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Open House

A year ago the two-unit house at 15 South Putnam was hardly an anomaly on Buffalo’s Upper West Side. Vacant and essentially abandoned by its owners, the property was on track for demolition, marked to become another of the neighborhood’s many empty, weedy lots—the sixth such lot on its block, in fact, which runs one way south between Breckenridge and Ferry.

The owners, the Stikkel family, had been presented by city inspectors and courts with the standard trio of options: address the property’s code violations; sell it to someone who would; or pay $10,000 to have it demolished. The house and the land it sits on were valued at a mere $23,000, far less than the cost of rehabbing the house. The Stikkels, unable to cope with the property or pay for repairs, opted to start paying into a fund to compensate the city for the cost of demolition. A sadly familiar West Side story.

And then a deviation: Two University at Buffalo architecture professors, Frank Fantauzzi and Brad Wales, approached Harvey Garrett, a well known housing activist on the West Side. Fantauzzi and Wales were looking for a house that their students could demolish as a field exercise; they would dismantle the house in unusual ways, turning it into a temporary work of art that would reveal to the students some practical lessons about the nature of built structures and their materials. Fantauzzi and his graduate students had done a similar project in the past, though not in the city of Buffalo; Wales’ undergraduate students have built numerous small works in and around Allentown over the past several years, most recently renovating El Museo’s gallery space at 97 Allen Street.

When the students, Fantauzzi and Wales were finished, the house would be gone, at no cost to the city or the homeowner—not a bad deal. Garrett had been trying to convince the Stikkels to save their house or to sell it to someone who would, but finding that someone had proved difficult. Resigned to the house’s demolition, he introduced Fantauzzi and Wales to the house and to the family, figuring the two parties could help one another out.

Then another deviation: Once Fantauzzi and Wales examined the house—a solidly built, three-story structure whose cramped rooms disguised abundant space, with an empty lot beside it that would accommodate dumpsters and serve as a construction staging area—they hatched a more ambitious plan. Instead of demolishing the 107-year-old house, they would save it. Instead of a transient work, a piece about the processes of deconstruction that ended when the last timbers were carted away, they would make a permanent piece of public (for the neighborhood) and private (for the owner) art.

Wales, Fantauzzi and Garrett met with the Stikkels to make their proposal at Fantauzzi’s renovated building at 1716 Main Street, and then later at Wales’ Gallery 164 on Allen Street, a building Wales has refitted as an art space and studio. “A smart choice,” Garrett says, considering that the architects were set to propose something otherworldy.

In addition to returning the structure to a single-family dwelling, opening up the interior to reveal its hidden space and stripping away the siding to the original clapboard and shingle—big projects by themselves but hardly radical—the students would saw off the entire front façade of the house, disengaging it completely.

They would then put rollers on the bottom of the façade and place it on a lateral track made of heavy steel I-beams, so it could be pushed from side to side, opening the interior to the street.

When that was accomplished, they would attach the façade to a vertical track of the same fabrication, and lift the entire façade about six feet, using a handcrank from a turn-of-the-last-century, manual industrial elevator Fantauzzi harvested from the basement of his building on Main Street.

Then they would attach the façade to an axis and spin it 360 degrees.

They would do all this in one semester, working ungodly hours, with the support of sponsorships, material donors and volunteer supervision from expert tradesmen.

Initially wary, according to Garrett, the Stikkels agreed to hand the house over to Fantauzzi, Wales and their students.

Last weekend, with three weeks left before the end of the semester, they accomplished phase one: The façade slid open on its metal track, exposing the house’s interior, which has been gutted to the studs and re-imagined in an open, single-family plan, all three floors exposed to one another. A bridge made of steel beams will join the front and the back of the house on the second floor. The finish work will be left for the owners to complete as they see fit.

Fantauzzi and Wales expect phases two and three of the façade project—vertical movement and then the spin—to be accomplished on schedule.

Fantauzzi says Danetta Stikkel, who has inherited primary responsibility for the house from her mother, has been delighted with project. “As we gut the building, her history with the building changes,” he says. “She remembers all the rooms that are no longer here, she remembers all the wallpaper, all the things that we’ve now taken out, and this new building has emerged for her to rediscover.”

The final disposition of the façade is still open to discussion. The original and cheapest option will be to leave the façade fixed permanently at one point in its rotation—with the peak of the house pointing due north, for example—creating spaces for people and light to enter in the gaps, which would be flashed and glazed shut. The other option is more complicated and expensive: to build a complete second façade of translucent material behind the mobile façade, so that future residents could continue to rotate and slide the façade whenever and whyever they chose—on a daily timer, according to the seasons, for the Garden Walk, to celebrate birthdays.

“This is about turning the world on its head,” Wales explains, noting that the concept for this frontispiece came out of Fantauzzi’s graduate studio class, whose students are the lead agents of the project. “Hopefully an enlightened owner will utilize the front façade as an icon, a beacon for the city, or an attraction, someone who will get into the spirit of it.”

Stikkel has indicated to the architects that she intends to retain ownership upon completion of the project, which will amount to a $100,000 investment in the house, counting labor and materials—an investment that might be leveraged into a loan to pay for the finish work. The house, considered unsalvageable less than a year ago, will be a piece of art that is both conceptual and functional, reinforced throughout with massive steel beams.

Stability and instability

“The project really has two faces,” Fantauzzi says. “One is the face that presents to the community. And the other is the building as understood or experienced by the owner. The interior is being opened up and reconfigured, spatially and structurally, so it’s really a brand-new building on the inside.

“But we always knew for this project to have currency in a broader way that it had to have a strong public aspect. So the façade part of the project is really a kind of attempt to engage the community in the overall discussion.”

That discussion is about transience and instability in our society and our built environment. Most people live in, have lived in or aspire to live in single-family houses similar in basic structure to 15 South Putnam. But the qualities we associate with such structures—stability, familial connection, success—are somewhat divorced from societal realities. People move a lot nowadays, and as a result they move in and out of houses and buildings without developing close associations with them. Architecture, and particularly housing, is an easily traded, easily forgotten commodity for many Americans.

Easily romanticized, too. West of Richmond, the Upper West Side, like many neighborhoods in Buffalo, faces a housing crisis, born of economic decline, job and population loss, poor or nonexistent housing policies, bad city planning, parasitic real-estate flippers, crime, drug addiction—the whole countdown of contemporary maladies in the post-industrial Northeast American city. The story of 15 South Putnam before the students took it over is a case in point: A family drifts away from their house and the house falls apart. Repeat this hundreds of times and eventually an entire neighborhood follows suit. Vacancies on the West Side nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 1,822 to 3,332, as the total number of housing units declined by three percent. The number of owner-occupied dwellings dropped as well in that period, from 26 to 22 percent.

Former West Side housing activist Dick Kern, now living in Minneapolis, cited these numbers on the Buffalo Rising Web site to argue that UB architecture students might be better employed devising plans to manage the decline of the city’s housing stock, preparing a strategy for the huge influx of demolition money the city expects to have at its disposal in the next year, rather than saving an individual house.

Harvey Garrett agrees that a coherent, city-wide demolition strategy is needed, but he’s committed to pursuing small victories too. He quickly lists a half dozen houses within a few blocks of 15 South Putnam that he and a coalition of neighborhood housing activists have helped move off the path toward demolition and into the care of responsible owners.

“We’ve got a lot of these houses, and a lot of these houses don’t need to come down,” he says. Some do, he concedes, but he argues that the city’s most valuable, most marketable asset is its abundant supply of cheap, high-quality housing. Instead of destroying it wholesale—the default approach of city government for the past three administrations—Garrett says we’d be wise to save every house that can be saved.

In any case, it is not an either/or situation. Fantauzzi and Wales teach studios that are fundamentally about designing and building in the real world; there are plenty of UB architecture and planning professors engaged in broad strategic studies. For Fantauzzi and Wales, the important thing is to engage all the project’s interested parties and get them asking questions, first about Buffalo’s neighborhoods and expanding to take in larger economic and cultural issues.

“Architecture is a kind of index of cultural ebbs and flows,” Fantauzzi says. “Architecture is an almost ideal mirror of what’s going on culturally. So as soon as we begin to play with stability of architecture, we’re pointing out the sort of instability of culture as we know it in our society.

“Not to overstate this, but I think that artists and architects and academics are not unlike doctors, in a sense—cultural doctors who look and probe to see how healthy or unhealthy aspects of our society or culture are.”

So goes the neighborhood

“Our cities are not in the shape that they’re in for no reason at all,” Fantauzzi continues. It’s a Monday afternoon and his and Wales’ students are beginning to arrive and pick up tasks they left off the day before. “It’s a direct reflection of what’s going on in our society and our culture. And actually, the fact that a project like this is possible is the silver lining in all of this: It shows that our city and our society and our culture want this, has a place for this.”

The questions that observers ask about the project are determined by where they sit in the audience. City government looks at the project from its perspective as a regulatory, tax- and fee-collecting body, which is also charged with protecting its residents: Is this still a house once you remove the façade and turn a façade sideways? How do you write a permit for that? Is there any problem with that, as long as it’s still structurally sound?

“The neighbors are thinking about it in a totally different way,” Fantauzzi says. “The neighbors were worried about the building—it had been empty for many, many years—that it might be set on fire or vandalized in other ways. They were living in fear.” So the neighbors want to know if the upshot of this project is an occupied house that’s well cared for. Some neighbors are less than certain what’s going on. (“I think it’s a school project, right?” said one neighbor, working on his car while the students prepared to pour concrete footers for steel beams.) Others have approached Wales and Fantauzzi and asked them to work on their houses next.

And then there’s the broader community, whose reaction Fantauzzi describes as unpredictable. What will someone outside the neighborhood, outside the city, think of this house when they see it? Someone with no connection to it by proximity or history, only the experience of it that day on which they pass it by: What will they think? What will it tell them?

“The idea of opening the façade, of cutting the façade and moving it, making it unstable, making it live, is, at a simple level, a symbol of the status of things in general,” Fantauzzi says. “By questioning that symbol, the stability of the façade, we are in essence questioning everybody’s relationship to the house and to the family.”

Wales hopes that 15 South Putnam will become a model for many similar, future projects—possibly performed under the auspices of a design/build center founded and funded by UB’s School of Architecture and Planning. He and Fantauzzi imagine many such houses, even whole blocks, rehabbed into houses that both function and speak of dysfunction, that are symbolic of the city’s potentials and problems.

“This project is like a dream come true for me,” Wales says, standing on the third floor of the house, the sunlight streaming through the opening between the eaves and the sliding façade. “I’ve been wanting to do a house in Buffalo with students for at least 10 years. Hopefully this is the first of many.”

Teaching architects how to build

Fantauzzi is a primarily an educator and a theorist; he’s been an academic since he finished his own schooling. He says he feels fortunate never to have worked within the budgetary, conceptual and even statutory constrictions that a practicing architect must navigate. Wales is a practicing architect as well as an educator, on the other hand, and the architect of record on the 15 South Putnam Street project. He has taught the students the practical hurdles to getting the project done: who to talk to in City Hall; how to apply for permits; how to work with engineers, etc.

They’re learning how to draw in and collaborate with other parties, too. Over nearly 10 years and dozens of design/build projects, Wales has mustered the services of more than 250 people and 40 corporate sponsors, many of whom are onboard for this project as well. One of them, builder and welder Jeff Gabriel, is impressed by the educational philosophy Wales and Fantauzzi espouse, likening it to the European atelier system: “You want to be a machinist, you have to use a file first,” he says. “These are architects and they’re actually building something, which is refreshing, because when you’re building something you find out what the builders have to do. A lot of architects that don’t know how to build stuff—you can’t even talk to them.”

“A lot of the work we do at school is in studio design and critiquing design concepts, says Susan Voelxen, a graduate student in Fantauzzi’s studio. “We learn about structures, we learn about architectural policies, we learn about concepts. And at the same time we’re trying to put into our designs and understand how opening a window might feel in a space. But in this studio we see that immediately and have to work with it immediately, and we work with structure directly. If we want to make a change in our design, we have to know whether the floor will hold it or not.”

This is Voelxen’s last semester; she finishes her schooling the last week in April. She and the other students, both graduate and undergraduate, are putting tremendous pressure on themselves to finish by then.

“Certain people will have to make heroic efforts, especially the grad students and Frank,” Wales says. “We all get in there, we’ve all got our wounds. In every project that’s worth doing there are people who step forward and make unsung heroic efforts: under the building in the crawlspace in 20-degree weather digging out and preparing the foundations; someone catching a piece of steel that’s about to fall.”

“We’ve definitely dug ourselves a deep hole,” Voelxen says. “We’ve gone big, and we have to leave big.”