Visual Arts
Photo by David Schalliol 
Photo by David Schalliol 

From Big to Small: Buffalo's Telescope Houses

by / Apr. 13, 2016 7am EST

From the front, it’s an unassuming worker’s cottage—a simple one-and-a-half-story, gable-fronted, clapboard house. Yet from the side, it expresses a wonderful surprise—one that’s only recently been revealed through the city’s voracious demolition of the East Side. It’s a vernacular typology that’s generally flown under the radar for much of its existence—Buffalo’s so-called “telescope house.”

Predominantly built in the mid-19th century, the telescope house is notable not for its original form or character, but for its alteration through time. Its striking form is marked by a series of successive additions, each one stepping down in scale from the last—from big to small. And while Buffalo is not the only home to this phenomenon, nowhere else is it so ubiquitous. 

In 2013, David Schalliol, an assistant professor of sociology at St. Olaf College, began photographing the telescope houses. Presented as a uniform series of individual house portraits in profile, the work invites contemplation of its subjects both as singular and peculiar, and part of a larger collective disseminated across a desolate landscape. Each photograph is a beautiful record of history and time, and simultaneously begs questions about the future—not just for the individual houses and neighborhoods, but for vernacular, preservation, and the socio-political forces that shape the places we live. Recently, I sat down with David for a conversation about the work and his thoughts on the houses.

How did you first discover Buffalo’s telescope houses, and what fascinates you most about them?
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is explore neighborhoods. I review maps and other sources ahead of time to get a sense of potential areas to visit, but I try to spend the majority of my free time simply wandering. During my second visit to Buffalo in 2013, I was driving around the East Side, hoping to get a new view of the neighborhood when I started noticing telescope houses. The first couple were interesting on their own, but then I realized that there weren’t just a few such buildings; they were everywhere.

Most of my projects are about the relationship between the built environment and community life, so seeing such a clear vernacular type immediately intrigued me. In other words, I am fascinated by their form, as well as what the form represents.

There are many photographers documenting the urban ruins and decay of Rust Belt cities. How do you see your work as different from others? 
I intend my photographs to be about more than ruins and decay—instead, about seeing a place in new ways. Taking the telescope houses project as an example, the series isn’t about celebrating the aesthetics of decline, but about learning from a place. When I present the photographs, I make conscious choices about how to mitigate dwelling on descent. For example, I present the photographs as a group to help keep attention on the form, and I ensure I include at least a few photographs of buildings that are remarkably well maintained. Even so, it would be a mistake not to recognize the deterioration of many of the houses. To the extent that dereliction is a factor in the project, I hope that drawing attention to patterns may provide some room to publicly discuss a neighborhood that is clearly in a tenuous position.

How does your teaching and background in sociology frame your interest in [and photographic documentation of] the houses?
My sociological and photographic work are so interrelated that I’m sure my sociological approach influences my interest in Buffalo’s telescope houses in ways of which I’m not even aware, but the clearest effect is in the connection between place and community. I am constantly seeking ways to express the importance of local conditions for a variety of social outcomes, and telescope houses’ common and arresting form seems like a perfect example of that interrelationship. We can see how the narrow but deep lots confined development, how limited resources affected what could be built (and maintained), how builders were in dialogue with each other, and so on.

From my perspective, the uniform presentation of your photographs tends to depoliticize the work, but I’m curious—based on your answer to the last question—as to where you see yourself in the spectrum between documentation as political activism and documentation as taxonomic classification? 
As you might expect, I feel connections to both ends of the spectrum. While I wouldn’t characterize my interest in photographing the buildings as a typology as a “scientific” way to appreciate the buildings, I am certainly interested in the special features of typologies. Typological projects may have a tendency to depoliticize their subjects, but I am convinced that they have equal capacity to 1. democratize the viewing experience by encouraging viewers to actively inspect the photographs in relationship to each other, and 2. remind the viewer that a photographer intentionally produced these images with this format—the presentation can’t be mistaken for coincidence. When most images are taken for granted, it’s especially important to call attention to photographs in this way. 

Moreover, as someone who works in a variety of media, it is important to me that the Buffalo telescope houses project is essentially a photographic one. Another approach is seen in Steven Holl’s excellent Pamphlet Architecture No. 9: Rural & Urban House Types in North America. The book is one of the few other documents I’ve found that even references telescope houses, but it does so on a formal level. In that project, the viewer learns to appreciate the telescope house’s special attributes in context of other architectural forms, but the material condition of the buildings is subordinated. In contrast, while my project’s thematic emphasis may be on the buildings’ form, I hope an engaged viewer would have to reckon with the physical condition and context of the buildings. 

Many architectural historians draw a distinction between vernacular and architecture, where vernacular arises from local trends and traditions promoted by craftsmen, building owners, and their neighbors, while architecture is rooted in an intellectual design process connected to a larger professional discourse. Do you believe in such a distinction? 
There is an important practical distinction between the processes that produce the buildings, but I don’t see an inherent difference in the creativity or character of buildings that arise through these two different methods. Both approaches are influenced by—for example—discourses, norms, constraints, and political interests. Furthermore, I’m not certain that the divide between local and professional discourse is as distinct as is often assumed. Whether a building is designed by an important firm or by the people who build it makes little difference to my evaluation of its “worth.” Even so, it is important to recognize political differences between the two, particularly in regards to how the professional and public discourse about buildings privileges structures designed by architects.

So, do you have a stance on historic preservation—both in general, and with regard to the telescope houses in particular?
I am firmly in the historic preservation camp, although my orientation is broader than a traditional preservationist. Of course, I am interested in the preservation of untouched “significant” buildings, but I am also motivated by desires such as protecting low-cost housing, keeping materials out of landfills, celebrating the vernacular, and maintaining the special character of certain places. We undoubtedly need to be thoughtful about which buildings we save, but for these reasons and more, I think a strong case can be made for the protection of Buffalo’s telescope houses, and, therefore, the communities who inhabit them.

Do you think the development of new vernaculars is possible in an increasingly global and socially complex twenty-first century?
Absolutely. While certain building forms are expressed with remarkable consistency around the globe, there is plenty of room for the development of new local practices, some of which are influenced by new kinds of cultural heterogeneity. Perhaps some of the clearest examples are the modifications made by contemporary immigrants to the U.S., who work within the particulars of their new cities to produce hybrid designs, including unexpected ornamentation and even outbuildings that transform our understanding of a building’s relationship with its surroundings. The gradual accumulation of these actions creates a new dialogue that influences how buildings are designed in that place. 

But I wonder if it’s still possible for a vernacular to influence overall form in relation to time as in the telescope houses. These houses relied on a specific ideology related to inhabitation, time, and growth—that as the family expands, so does the house. That ideology has since shifted—newlyweds now buy three- and four-bedroom houses in anticipation of growth, rather than starting with something smaller and expanding over time.  And, when a house no longer adequately accommodates an American family’s needs, the family is prone to move out and “up.” The house is ever more disposable as a consumer product.
The cultural and material realities of today’s housing market are undeniably different from how they were when the telescope houses were first constructed and modified. This new approach may orient us away from similar modifications; however, I’m not sure it’s time to lament the end of the vernacular. After all, the original portions of the telescope houses were also part of national trends about the form and purpose of a house, but they developed differently in Buffalo’s East Side than elsewhere. To find emergent examples, we may need to look at different kinds of places. Rather than looking where families expand their current homes, we may need to look for places where people modify buildings with the expectation of a new mode of living. Other than the immigrant-driven examples I mentioned before, this might mean looking at vertical extensions of row houses in central cities or expansion patterns in inner ring suburbs. Where these changes are facilitated by gentrification or other inequalities, negotiating what is “architecture” and “vernacular” may be messy, but that’s an old problem.  

Lastly, I see an inherent irony in your photographs of Buffalo’s telescope houses—that in your obsessive documentation of the houses, there’s clear adoration for the subject, yet your work is only made possible by the houses’ destruction. Is this something you think about on-site or when processing the photographs? 
The irony is always with me. In fact, I was just discussing this very point at a talk a few nights ago. As you suggest, the only reason I am able to photograph a telescope house in this way is that at least one formerly neighboring structure has been demolished, and often two or three buildings are absent. As I walk on the ground where those buildings once stood, I often reflect on what might have been there and how the neighborhood once was. That reflection is typically followed by speculation about how long the building in front of me will endure and what will happen to the people who live there.

Indeed, the telescope house poses an interesting dilemma with regard to its own precarious future. As a vernacular type whose significance is rooted in continual transformation and growth, it defies the traditional definition of preservation—the term itself meaning to keep [a building] in its original or existing state. This exposes one of preservation’s biggest flaws—the definition of a building’s “period of significance.” While a given period can span many years (and, for the National Register of Historic Places, even enter the last fifty), it is firmly held to the past, and an end date is always established. Preservationists tend to be unsettled by the idea that a historic building’s period of significance could include the present. This makes sense—the present is not yet history, and reflection on a building’s significance is surely benefitted by time. But the consequence is the implication that a building is not, and will likely never be, as significant as it once was.

Thus, for the worker’s cottage of the East Side that spawned the telescope house, traditional preservation is achieved either through the amputation of the house’s additions (since they are not original to the historic cottage), thus promoting vernacular genocide; or by cryogenically freezing its thus-built parts, stunting the possibility for continued growth, and thus undermining the evolutionary spirit of the type. In both cases, preservation fails to address the peculiarities of the telescope house vernacular.

In fact, so many important buildings have been made even more remarkable through alteration, adaptation, and addition through time—Bernini’s colonnade and piazza to Michelangelo’s (and Maderno’s) St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; Wren’s Royal Naval College to Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House in London; Wright’s light court renovation to Burnham & Root’s Rookery Building, and Calder’s Flamingo sculpture to Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center, both in Chicago; and Norman Foster’s glass dome to the Reichstag in Berlin; to name just a few. Even the Darwin Martin House, with the addition of Toshiko Mori’s Greatbatch Pavilion, has never been better. In all of these cases, the promise—and risk—of a more spectacular future has trumped traditionally-conservative preservation ideals.

Buildings are anything but static, and thus constantly at odds with preservation. Most outlive their original occupants, and nearly all go through dramatic changes in the course of their lifetimes. They adapt with shifts in technology, fashion, and use, existing in a continuous state of evolution. And in Buffalo, no buildings are more emblematic of this spirit than the telescope houses of the East Side. They stand today as a testament not to preservation, but to perseverance.

Telescope Houses of Buffalo, an exhibition of David Schalliol’s photographs opens Saturday, April 16 at The Fargo House.

David Schalliol’s Telescope Houses of Buffalo
Opens Saturday, April 16, 6-9pm
The Fargo House / 287 Fargo St, Buffalo