Buckingham Ave and Kensington Road; House Kits & Patterns; Porches
- Built: after 1910
- Architect: Unknown
Once we turn the corner east onto Buckingham, and follow the southwest edge of the drumlin, we come to rows of similar houses, all fronted with porches. These houses were developed after 1910, and for the most part they share – though rarely repeat exactly – common construction, organizational and decorative elements. These are good-sized private houses built for Syracuse’s growing middle class. Usually with three or four bedrooms, the houses are spacious enough to raise a family but small enough to maintain without outside help. The neighborhood remains a stable district of families much as it was designed almost a century ago. Demand for building lots was high enough that even low hillside sites were used, especially on the north side of Buckingham. Because of their location, these houses defy the conventions of the tradition American front lawn, and now boast lovely street side gardens.
House Kits and Patterns
The most important development in home construction in the 19th and early 20th-centuries was the continuing invention, refinement and production of pre-fabricated and standardized building materials. Best known of these are, of course, the standardized lumber pieces that could be cut in the millions by power-driven sawmills and stocked and sold by lumber yards strategically located in growing neighborhoods close to actual building sites. This is the lumber that built the millions of wooden balloon frame houses across America between the 1870s and 1930s. These are the houses of our “Streetcar Suburbs’ that make up so much of our urban housing stock today. Most of the forms of these houses can be found in the common building catalogs and pattern books of the day.
Plans of houses and all the material needed to build them were also sold by national retailers like Montgomery Ward and Sears, but not surprisingly, it was the lumber companies that got into the house-kit business and sold many more pre-cut house parts than the big retailers – even though those houses are more often mentioned in historical literature and are better remembered in the popular imagination. Other prefab parts were as simple as standard nails and screws, and more intricate metal hardware for hinges, knobs, and grates; as well as standard windows and doors. The architectural magazines of the period are full of ads that indicate the national nature of the building trades after about 1900.
In the years following World War I, Syracuse and other cities underwent population expansion and building booms that would last through the 1920s until the Great Depression. An ad in the Syracuse Herald from April 20, 1919, sums up the sentiment of the time – and the urge to build and own a home:
You owe it to Yourself – Build or Buy a home of Your Own
buy or build in Syracuse because it is a city that is swinging into the greatest period of prosperity in its history.
Syracuse is just getting into the harness again after the shock and disarrangement of business caused by the World War. The city of homes is in harmony with progress and prosperity, growing in population. Families moving in each year filling up the spaces and crowding for a place to call home. If you do not OWN YOUR OWN HOME now is the time to loosen up and buy one.
Build a home of your own while you’re young and industrious and steady on the job! It’s the fellows who stick, who strike in their roots and give themselves time to GROW that get up in the world. Start now by purchasing a building lot and then build a home to suit your fancy.
Building is going to BOOM, so get in now on the ground floor.
Most home builders, did not purchase kit houses outright. They might buy or borrow of published plan, but they purchased materials from local lumber yards. Some houses were built by developers to sell, but many others in this area were probably built on lots bought by those who would live there. Lots were usually first bought at auction, and then over time changed hands multiple times, and were regularly offered for sale in the classified ads. In Syracuse, many unbuilt lots – especially after the Depression – reverted to the city when taxes were not paid.
What is especially notable – and so different from many housing developments of the post-World War II era, is that while there is general conformity by buildings regarding size, materials and most building elements (roof shape, dormers and windows, porches, etc), there is no uniformity in the final designs. To this variety, we add subsequent changes made by owners over the years. Most of these are decorative, but some involve changes in space and massing. In this neighborhood the percentage of houses maintain original siding and windows is still high, but it seems that every year another house is covered in vinyl siding.
Especially noticeable on this stretch of the walk, as well up Westminster Avenue, is the variety of porch types. They all maintain the same set back from the street, creating a continuous facade line, but in other details they vary greatly – in the number of supports, whether they’re column or piers; or support a straight architrave or some for of flattened arch; whether there are parapets and rails; and whether the stairway is centered or off to the side. For all these houses the porches act as transitional space between the street and the home. They make the street a big communal room, and help unite neighbors into a community. From the end of the street – just beyond 335 Kensington – look back and you’ll peer through a long row of porches – seemingly linked into a long covered portico.
The American porch is a special invention, a product of our social conduct as much as any architectural design. The porch serves in many ways. It connects the public and private spaces of our lives, but it can serve as a buffer or filter, between them, too. Unlike the more strictly urban stoop – inspired by Dutch tradition and found on row-houses in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York and elsewhere, the porch offers the option of a less exposed public perch. Even when in the city, the American porch carries with it a whiff of the country, and the street-car suburban dweller can fancy him or herself a bit of a country squire. D.G. Mitchell in his 1867 Rural Studies wrote “A country house without a porch is like a man without an eyebrow.”