Work-in-Progress: Roycroft Update

SOURCE: Buffalo Spree
BY: Barry A. Muskat
DATE: January/February 2011
Boston Valley Terra Cotta is providing custom roof tiles and chimney cladding for the reconstruction of the Roycroft Power House, as discussed in the article below. We anticipate the successful completion of this project in the coming months and will post photos in our portfolio when they are available.

Planning for the future by honoring the past

“A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.” – Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard would be pleased. The Roycroft Campus Corporation is about to unveil its ambitious master plan for the reassembling and rebuilding of its entire East Aurora campus, which originally housed one of the guilds that played a role in the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Begun in England as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution’s mass production of Victorian goods, the movement encouraged harmony between design and craftsmanship in the production of affordable, everyday objects. Their search for the simple life, honest design, and natural materials let to the establishment of workshops in idyllic, rural surroundings, with craftsmen fully participating in the creative process.

Hubbard, the handsome and charismatic found of the Roycroft Community, began to develop the community based on writing and printing workshops in the late 1880s. Formerly a partner at Buffalo’s Larkin Soap Company, Hubbard had pioneered hugely successful mass-marketing techniques that he would later apply at Roycroft. His genius for promotion was coupled with excellent working conditions, and the Roycroft artisans began to flourish. Their products epitomized the simple lines and regionalist qualities of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Today, the campus revolves around the beautifully restored and highly successful Roycroft Inn, and the not-for-profit Roycroft Campus Corporation anticipates doing a tremendous amount of work on the site in the form of redesigning and rebuilding the entire campus. The first tangible evidence of progress is the rebirth of the power house, currently under construction. Built in 1910, it was lost to a fire about fourteen years ago, but had been modified many times over the years. Its original design is being reconstructed on the original site, as accurately as modern technology and current building codes allow. Very little fabric of the building survived, but some block, brick, and extant chimney remnants are being incorporated. The remaining fabric is new material, keeping in line with original details.

The initial structure incorporated state-of-the-art technology at the time, housing large steam, coal-fired generators that produced electricity to run lighting and equipment through an underground network of piping to the whole campus. The new interior will be contemporary, multipurpose flexible space to accommodate growing educational programming and provide an events-driven facility. It will be a major contributor to the operation of the campus and to the growing business of the historic and charming inn. This is the first major restoration project undertaken by the Campus Corporation and a tangible signal of their intentions for the development of the campus as a whole over time. After fourteen years of living with the burned ruins of the Power House, East Aurora is finally going to see the reconstruction of the historic structure.

There were originally fourteen buildings in the complex including the inn, the powerhouse, the copper shop, the print shop (now Cornell Cooperative), and the furniture shop (now in private hands). The goal of the RCC is to bring the entire complex under one umbrella. The Corporation has recently purchased the Town Hall (the former chapel building). It still houses the town government and will for the next number of years until officials decide where to relocate.

The hope is to get each of the missing pieces of the puzzle back. It’s a multiphase process that could take decades to complete, depending on the ability to raise funds and acquire properties. All of the buildings on the site are on the National Historic Register; they are mostly privately owned or controlled by public agencies. Doug Swift, president of the Roycroft Campus Corporation, notes that it’s important that they’re ready to respond when buildings become available and fold them into the master plan. The time frame for the main work of acquisition and restoration is about ten years, but a lot depends upon the availability of parcels.

Right now, the RCC is in the midst of phase one: the reconstruction of the power house, the ongoing restoration of the copper shop, and the reconstructions of the main campus grounds. Phase two looks at bringing the chapel and the print shop on board; that would fulfill the major effort to include five of the six major buildings on campus. The remaining buildings are owned by private individuals who are not currently interested in selling. Although these may play a role in the long run, the RCC seems to have plenty on its agenda, and the immediate plans will enable the organization to expand programming.

“We look at Roycroft becoming a destination center in itself and part of Western New York economic development initiative centered around cultural tourism,” says Swift. He continues, “We expect Roycroft to become a gateway for visitors to begin their trip to the Buffalo area. We have the ability to capture an audience and keep them for an extended period of time.” Indeed, the Roycroft shares a direct common history with the Martin House and Graycliff. Because they also have the hospitality functions of the Roycroft Inn, it becomes an anchor for visitors to the Wright sites as well as the Albright-Knox, the Burchfield Penney , the Richardson Psychiatric Complex, and the many other architectural beacons of the region. As a one-of-a-kind destination of major significance, Swift says, the Roycroft is one of only a handful of sites in the area that has the ability to attract people internationally. The campus buildings themselves will not only be historically interpreted and preserved, but coupled with programming that can keep visitors here for days.

The RCC looks to partner with various educational institutions including Buffalo’s universities as well as local middle and high schools. Young people and adults will be able to get hands-on training in various arts programs, many of which have already been developed and continue to grow. Some of the additional spaces will be flexible and used in conjunction with services the inn provides – programming, weddings, corporate retreats, community and social events. They hope to bring the campus back under single ownership as an ongoing commercial endeavor and an educational institution. In a sensible and practical manner, the RCC looks at its long-term program as a business. By recreating some of the Roycroft industries as more than just the edifices themselves, the goal is to help them become financially viable and self-sustaining. As Elbert Hubbard wrote, “The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.”