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  3. The Rise and Fall of Buffalo's Curious Telescope Houses

The Rise and Fall of Buffalo's Curious Telescope Houses

  • 08:30 - 10 August, 2015
  • by David Schalliol
The Rise and Fall of Buffalo's Curious Telescope Houses
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

One of the most fascinating things about vernacular architecture is that, while outsiders may find a certain city fascinating, local residents might be barely aware of the quirks of their own surroundings. In this photographic study from Issue 4 of Satellite Magazine, originally titled "The Telescope Houses of Buffalo, New York," David Schalliol investigates the unusual extended dwellings of New York State's second-largest city.

The first time I visited Buffalo, New York, I was there to photograph the great buildings of the city’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century expansion for the Society of Architectural Historians: monumental buildings designed by Louis Sullivan, Fellheimer & Wagner, and, later, Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of these architects were the period’s leading designers, outsiders from Chicago and New York City hired to announce the arrival of this forward-looking city at the connection of Lake Erie and the Erie Canal.

These remarkable buildings, and the grain elevators that made them possible, have been thoroughly documented and praised, but they are also a far cry from the vernacular architecture I typically study. When I returned to Buffalo for the second, third, and—now—sixth times, I became fascinated by another building type: the Buffalo telescope house.

© David Schalliol © David Schalliol © David Schalliol © David Schalliol +20

© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

Like the famous buildings I first photographed, these residences were also products of the city’s rapid development and designed—at least initially—by outsider designers and architects. Often started as wood-frame workers’ cottages, the buildings were typically produced from designs in pattern books or other standardized development tools by German and Polish immigrants or the companies that employed them.

© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

But they did not stay as designed for long. The combination of small residences, narrow but deep lots, growing families, and limited resources led to a distinctive expansion pattern: buildings that were enlarged through rear additions that incrementally reduce in scale. The result: houses that seemingly could be collapsed into themselves, like a telescope or spyglass. The old joke is that every time the family had another child, it would tack another room on the end of the house. When the extensions weren’t bedrooms, they were kitchens, workrooms, and even separate apartments.

© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

Of course, telescope houses aren’t only located on Buffalo’s East Side, or even in Buffalo. Such houses are a building tradition dating back at least to the early 1800s, but they are so concentrated on the city’s East Side that they are the predominant building type on many blocks. The houses are so normalized in these neighborhoods that more than a few residents had to pause to reflect on the special character of their homes when I first asked what it’s like to live in a house with smaller and smaller rooms.

© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

While Buffalo is undergoing a concentrated resurgence, the common maladies of Northeastern and Midwestern American cities, including deindustrialization, white flight, and limited social services, continue to linger on the East Side. The city was even recently shocked to hear that a major regional lender was being investigated by the State of New York for contemporary redlining activities that may have barred lending in East Side neighborhoods.

© David Schalliol
© David Schalliol

© David Schalliol © David Schalliol © David Schalliol © David Schalliol +20

These problems are plainly visible in the built environment. Once-dense streets are full of derelict lots, and small fields now surreally flank many of the deep houses. The resulting wide-open views make the special design of Buffalo’s telescope houses visible, but they also reveal the tenuous condition of many of the buildings—and the neighborhoods as a whole. How they and their occupants will weather the city’s future is unclear.

Magazine cover. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine
Magazine cover. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine

Magazine spread featuring an interview of Tom Angotti. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine Magazine spread featuring photographs by Cameron Blaylock. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine Magazine spread featuring photographs by Shayok Mukhopadhyay. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine Magazine spread featuring photographs by Saul Leiter. Image Courtesy of Satellite Magazine +20

Issue 4 of Satellite Magazine is out soon. Each issue dedicates a portion of the magazine for in-depth coverage of a specific North American city; in this instance, New York. To mark the launch of the issue, the magazine is hosting a launch party in Manhattan on Thursday, August 27th - find out more details here.

Cite: David Schalliol. "The Rise and Fall of Buffalo's Curious Telescope Houses" 10 Aug 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/771613/the-rise-and-fall-of-buffalos-curious-telescope-houses/>
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7 Comments

Patrick · October 17, 2016

It's really odd, I never knew what these kinds of houses were called but I live in a neighborhood in Kansas City, KS (KCK) which has a few. At first I just thought at one point in time a lot of people in the area were adding onto their house in the same strange way but it makes more sense that they were all built that way by the same developer. Supposedly according to the records they were built in the 1920's.

Roberts72 · August 23, 2015

Interesting to learn that these are a thing. As someone who has canvassed on the East Side for community groups, though, i found these types of houses to be unsettling, as they were often deteriorating, and the back areas were often rented out, although there wasn't much separating the dwellings. So people would live in these "apartments" with no technical mailing addresses, with inadequate facilities - but they were affordable, I assumed, although I don;t actually know that for a fact. Thanks for the article.

montaigne1 · August 12, 2015

Great article, thanks!

flinderge · August 11, 2015

In places like Vietnam and El Salvador, they add rooms going up, not back.

Opglok Ock Ock · August 11, 2015 01:27 PM

I use dark matter to expand my universe!

betty barcode · August 11, 2015

Glad that you were able to appreciate both our iconic works (Wright, Sullivan, grain elevators) and our vernacular traditions. When you have as many superstars as Buffalo has, the risk is that all lesser things are considered expendable.

Benedetto Silla · August 11, 2015

I rehabbed one of these on Hertel ave back in the 1992, main house was built in 1852, then came a dining room addition followed by a kitchen and then a utility room.

Howard Goldman · August 10, 2015

Buffalo has a telescope house downtown near Niagara Square.
https://www.facebook.com/TheDo...

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