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A new charge: John Johanson and Hezzie Phillips at Woodside.

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Forging a Renaissance

A contemporary arts center in need of a home finds sanctuary in a historic church in need of new life

By Kathryn Geurin

For more than a century, the Woodside Presbyterian Church has loomed over its corner of South Troy like a stone sentinel. Built by industrialist Henry Burden in the wake of the Civil War, the church stood witness to the churnings of the famous Burden Water Wheel in the waters of the Wynantskill during South Troy’s heyday. Burden Iron Works turned out iron products by the millions, and its workers took respite in the church’s dark pews and warm light. The steeple chimes rang out births and deaths and unions of five generations. But in 2003, the Presbytery withdrew from the historic site, and the church—all that remains of South Troy’s booming industrial days—fell vacant.

From the base of the long staircase wending up the hill, the towering church still looks bleak and empty. But on this gray day, a heavy wooden door swings open, and a smiling face appears, framed by jet-black pigtails, a hand securing a velvet beret against the wind. After facing years of legal turmoil, and the threat of the wrecking ball, Woodside Church has found new owners, and new life.

The smile and the pigtails belong to Hezzie Phillips, executive director of Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside. Months away from its 20th anniversary, the CAC got its start in the defunct Beaver Mill building in North Adams, Mass. After its own share of turmoil, the acclaimed program, which offers residency opportunities to emerging contemporary artists as well as public exhibitions of established national and international artists, found itself in search of a new home.

“One of the reasons we were drawn to the building was because of its connection to Troy, and because it feels like it has a story to tell,” says Phillips, “I think that’s something very interesting to artists coming here, they come to a place—our old space, too, was a historic space—and then end up inevitably integrating that into their work. It makes for a very interesting dialogue between the city, the history, and the artwork.”

Phillips describes the history of Woodside Church and its neighboring chapel as “a sweeping romantic saga,” one so woven into the place that the CAC has reserved room in its boundary-pushing contemporary art program for a local-history gallery.

Tucked into a curving wood pew in the chapel’s small balcony—soon to be a library space for resident artists—Phillips and John Johanson, the CAC’s architect and project manager, recount the church’s history with the nostalgic tenderness of a family story. Henry Burden, Troy’s famous engineer and industrial giant, built the largest and most powerful vertical water wheel in history. His engineering innovations enabled Burden Iron Works to turn out nails, railroad spikes and horseshoes at a groundbreaking rate, and established Troy as the “Silicon Valley of the 19th century.” Prior to Burden’s invention, it took two men one full day to make 60 horseshoes; Burden’s horseshoe machine could turn out 60 shoes in one minute. During the Civil War, the iron works produced nearly a million horseshoes a week for the Union Army.

In 1860, Burden fell ill. He was nursed back to heath by his wife, Helen, but she contracted the disease she saw him through, and died that same year. “It’s such a tragic story,” says Johanson, who has learned the history of the buildings as thoroughly as he’s studied their structure. “He stood up at her funeral and announced that he was building a church in her memory. She had always wanted a church for the devout among the workers here.” At the time, there was no church in the South Troy neighborhood; the workers had to walk downtown for services.

True to his word, Burden contracted prominent English architect Henry Dudley to build the neo-Gothic church, its heavy woodwork and modest warmth reminiscent of a sanctuary in the English countryside. In a rare act of reconciliation between feuding industrial families, Woodside Church was build on a hilltop site owned by the Cornings, Burden’s rivals across the river. The church was dedicated in 1869, and the chapel was built later by Burden’s three children. While the iron works, the waterwheel, and even the Burden home have long since fallen to ruin—reclaimed by woodlands and the waning assemblage of the post-industrial town—the church grounds overlook Helen Burden’s hilltop rose garden across the Wynantskill. Come summer, says Johanson, her roses still bloom.

And now, after five years in limbo, the buildings, too, are blossoming with new life.

When the Presbytery put Woodside up for sale in 2003, a century-old compromise unveiled a contemporary dispute. A reverter clause in the old contract stated that if the property was ever sold, the Burdens would retain ownership of the buildings, but the land rights would be returned to the Cornings. According to Phillips, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, an organization dedicated to preserving the area’s industrial legacy, was instrumental in resolving the dispute, and finding a suitable new owner for the historic property.

After the Presbytery found a buyer who planned to demolish one of the buildings, the Gateway stepped in full-force, insisting that the buildings were both structurally sound and historically significant.

“Tom Carroll at the Gateway,” says Phillips, “contacted the Burden heirs,” who eventually purchased the disputed land from the Corning family. “His enthusiasm certainly had a huge influence on our purchase of the property. The folks at the Gateway cared for the site while it was vacant. Tom showed us around the buildings, told us their story. We were captivated.”

The CAC’s original space in North Adams, owned by the organization’s founder and former director Eric Rudd, posed numerous challenges for the center. According to Phillips, for 16 years, the CAC had been operating in the Beaver Mill without a lease, and the verbal agreement with Rudd was unpredictable and tense. The CAC’s primary focus is the artists’ residency program, and the building, which Phillips claims was in disrepair at the time, was not certified for habitation. In 2006, the CAC approached Rudd with a cash offer for the building, but he was not interested in selling, so the center began the search for a new facility.

An arrangement with North Adams Mayor John Barrett III to purchase the downtown Notre Dame Church appeared promising, but according to Phillips, the plan was stalled in the theoretical stages, and CAC elected to seek other options. When they found Woodside, they knew it was the right fit.

The center’s move out of North Adams was not without criticism. “I’m really angry and bitter,” Mayor Barrett told the North Adams Transcript, claiming that the CAC requested letters of recommendation from the local arts community, and then withdrew to Troy. “What they have done,” he said in the Decebmer 2007, article, “is unethical and morally wrong, especially because it involved so many members of the community.”

As the center’s founder, Rudd was also distressed by their move. “Needless to say,” stated Rudd in an e-mail, “after founding and directing it for 10 years and giving it lots of support for almost an additional eight years, I was not happy to see it leave North Adams. Its mission statement was all about making use of mills and resources in North Adams. . . . However, I’m sure residents in that area hope that they will create the same benefits for Troy that the CAC had in North Adams.”

Phillips insists that the CAC remains true to the original mission. The founding articles of organization, signed by Rudd, make no mention of the mills in the original mission. They do establish the nonprofit with the goal of facilitating the development of contemporary artists, the exchange of ideas between artists, and exhibitions by visiting artists. To that mission, the CAC at Woodside remains faithful.

“We have 24-hour studio space here, we also have a video, sound, and computer area, a woodshop area, and we’ll be continually expanding throughout the next year or so,” says Phillips. “Eventually there will be a pottery studio across the street, sitting right on the Wynantskill, overlooking the waterfall down there. It will be a quiet environment for wheel throwing and hand woodworking.” The CAC owns a long stretch of woods along the hillside, and intends to purchase other buildings in the near future, with plans to add a large sculpture studio, and additional living space for artists.

The application period for resident artists has opened, and a handful of artists already are on board for the first residencies, which are scheduled to begin in a few months. For the first time, the center is offering residency opportunities to local artists and, to encourage a connection with their new community, local resident artists will be offered a discount of at least 50 percent, more if they are eligible for scholarship funding.

“We are looking for people who are thinking critically about the world around them, incorporating that into their artwork, and building on the movements in art that have come before them, while pushing that dialogue a little bit further,” says Phillips. “As far as the exhibition program, we like to curate art that is reaching out to make the viewer feel like part of what’s happening, and not trying to alienate them, which I think happens a lot in contemporary art.”

Admission to the residency program is more about potential than product. “We don’t expect their vision to be completely solidified at this point,” says Phillips. “We want them to come here to further that process along, to help take them to the next step.”

In North Adams, the CAC had a world-renowned neighbor in the contemporary arts scene: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. But Philips believes that Troy is blazing an important trail in the art world as well. “MASS MoCA tends to be a beacon for contemporary arts,” says Phillips, “while in Troy there’s a more pervasive community involvement. There are amazing things happening here, things that usually don’t happen in a city of this size: the Sanctuary for Independent Media, EMPAC, the Arts Center [of the Capital Region], there are real gems in this area.”

Phillips repeatedly refers to the city’s “creative bubblings,” and to the passion and commitment of the local arts community. “There’s kind of a maternal feeling, an allegiance to the city, a real pride. . . . There’s a feeling that you are able to input into what’s happening here, that you can really make something happen.”

As work at Woodside progresses, and the CAC prepares to launch its capital campaign to fund the renovation of the church to create three gallery spaces and a performance space, Phillips is confident that the center’s relationship with the city will be a symbiotic one.

“Historically, arts have been an engine of revitalization for cities,” she says. “I think being a part of that here, and bringing that attention to a more national scope, I think that will help to bring Troy further out into the national artistic dialogue.”

“This is an area of town that is, in a way, teetering,” says Phillips. “To have a project come in and revitalize a significant building, that ripples out into the community.” She insists that the center will be an involved and accessible addition to the area. Resident artists are required to volunteer time with local organizations or neighborhood cleanups. “We really want to be part of an effort of stewardship, and to give back to the area.”

Renovation of the chapel is near completion. Lofted living space opens onto the main studio, the floor of which is still a jumble of work lights and lumber. “I feel like it’s almost a creature,” Phillips nearly whispers, skimming her eyes over the curves and crannies of the chapel. Its arched plank ceiling, she chuckles, looks like the belly of a whale. “We have this new charge to take care of. We’ve had to learn its ways and its temperament. I think it’s been enlightening, and I have to say, I’ve grown fond of it.”

Phillips and Johanson have attended numerous traditional building conferences, learning how to best integrate new and old building practices. Contemporary mortars and paints can affect the way the building shifts and breathes. The fresh paint on the walls of the studio is natural, clay-based paint that will allow the thick walls to breathe properly and wick water through the stones. And thanks to those 2-foot-thick stone walls, which absorb heat in the day and release it at night, the building is naturally climate controlled, all of which supports the CAC’s dedication to sustainability.

“Sustainability is not a separate program,” asserts Phillips, “it’s a manner of approaching what we do.” The center plans to offer a series of sustainability lectures, and will staff a sustainability coordinator to oversee water use, gardening and recycling programs. And while the building approach is not brimming with new environmental technologies, it is sustainable at its core.

“The whole concept of green building is often skewed toward building new buildings that are ‘green,’ ” says Johanson. “But when you look at the actual numbers, even the greenest new building, once built, takes decades to recoup the energy put into its construction. I think one of the main focuses needs to be on rebuilding something that’s already existing, bringing new life to existing neighborhoods.”

“Looking at reusing old buildings as part of a responsibly sustainable culture is one of the things that is really important to think about in Troy,” adds Phillips. “We want to stir that dialogue a bit, to encourage people not to build new buildings when they have this incredible history.

At the peak of its population, Johanson points out, Troy was home to around 90,000 people. “The infrastructural capacity is here to sustain a really vibrant life”

And as more and more churches around the area are being deconsecrated, left empty, awaiting new purpose, Johanson values the reclaimed space as a new kind of sanctuary. “Church architecture was designed to inspire the spirit, to have you thinking openly,” he says. “It’s a great match. Artists appreciate the high ceilings, the beautiful settings, the history, the craftsmanship. It really is an inspirational space.”

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