“The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors” by Henry Petrowski with photographs by Catherine Petrowski
$27.95 / $32.95 Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
Remodeling never ends.
That’s a fact when you’re a homeowner. There’s always something to do, something to upgrade, some way to make a house your own. New flooring, paint, move the fixtures, add another room, and, well, you know where this is going.
But where did it begin? Who created the place you call home? Author Henry Petroski decided to find out, and in “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors,” he embarks on a hunt inside his summer residence…
Henry Petroski and his wife, Catherine, had spent many a happy summer in Maine, far from their house in North Carolina. So when they decided to buy a vacation home-away-from-home, New England was where they started looking.
Petroski said they agreed that they “would happily look at any nice small… house on a nice quiet street in a nice quiet town available for a nice affordable price.”
And that nicely described the property just off Spinney Mill Road near Arrowsic.
Sitting next to the Kennebec River, the compound included a garage and a guest house. The main house had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a large living room and a huge fireplace. The view from its windows was incredible – but it had its quirks.
Ever a curious man, Petroski “became determined to uncover… elements of the original” house and to “glimpse the intent of its maker…” Who, for instance, created handmade doors that graced the house? Why were so many boards fastened with four nails, when two would do?
He couldn’t ask the home’s builder. Bob Phinney had been dead for years.
Still, the clues were there: Petroski found cleverly engineered windows, craftily hidden nails, and walls that defied drafts. He marveled at the massive stone fireplace, and the work it took to make it. He wondered why the home’s roof was flat, in an area where heavy snow was common. He became delighted by the personality that Phinney left behind in the home.
Says Petroski, “A Mainer might say he made a wicked good house…”
Let me start by saying that I liked “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors.” But…
But there’s a lot of detail inside author Henry Petroski’s house and inside this book and that could be confusing for anybody who’s not a carpenter by trade or hobby. Petroski’s sleuthing is a pleasure and his glee becomes ours, too, but his use of terms without explanation seemed to assume a lot; namely, that we’d always know what he’s talking about. Yes, that’s informative – but maybe too much so.
What kept me around here was watching Petroski make friends with the long-dead Phinney and his methods. Yes, Phinney used building-overkill, but I enjoyed Petroski’s joy in finding examples of it and the respect that those findings led to.
Decorators and breezy homeowners may like this book, but I really think builders, remodelers, and fixer-upper-owners will get so much more out of it. If a house, for you, is more than just a home, then find “The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors” and make it your own.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.