BY INDIANA NASH
SCHENECTADY — When Sandi Vardine began restoring a few brownstones in Troy back in 2006, she had no idea that her small start in redesigning residences would lead to what she now calls the House of Angels Renaissance Project.
“I was driving by one day and I saw them and I fell in love with the energy and the history behind these buildings,” Vardine said of the brownstones.
“They are now Troy Treasures, everyone knows them,” Vardine said. Then she worked with Unity House to create transitional residences.
But this appreciation for restoration and for community has spilled over into two churches: St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Schenectady, renamed Renaissance Hall, and the former Sacred Heart Church in Cohoes, renamed Renaissance Museum.
Vardine has been working since 2013 to create community hubs out of both using art, community programs, music, and anything else that might serve the community.
Both churches had fresco painting at one point, which according to Vardine is a lost art form.
The style requires the painter to work on freshly laid or wet plaster.
“I’m working on bringing out artist Ilia Anossov,” Vardine said. Anossov is one of the few artists in the United States who has mastered the fresco technique.
Vardine said Anossov lives in California but is willing to come to Schenectady to not only work on restoring the fresco paintings in the churches but also to teach other local artists the technique.
It will take about $150,000 for Anossov to have a residency in Schenectady and to restore the churches.
However, this is only one small piece of Vardine’s project.
“We now have our restaurant license in Schenectady and we have a chef who specializes in vegan food who will be running everything,” Vardine said
Nick Niscusi, the new head chef of the Renaissance Restaurant, recently moved to the area from California.
“I specialize in vegan recipes, but that’s not the only thing that will be available,” Niscusi said.
The Renaissance Restaurant will be in the basement of the church, with a full bar and a space for games. It will also provide catering for events at the community center.
The food offered will be typical American fare, with a twist.
“I make a lot of things with jackfruit, including a Jack Slider,” Niscusi said. The slider shares the same texture and flavor of a pulled pork slider, but it is instead made with young jack fruit for a healthier option.
“What I love about Sandi [Vardine] is that she has a vision and she backs it up with a lot of doing. Some people have great ideas but they don’t do anything with them,” Niscusi said.
“A lot of people have never been exposed to art and once they get exposed they want to know more, they want to learn more,” Vardine said.
Besides the fresco decor, Vardine has resident artists who will be on exhibit and she’s planning on including many community art programs.
She currently has half a dozen artists who are going to be exhibiting at the church in Schenectady, but she is always looking for more.
“I want this place to be for community events … we’re going to have live music too,” Vardine said.
Local bands are already playing a few days a week at the church in Cohoes, but Vardine is hoping to feature other local bands in the Schenectady church as well.
Wedding parties can also reserve the church and the Renaissance Restaurant will be available for catering.
To help strengthen community involvement, Vardine is working with SEAT Center of Schenectady to provide internships for students.
“Most of our internship opportunities are paid through grant funds which allow for young adults to get hands-on work experience and give them exposure to an employer with the purpose of getting hired at the end of the internship. SEAT Center is working with HOA to create internships in food preparation and service as well as building and grounds maintenance,” said Jennifer Lawrence, the executive director of SEAT Center.
Vardine also owns Northland Transportation, which provides school buses for Schenectady.
“I run that now on top of this,” Vardine said. When she began the House of Angels Renaissance Project, her husband Vincent ran the bus company so she could work on the Project.
“My husband got sick and passed away in 2014 though so I’ve been running everything since then,” Vardine said.
The transition was difficult, as was the added responsibility. But Vardine said that she’s making it work.
“It’s going to start making Schenectady look like a destination,” Vardine said.
She is looking to hold an open house event in Renaissance Hall in the next month.
BY INDIANA NASH