By all outward appearances, Dennis Maher's house on Fargo Avenue fits right into its historic neighborhood at the edge of the D'Youville College campus on Buffalo's West Side.
It was built in 1890 by a prosperous family. But over the century that followed, its slow slide into disrepair mirrored the declining fortunes of the city that surrounds it. By 2009, the state of the house had declined to the point that its owner, D'Youville, had slated it and an adjoining property for demolition.
But before the storied house at 287 Fargo Ave. was reduced to a pile of rubble, neighborhood forces prevailed upon D'Youville to save the property. When the college signed the building over to Maher, a local architect and artist, for a cool $10,000, it was an act of goodwill toward a neighborhood whose relationship with the growing institution has sometimes been strained.
Since then, Maher has been hard at work turning the structure – where he lives with his girlfriend – into a living, breathing extension of his own restless imagination. Like some of Maher's previous installation projects, the house contains an ever-changing collection of objects and materials gathered from demolition projects, estate sales and thrift shops from across the city. It's designed to be a mirror of the city, and to serve as space in which to imagine new combinations of material and perhaps even to mull over the shape and size of Buffalo's future.
Behind the house's deceptively traditional facade is a collection of sculptures and curiosities so strange and unexpected, so integrated into the fabric and structure of the house that stepping through the doorway feels like walking into a new dimension. The house is like a box inside a box inside a box, Maher said. "And each box you open is another world."
Gigantic wooden organ pipes rescued from a church downstate stand like sentries along the walls, which Maher has modified in places to reveal a century's worth of wall coverings built up over time like moss on the side of a tree. The cast-iron frame of a piano is mounted to the wall of a room containing Maher's walk-in bureau, itself constructed from bits and pieces of reclaimed bureaus jutting out in all directions. In that same room, which contains several small and large sculptures and other unspecified works-in-progress, a sheet of player-piano music hangs from the ceiling alongside the extended pages of a pop-up book. The entire ceiling has been recovered with dozens of hollow-core doors.
Elsewhere, Maher has constructed an entire wall of mirrors, which reflect other sculptures made from items like found busts and mannequin hands, an ever-expanding collection of globes, doll houses and other peculiar motifs in the great sculptural symphony Maher has long been composing.
If this sounds like hoarder-central, it's not. The organized chaos of the Fargo House, as Maher calls the project, is just the latest outgrowth of his longtime mission to help us think about the changes happening in the city in new and different ways.
"In the house, I'm actually trying to kind of intensify some of the less visible city characteristics: The nature of change, the actions of collection and addition and subtraction, the processes of migration and movement – all of those things happen at a much larger scale in the larger urban environment," he said. "I'm interested in the house as a kind of lens for thinking about those things but in so doing creating a whole other world inside."
The house project is part of Maher's ongoing residency at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which will culminate Jan. 25 with an exhibition at the gallery. Just from just a brief look inside Fargo House, it's clear that the larger questions Maher is considering are just as fascinating as the way he's choosing to answer them.