Wedge-shaped houses in Buffalo

Why are older houses in Buffalo, NY, wedge-shaped?

Along Genessee (I think- it’s been a few years) was an area of town built in maybe the 1910’s with wedge-shaped houses. The street side was the wider one, and the sides of the houses angled back almost to a point, making a trapezoidal house plan. The only reasons I can think of have to do with blocking street access to windows or privies, which does not explain why older buildings further south aren’t built this way.

What practical application did this have when the houses were built? Are other houses in the Northeast built this way, or is this unique to Buffalo?

Could it be a snow drifting thing? Maybe to allow ingress/egress to a house after much snow has been blown onto the town from Lake Erie? Just a guess.

The proper architectural term is “telescoping houses,” since the building envelope resembles the silhouette of a telescope. (see ) Telescoping houses are the Buffalo equivalent of a Southern shotgun shack, only wider. The houses were placed very close to each other, separated by as little as a few feet. Apparently, the sections on the back are later additions to the the original house. There was no room on the sides to expand, so houses were expanded out the back. Buffalo adopted zoning in 1920 – any additions to a house after that date would have to comply with the zoning code’s side yard setback requirements.

Pre-WWII residential architecture in Buffalo is vastly different than what is found in the rest of the country. Other distinct regional styles include “two-flats” in North Buffalo (, and “semi-bungalows” in Kensington, Kenmore and Riverside (, ).

Speaking of weird houses, I visited my wife’s parents in Missouri a few months back and found their house pretty interesting. The front door leads to a small landing with stairs going up and going down - the first floor is partially subterranean and the second was only about 5 feet above ground level, and you entered between the two floors. I saw several other houses in that area that apparently had the same design.


What you describe is called a split-level. My wife and I own one and coincidentally it is in Missouri. However, I don’t think they are uncommon in the rest of the country. I have seen them in Illinois and Pennsylvania. I’m not particularly fond of the design myself, but it does make some sense for the lot our house is on. Our lot is a big hill that slopes towards the back. If you look at the house from the backyard it looks like a regular two story house. In order to put a standard two story on this lot you would have had to raise part of the lot. I imagine it was cheaper to just dig out some from the front part of the lot to make a level area.

In Petersburg, Virginia, there is the famous Trapezium House – it was built by an early American eccentric from Ireland. His slave from the West Indies persuaded him of the superstition that evil spirits infest corners, so he built the house with no parallel sides or right angles.

I didn’t know split-levels were rare; they’re all over where I live (Connecticut). I assumed it was more of a trend for a time period, rather than a regional housing style. I think the point was that you never had to walk up too many stairs.

Split-levels are everywhere, but in most of the country the style stopped being built after the 1970s. The sight of new split-level houses under frame is still common in the Denver and Kansas City areas, though.

I’m no expert, but I think houses similar to those in Elmwood’s links can be found in a lot of Northeastern cities, not just in the Buffalo area. I think the OP was talking about houses where, for example, the front is 20 feet wide, the back is 3 feet wide, and the sides are angled. I’ve seen individual buildings like this in NYC ( presumably due to the shape of the lot) but never groups of them.

Similar, but not exactly. Before WWII, there used to be much more regional differences in residential architecture than there is now. A Buffalo two-flat just looks different than a New York City two-flat, even though they are functionally similar. Tract houses built between 1910 and 1930 in many other cities tended to incorporate more Arts and Crafts/Craftsman design elements than what is found in Buffalo’s semi-bungalows. Even in Rochester, 100 km away, there are few Buffalo-style bungalows.

Anyhow, back to the telescoping house. A bunch of 'em from the air look like this – (Air photos of Buffalo aren’t included on Terraserver.)