In 1819 Ker Porter wrote that 10,000 families lived in Kars, which would imply that there were perhaps 10,000 houses. However, his population figure is probably an exaggeration. W. J. Hamilton, writing in 1842, said that before the 1828 siege and capture of Kars by the Russians there had probably been 3000 houses in the town. He noted that the majority were now in ruins and not yet repaired.
The 1855 and 1877 sieges destroyed more buildings, as did urban developments during the period of Russian control. During the second half of the 20th-century most redevelopment was concentrated within the sectors of Kars that had been laid out during the Russian period. The older districts were simply left to quietly decay. However, within those older districts considerable demolition and redevelopment started from the middle of the 1990s onwards. Now (2010) there are probably less than six traditional houses remaining in Kars, all of them derelict or decaying.
Most of the traditional houses have two floors, are built of basalt stone, and have flat roofs. Blocks of carefully cut stone are used on street facades, with roughly worked stone used for the other walls. The stone courses are divided by horizontal bands of wood - this enhances structural integrity, especially during earthquakes. The flat roofs are composed of a thick layer of compressed earth that rests upon wooden beams.
Traditional Kars houses seem to resemble those of Erzurum. Differences include an increase in the amount of wood used in the structure. This is probably due to the proximity of the pine forests around Sarikamish. Another difference is the use of open balconies, of wooden construction and often with ornate wooden carving. Either this tradition was continued in the houses from the Russian period, or these balconies are actually additions from the Russian period.
Entrances to the traditional houses are generally small and not particularly impressive. They have wood doors, studded with metal rivets. Doorjambs and door lintels are mostly of timber. There is often an external staircase to upper floors, suggesting that the ground floors were intended mainly for storage or for animals. The fact that the walls of the ground floors are generally not plastered, and their rooms lit only by small windows, backs up this view.
The upper floor level sometimes projects out over the line of the lower floor. In these cases the upper floor is often of a partly timber-frame construction. Brick is sometimes used for the upper walls of buildings. These bricks were probably of local manufacture, and there is still a small-scale production of clay bricks at Selim, a little to the west of Kars. The interior walls of upper floor rooms are generally plastered, and the rooms have timber ceilings that hide the roof-beams.
An interesting structural feature within traditional Kars houses is the use of massive wooden posts with an unusual downward taper. They are found internally within ground floor rooms, and support part of the weight of the upper floor while allowing for the creation of a larger open area within the ground floor. They are of a composite construction, formed from three separate pieces of wood that are tied together with iron rivets. A good example of this sort of post can be seen inside the ground floor of the "Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Pasha" building, which now functions as a museum. Early travellers to Kars often speak of rooms lit only by rooflights, which would suggest a tandirevi-type of swallow-domed roof. Chambers with the traditional tandirevi / hazarshen / darbazebi form (a swallow-domed roof constructed from massive timber beams) did exist in Kars, however I know of no surviving examples. The last intact example, found in an old house below the castle, collapsed in 2009. The previous year a house with another example was demolished during the enlargement of the precincts of the Evliya mosque.
An intriguing question would be "do the traditional houses of Kars resemble the houses that once existed at Ani?" A preliminary answer, based on the few surviving examples, would seem to be "no". The plans of the limited number of excavated houses in Ani do not seem to resemble the plans of those that survive in Kars.
A brief mention needs to be made about an American organization known as the "Global Heritage Fund" (GHF) and its activities in Kars. In their literature they make considerable use of the phrase "traditional Ottoman houses in Kars". The use of this incorrect terminology is the result of the ignorance and cultural insensitivity of their non-Turkish staff and a corporate willingness to accept Turkish nationalistic propaganda. The houses in Kars are obviously not "traditional Ottoman houses" - an ethically questionable term which has little basis in architectural reality even in western or central Anatolia. If an accurate label is required for the traditional houses of Kars, then perhaps a geographically descriptive phrase like "traditional Transcaucasian houses" should be used.
The actions of the GHF were responsible for the destruction of the last remaining intact sections of old Kars. Comprising four houses located below the castle, its inhabitants were removed to a new housing estate on the outskirts of Kars, with the GHF having the intention of renovating the old houses and turning them into "boutique hotels". When the GHF failed to raise enough funding to start this project, it simply abandoned the empty houses to their fate. Two of them subsequently burned to the ground, the third is in a state of near collapse, and the fourth survives in a derelict condition with all its internal, floors, ceilings, and fittings removed by looters.