THE HOUSE WITH SIXTEEN
A Tale of Architectural Choice
By Henry Petroski Norton. 297 pp. $27.95
Henry Petroski really likes his summer house.
It’s a two-bedroom cedar-shingle on the Kennebec River in Maine, a woodsy getaway built by a painstaking do-it-yourselfer in the 1950s. But to the house’s current owner, Petroski, a professor of engineering and history at Duke University, it’s a place that despite its unassuming origins ought to be celebrated as “a masterpiece.” “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors” is the story of the house and the lessons it might offer on design.
He approaches his summer home, in other words, in the same way he has approached other objects in his acclaimed books on the design of the pencil and other everyday things. “It soon became my preoccupation to study the house as the product of a creative individual — a designer, a planner, a builder, a carpenter, a craftsman, a finisher, an artist, a carver of poems in wood,” he writes. What results is a very close examination of a house’s anatomy, garnished with far-ranging asides on how things get made.
Petroski counts the number of nails in each board of knotty pine. He speculates about how the heavy roof beam was raised. With mild disapproval he reviews the mortar work in the stone fireplace. No detail, it seems, is too small to inspire his commentary.
Not even nail holes. “A lesser carpenter . . . might have struck a wrongly hit nail sideways to straighten it,” he writes, “leaving an oval wound in the wood, or the nail might have been extracted with the claw end of the hammer, and a replacement driven obliquely into a then too-large hole. I have found little evidence that [the builder] performed either of these operations.”
As in his other books, Petroski writes intriguing pieces of engineering history. A split rock leads him to talk about how the biggest boulders were moved — with an example about moving a rock from Finland to Russia for a statue of Peter the Great; a trip to a local shipbuilder is embroidered with the background for the U.S. Navy’s phaseout of aluminum vessels. (Basically, a crash demonstrated their weaknesses.) He even offers a section on how the house’s old Honeywell thermostat functions, and there’s a passing history of the hard hat for construction.
At times, the details are minute enough to make a reader wonder whether one man’s summer cottage merits such scrutiny. There is even a passage on where Petroski and his wife — who took the photographs in the book — decided to put their kitchen table. Put it this way: This book will make a good home for the meticulous reader.