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15 Putnam Street rises, spins, becomes a house again

The day after we last wrote about 15 Putnam Street (“Open House,” Artvoice v5n15)—where the students of UB architecture professors Brad Wales and Frank Fantauzzi were literally turning a condemned house on its head—city inspectors shut the project down for permitting and safety issues. Such is the negative power of positive press. (Or maybe the law of unintended consequences.)

But last Saturday, two weeks after the shutdown, the house was both the site and the subject of a unique art opening. And Dennetta Stikkel, the house’s owner, was beaming: Despite the shutdown by city inspectors, despite the short time frame in which they had to work (one semester, essentially, plus a few days), despite numerous logistical challenges, the students accomplished what they set out to do. The facade of 15 South Putnam was separated from the house; it was moved laterally along one steel track and then lifted vertically about nine feet on another; and finally, with the aid of winches, it was spun around.

“It was awesome,” Stikkel said a few days later, recalling the spinning of the facade. “From the beginning we never thought it would get this far.”

The project was completed under the guidance of Fantauzzi, whose graduate students conceived of the mobile facade, and Wales, who was the architect of record on the project and whose undergraduate design-build studio students were vital in executing the graduate students’ designs. In addition to the facade, the inside of the house was stabilized with steel beams, completely gutted and reconfigured, and opened up from the ground floor to the attic.

The transformation of one unremarkable house into a remarkable one is hardly a panacea for the city’s housing issues. However, Wales explained, by disrupting the normal trajectory of a house like this one—abandonment to disrepair to housing court to demolition—the project may help others to conceive of different outcomes for the tens of thousands of empty houses in Buffalo. Some of those ought to be demolished and some might warrant saving—and some might be put to a previously unforeseen use, as 15 South Putnam has been. “This was a new path for this property,” Wales says. “Maybe one of many new paths that exist for properties like it.”

Architect Brad Wales at 15 South Putnam.

Both Wales and Fantauzzi hope the success of 15 South Putnam project will spawn similar projects in the future. In the meantime, Stikkel has a viable house. It needs a new roof, heating, plumbing and a lot of finish work inside—all expensive propositions—but that is certainly an improvement over the situation a year ago for the house, and for the Stikkel family, who had agreed to pay the city by installments to cover the cost of the house’s demolition. If Stikkel decides not to live in the house, she already has purchase offers. She didn’t approach anyone; prospective buyers have come to her.

Though she loves the work the students have done opening up the interior, Stikkel worries that the wide-open layout, with balconies on the second and third floors looking down to the ground floor, may not be ideal for a young mother with a seven-month-old child. “I have to decide whether I want to live there or not,” Stikkel said, but added, “I’m going to continue with the renovations for now.”

There will be a closing reception this Saturday, May 12, at 10am, for the graduating architecture students and their families; the facade will spin.