and innovation, Buffalo’s history as well as today. That’s our future.

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Written by Judith Frizlen

Judith Frizlen

Judith Frizlen is the founder of the Rose Garden Early Childhood Center and author of Words for Parents, Words for Teachers and Caregivers and Unpacking Guilt, a Mother's Journey to Freedom. Books and blogposts are on her website at She is a fan of early childhood, urban architecture and the revitalization of Buffalo.

View All Articles by Judith Frizlen
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