Styles of Architecture in Buffalo ..... Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

'Buffalo Doubles': Industrial Vernacular Style
By Gregory P. Stein
Associate Professor, Geography and Planning
Buffalo State College

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

Click on illustrations to enlarge

Number of 2-flat houses in Buffalo

Percent of 2-flat houses in Buffalo

Kensington High School in background

Kensington High School in background

Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo

Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo. Note similarity of this and the next four houses

Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo

Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo

Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo

The double houses in Buffalo, New York, are fine examples of what is termed Industrial Vernacular housing.

Industrial Vernacular style

"Vernacular" architecture indicates a traditional type of housing utilized by ordinary wage earners. In North America the vernacular house is of wood construction, and occupies a family-centered location, to the extent possible, away from the place of work.

"Industrial Vernacular" refers to the structural innovations, such as balloon framing, produced at a manufacturing site with structural cladding and finished materials into component parts, which were assembled according to a standard design on the building sites.

Pattern Books: The idea of the industrial vernacular double house did not originate in Buffalo. It was a common feature in architectural pattern books at the turn of the century, and was available from all the major "catalog" house manufacturers, including, most interestingly, the J. N. Bennett Lumber Company of North Tonawanda. The extent o the building of these houses throughout the whole Great Lakes Basin is illustrated by its availability in a number of variations from Aladdin Homes of Bay City, Michigan.

The attraction of the double house, evident in even the earliest advertising, was that it was a house, and made the owner a property owner. The second flat's rent revenue could be applied to the payment of the mortgage. This arrangement also allowed family generations to live in convenient proximity. As owner occupied houses, tenants could be more selectively chosen for compatibility or friendship. Some families bought doubles together, gathering equity to move on.

Buffalo - Before 1890

Before 1890, Buffalo existed well within its 1854 city limits; the built up area comprised the 1832 city, and stretched out along the Niagara River north and northwest on the Erie Canal, the former Village of Black Rock, and along railway and road routes east and northeast from the center, extensions of Ellicott's 1804 radial street pattern and of Iroquois trails.

Not unlike Chicago, Buffalo on the eastern end of the navigable Great Lakes was also at the time a lumbering center. The Goodyear Lumber Company, a local firm, exploited the forest resources of northern and western Pennsylvania. Their Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad from Galeton, Pennsylvania, terminated in the alluvial meanders of South Buffalo. Down the canal to the north, the new city of North Tonawanda became the "Lumber City" because of the canal-based lumber mills lining the Niagara River there.

Buffalo never had a fire to provoke a fireproof brick building code, unlike nearby Toronto.

Buffalo - 1890 to 1929

The double house is the modal house in Buffalo, providing one third of the housing structures in this city, and an even greater percentage of housing units. The two floor/two flat houses in Buffalo were built during the economic and industrial heyday of the city, from about 1890 to 1929.

Double housing represented a step up from the inadequate and "tenement" housing occupied by certain older immigrant groups near the city center, e.g., the Irish in "Canal town," and the Jewish in the near east side (whose place was later taken by the newer Italian immigrants and African Americans respectively, who followed the move out after World War II.)

In Buffalo, double houses rather than apartment buildings were constructed by real estate developers such as the following:

South Buffalo: South Buffalo was the south eastward extension of the Irish first ward, mostly beyond the lowest swampy meanders of the Buffalo River, across the railroad tracks south out of town. In the 1890's speculators like William Fitzpatrick bought up farms on the edge of the built up city, subdivided them into twenty-foot wide, long lots, laid out streets and built tall narrow balloon frame houses, usually two and a half story two-flat buildings.

Hamlin Park: The Hamlin Park area of what is now the central part of Buffalo was developed at the turn of the century. Sprinkled with Jewish houses of worship, it was a substantial Jewish neighborhood by the 1920s. A middle class African American community today, it is overwhelmingly composed of "two-flat" or "double" houses.

The double house was institutionalized by the zoning of large areas of the city into R-2 (residential, two-unit) areas, revealed in the present Buffalo city zoning maps. These areas were never one hundred percent doubles; recent city planning encourages the conversion of doubles into single homes as part of gentrification.

Owners have also left the city with a supply of double rental units which have provided income to support their moves to the still more desirable single house. Absentee landlords and the lack of care by renters has led to widespread destruction and abandonment of these buildings, especially in the older inner areas of Buffalo. Yet to be evaluated is the surprising persistence of these doubles, depending on location.

See also: Highlights of Buffalo's History, 1890-1929

House photos and their arrangement © 2004 Chuck LaChiusa
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