The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship
By Henry Petroski
With photographs by Catherine Petroski
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014
Hardcover, 297 pages
This is a difficult book to describe. Its title suggests connections with architecture and hand-made things; these topics are present and since Henry Petroski has written about them in the past, they are what the reader expects.
But there’s a lot more: a couple’s relationship with a peculiar house built perhaps 60 years ago by an unusual and talented man, plus its neighborhood and a way of life on one part of the Maine coast.
There’s much more here than the house itself: chapters deal with Maine real estate and how one finds it, the origins of place names, weather, physics, shipbuilding at Bath Iron Works, the curiosities of the rural postal system, outdoor and even indoor wildlife. In sum, Petroski has written a loving memoir of his family summer place, how it was created and who created it—and because he’s insatiably curious, lots more.
This is a book I would love to have written, although I fear no one except a house junkie like me would want to read it.
The story as told is not without flaws. Clearly, Petroski is fascinated by how things are put together, and as he sets out to describe the forensics of his own house he gets mired in detail. His writing on the house’s closets—Bob Phinney, the builder who conceived the place and first lived there with his family, “did not sacrifice strength for shortcuts, and he eliminated the interference [between a particular door configuration and its stop] by, wherever necessary, carving and chiseling out from the stop a neat recess into which the end or angle of the Z-brace just fits.” I understand what he’s saying, but who else will? At least there’s a photo to help in this instance, but often there isn’t.
Two chapters later we move on to roofs, as Petroski speculates on how and why Phinney did things in certain ways. Again, the problems and solutions are described in meticulous detail; after a while it all seems self-indulgent (do I really care?) and the reader is tempted to skip a few pages.
Still, I stuck with Petroski to the end because his main subject—structures and how they’re put together—fascinates me too. I live in a building (a former Odd Fellows lodge that previously had been a school) that I converted into a house and shop for myself. Along the way I spent hours figuring out the building’s history and how its original joiners had put it together in 1833, how a subsequent generation had moved it a mile down the road (“seventy-five yoke of oxen,” the histories say), how a generation after that had converted it from school to fraternal lodge, and finally what we’d have to do to make it into a usable house.
Had I known him at the time, Henry Petroski would have become a valued member of our team. Likewise for a boat I rebuilt after I finished my house: the best part of that job was the way my little vessel revealed its history as I took it apart.
All in all, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors is an interesting and useful book, telling as it does the story of one craftsman’s approach to building his own house. In an age when hand-made things are increasingly rare and often not well understood, Petroski’s story is refreshing and welcome.
David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.