People tend to think of historic homes as static, but the Brouwer House is anything but still.
Leah LeFera can usually be found working on her latest batch of candles or botanically inspired soap. Artist Deborah Angilletta spends much of her day in her Brouwer House studio, making progress on her sweeping landscape paintings. Actors in the NorthEast Theater Ensemble can often be found working on their latest immersive theater production.
That’s only a sliver of the activity going on at the Brouwer House Creative, which will be open to the public on Saturday.
Tucked into the Stockade, on North Church Street, the Dutch-style house was built sometime around 1730 for Hendrick Brouwer. It has often been referred to as the oldest house in the city, as has the Yates House, which is nearby on Union Street. At one point it was converted into apartments before the Kindl family bought the house in the late 20th century and restored it to a single-family home, with four bedrooms and a library/den.
The Kindl family donated the Brouwer House to the Schenectady County Historical Society in 2017. According to Executive Director Mary Zawacki, SCHS never intended to reinterpret the house as solely a historic home.
“Historic houses don’t have the visitation that they had 20 to 30 years ago. We [wanted] this to not be a static place. With Schenectady going through so many transformations, we, in our small way, wanted to help that,” Zawacki said.
After a year or so of coming up with ideas and looking for community partners, Zawacki started talking with local artisans and artists, seeing if they needed studio spaces to rent.
“I saw that Leah was looking for a place to expand her soapsmith business and artist Deb Angilletta was also looking for studio space. Because we’d been throwing ideas around and nothing was sticking, I was like ‘It’s time to take action. Let’s try it and see what happens.’
"I think it was more successful than we anticipated. So the organization just decided to reach out in a new direction,” Zawacki said.
LaFera was the first to move into the building, bringing her Sweet Sprig business into the building’s first floor. Packed with herbs and stacks of soaps, candles and body butter, visitors can smell her studio before they even see it, as the scent of her soap wafts through the home.
“Working in the Brouwer House has been so inspiring, and has allowed me to hone my craft and develop new products,” LaFera said.
Since moving her business there earlier this year, she created a Schenectady-inspired line of soap with a Brouwer House bar that’s infused with cinnamon and patchouli and topped with dried flowers. She also created two others called Electric City and Cucumber Alley.
Her soaps are sold at Clinton Street Mercantile, Schenectady Trading Company, Faces on Beekman Street, and other local locations as well as her website.
Building up her Sweet Sprig business has been a goal of LaFera’s for years and she’s worked toward it while maintaining her position as the adult programming coordinator at the Schenectady County Public Library. Now that she has the workshop at the Brouwer House, in a few weeks, she will be leaving her library position to focus completely on the business, which would have been nearly impossible without the workshop.
While LeFera’s working on the first floor, Angilletta is often working in her second-floor studio, enjoying the botanical scents that make their way up from the Sweet Sprig studio.
“Leah’s place smells amazing all the time. You walk in here and it’s the first thing you smell,” Angilletta said.
Her studio has high ceilings with a rustic chandelier hanging down from it and windows facing the garden, which looks like a scene out of “The Secret Garden” in the spring and summer, said Angilletta.
She’s been pursuing art full time for the last 11 years since retiring from Verizon. Though she’s rented studio spaces in Scotia and Schenectady, nothing has come close to her space at the Brouwer House.
“The ceiling is fantastic. It’s very cathedral-esque, [It’s] good for the creative spirit,” Angilletta said.
When Tthe Gazette recently stopped by, it was filled with some of her vibrant and vivid paintings of landscapes. Some featured familiar scenes from around Montgomery and Schoharie counties and others are from farther afield, with greenery from the southern states.
Her studio space has plenty of storage, which isn’t something she’s ever had before, and it gives her enough room to create some distance between herself and a piece she’s puzzling through. There’s also enough space for her to invite other visual artists over to help one another through composition or color palette issues.
“That can make problem-solving difficult when you don’t have other people to bounce ideas off of . . . That’s why I was so excited to be here,” Angilletta said.
Nearby, collage artist Jillian Rahm is often at work in her Lost and Found Studio and the Electric City Food Co-op has set up an office.
The Brouwer House Creative’s studio spaces filled up before SCHS even put out an open call to renters.
“Which I think shows that there’s a need for it,” Zawacki said. The SCHS also allows community groups to reserve space on the first floor, which includes a kitchen, for meetings and events.
During the Stockade Art Show a few months ago, the artists decided to open the home up to anyone who wanted to come by.
“We had tons of people come through because I think people want to know what’s really going on down at the Brouwer House. It was nonstop all day long. It was great. We’re hoping we’ll do the same thing [with this open house],” Angilletta said.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Brouwer House will be open for tours and there will be a Studio Sale. Products from Sweet Sprig will be on sale and Angilletta will have her original work for sale as well as notecards, tiles and other works. Rahm will hold a collage workshop for $25 from noon to 3 p.m.
For more info about the Brouwer House visit schenectadyhistorical.org.