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The Story of Two Houses

Together, a fictional structure from a 19th-century novelette and the author’s real residence tell the intertwined tale of architecture and engineering.

Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship (W. W. Norton, 2014), was released in May and is discussed briefly in the following column. Photos here and in the book are copyright © 2014 by Catherine Petroski. For more photos from the book see here.

Of necessity, the earliest engineers wore many hats. Imhotep, considered the inventor of the Egyptian pyramidal structure, developed a proficiency in nutrition and surgery to maintain a healthy and efficient army of workers. His medical observations and theories recorded in an ancient papyrus were unattributed for millennia, or else new medical doctors today would likely be reciting an Imhotepean rather than the Hippocratic oath. Ancient engineers were likewise indistinguishable from what we know today as architects. Vitruvius, author of the first-century BCE treatise on Greek and Roman architecture and engineering, has been variously identified as an architect, an engineer, and an architect/engineer. In fact, the professions were effectively one and the same for nearly two millennia after Vitruvius.

The discipline of civil engineering began to be distinguished formally from that of architecture only in the 18th century. That was when France began to establish a system of specialized engineering schools, led by the École des Ponts et Chaussées. In England, independent practitioners began declaring themselves civil engineers to distinguish themselves and their work from the military. By the middle of the 19th century in the United States, the exclusive American Institute of Architects was established; not long thereafter the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects became simply the American Society of Civil Engineers.

2014-07PetroskiFp259.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAround this time the growing distinction between engineering and architecture was discussed in a highly unusual book with the unassuming title The Story of a House, an English translation of the French Histoire d’une maison, written and illustrated by “Viollet-le-Duc,who no longer needed a first name or initial. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was born in 1814 into an intellectual middle-class Parisian family. He aspired to become an architect, but rather than following the traditional French route through the École des Beaux-Arts, the country’s national school of fine arts, he sought to learn the profession by gaining practical experience in the offices of working architects.

Viollet-le-Duc became famous in his lifetime for his restoration work on medieval churches, abbeys, and castles, including Notre Dame de Paris. He did not merely restore old structures to a prior state, however. He also added new features. He gave Notre Dame its flèche-like third tower, and he encouraged the addition of modern touches such as cast-iron columns and struts to Gothic masonry spaces. He wrote extensively about architectural history and theory, often illustrating his original ideas with his own drawings. Napoleon III commissioned him to design a luxurious railway carriage in the Gothic style. He was also supposed to design the internal structure for the Statue of Liberty, but did not complete it before he died in 1879.

Viollet-le-Duc’s Historie d’une maison was translated into American English by Boston lawyer-turned-author George Makepeace Towle, who became known as a translator of the adventure novels of Jules Verne. Towle titled Viollet-le-Duc’s work with the straightforward English translation The Story of a House. A British translation of Historie d’une maison was made by the English architect and Viollet-le-Duc enthusiast Benjamin Bucknall, who gave it the more descriptive title How to Build a House: An Architectural Novelette.

A House with Character

The liberty taken by Bucknall in subtitling Viollet-le-Duc’s work a novelette, which is sometimes defined as “a short novel, typically one that is light and romantic or sentimental in character,” was justified because this accurately describes the structure of the book. How to Build a House, in the course of a petit roman of barely 250 pages, tells how one house was designed and built in the early 1870s in France. The house may be considered the main character. The human protagonist is a 16-year-old student named Paul de Gandelau, who is spending a vacation from the lyceum at his father’s château in the central part of the country. Paul’s sister Marie has recently married, and she and her husband are traveling through Switzerland on their way to Italy and then Constantinople.

When the family de Gandelau learns that Marie will be gone for at least the coming year, her father resurrects an old idea: to build a house for his daughter on land that was part of her dowry. Soon Paul latches onto the idea and proposes to design and build the house in Marie’s absence. But where to begin? Paul has no training or experience in architecture or construction, although he does have an older cousin, Eugène, who is a professional architect and whom Paul hopes will help him through the process. There remains a key question: What kind of house would please Marie? After consulting with his father, Paul sends a telegram to his sister announcing his intention and asking her to “Send programme,” the architectural term for a client’s requirements, which Marie includes in a return telegram:


From such a sketchy description, an architect must define and subdivide the interior space for and compose the external appearance of a structure, whether it be a country house, townhouse, or urban skyscraper. Though young Paul has no training in either engineering or architecture, he uses his architect cousin’s drawing instruments to develop a floor plan incorporating his sister’s wishes as best he can. After a day’s work, Paul shows the sketches to his father, who does not feel competent to judge them. He suggests that they be shown to Eugène.

Eugène gently points out the shortcomings of Paul’s plans. Among these were that a visitor to the house on paper would have to go through the dining room to reach the drawing room, and that the kitchen opened onto the billiards room. Eugène agrees to work with Paul to come up with a more acceptable arrangement of rooms and also design a façade that had the windows that Paul’s lacked. After understanding where the house is to be built, Eugène explains how it should be situated to protect it from unfavorable winds while at the same time giving its future occupants the most pleasing views of the countryside. He asks how much Paul’s father wishes to spend on the house, which helps define its scale. The architect explains how the size, shape, and arrangement of rooms should be determined. Once an agreement is reached regarding the ground floor layout, they tackle the upper floors. Eugène explains to Paul what should have been obvious, namely, that the walls dividing the rooms of the lower floor have to support the walls of the upper and so largely predetermine the arrangement of its bed, dressing, and other rooms.

The reader is a silent witness to all this and thereby benefits from the wisdom and experience of Eugène, who surely speaks with the authority of a mature Viollet-le-Duc. Rather than stressing the aesthetic principles that a Beaux-Arts architect would have been steeped in, Eugène emphasizes practical matters of building. He points out, for example, that arched windows present difficulties when being fitted with casements, shutters, and the like; that the tops of chimneys should be above a house’s roof line; that a roof inclined at 60 degrees is optimum for holding slates and shedding snow.

In the meantime, the Franco- Prussian War has broken out, and rather than return to school, Paul, who is too young to go to war, agrees to stay with his family while working on plans and overseeing construction. He is not yet qualified to do so, of course, but Eugène agrees to give him instruction and education while they await Marie’s response to the tentative plan that had been sent to her. When that approval eventually comes, the construction is placed under the management of Master Branchu, who worked at odd jobs for Monsieur de Gandelau. This decision confuses Paul, for Branchu can barely write or do arithmetic. Eugène explains that Branchu, who was the son of a mason, has had plenty of opportunity to observe the trade and has worked his way up from being a hod carrier to becoming a good country mason. To prepare Paul for giving an order to an experienced worker such as Branchu, Eugène expresses as a general rule that before he does he “should have thought seven times of the objections to which it is liable,” lest a single word from the worker demonstrate how thoughtless the order was.

While awaiting word from Marie, Paul is also given further instruction in practical architecture. Eugène emphasizes that an architect should be somewhat of a geologist, knowing the nature of soils and rocks, not only to determine where a house should be located but also how to reuse what is dug out for a basement in constructing a foundation. Seldom could enough stone be obtained from a building site alone, so Eugène stresses to Paul that an architect should visit quarries and see the beds of stone in place and know by looking and feeling whether they would yield good or poor stone. An architect also has to know the nature of the timber that would span between stone walls and support upper floors. Covering timbers with stucco to make a ceiling is discouraged because it traps moisture, which promotes rot. There are ways to make a ceiling with exposed timbers attractive, according to Eugène, and the good architect thinks about a building’s integrity as well as its aesthetics.

As soon as Marie’s letter of approval arrives, construction begins. First a grid of cords is stretched between stakes to define the geometry for the excavation. Master Branchu sets rocks aside for use in the foundation walls and arches that will span over the basement space. Paul serves as “clerk of the works,” as the British call the person responsible for ensuring that work on the construction site faithfully follows the architectural and structural design and uses materials of appropriate quality. Paul reports back to Eugène whenever anything proves vexing. In the meantime, Eugène feels that he has to join the French war effort. This means that Paul cannot have his architectural mentor in residence. To continue his education in Eugène’s absence, Paul is told to translate Vitruvius and report on his progress regularly to his father.

After Eugène returns from war, the house is completed to the great satisfaction of Paul, his father, and Eugène. Madame de Gandelau is less enthusiastic, because she does not look forward to her daughter moving out of the house of her childhood. But when Marie returns from Constantinople, she falls in love with the house that her brother, father, and cousin have provided for her. Even Madame de Gandelau comes around at the housewarming to make for a happy ending indeed.

Throughout the book, there are digressive chapters that allow Paul to reflect on aesthetics, ethics, education, and the nature of architecture itself, including the difference between it and engineering. In one of these digressions, Eugène explains that “the faculties of the mind, reasoning, accuracy, the exact appreciation of the materials at our disposal, and their proper use, are manifested as well in the construction of the simplest habitation as in the erection of the most magnificent architectural monument.”

A Cottage’s Provenance

I first read Viollet-le-Duc’s Story of a House in Towle’s American translation about 25 years ago, when I was doing research for my book on the pencil. At the time, I read the book principally for its description of the use of architectural drawing instruments, which of course included the pencil. However, I was taken with the narrative relating to the design and building of a house in 19th-century France, and it influenced my thinking about architecture and construction. I believe it also laid a foundation for the book of mine that has just been published, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors.

2014-07PetroskiFp260.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe house I have written about is one to which my wife and I have retreated for the past 15 or so years. It is located on an island in Maine known for little but a state highway that carries traffic toward beaches, lobster shacks, and summer colonies. At first, what most captured our attention was the wildlife and boating activity on the expansive river that the house overlooks, but in time my attention was drawn to the house itself. It is nothing like a French château made of stone, nor is it a cedar-shingled rambling Maine farmhouse. Ours is a modest cottage that defies categorization in conventional architectural terms. However, summer after summer I wondered who had designed and built this house as it is, where it is, and why and how.

Built in the early 1950s, the original part of the house is older than most on the road through the marsh by which it is reached, and all but one of the neighbors moved to the island after that time. What oral tradition there seemed to be about the house and its builder was often contradictory, but unlike the house in Viollet-le-Duc’s story, this structure was not fictional. It has stood above a foundation of granite ledge for six decades and, although it has been altered a bit over that time, it retains so much of its original fabric that I was sure it held plenty of clues to how it was made.

Prior owners told us that the house was designed and built by a man who wished to move his family from a crowded New Jersey suburb to the natural setting of a sparsely populated Maine island. Mostly through stories and obituaries that appeared in local newspapers, I was able to verify this story and learn that the man was an erstwhile engineer who, like Paul, appeared to have had no formal training in architecture. But I also learned that as a teenager he had been a member of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild (founded by the company of that name that built auto bodies) and competed in the organization’s model-building competition, which served to identify talented boys who as young men would make likely design recruits for the General Motors division.

Over the course of a year in his youth, the builder of our house put in as much as 1,500 hours making a prize-winning wooden model of the Napoleonic ceremonial coach that served as the Fisher Body Company’s emblem. That story explained to me how as a man he could work so carefully and expertly in wood. The solidly wood-framed house is finished entirely in knotty pine paneling that was clearly sawn with care and precision, as is demonstrated wherever a piece of paneling meets in a clean butt joint with a window sill or ceiling timber. The builder also showed off his talent at woodworking by making by hand the door to every room and closet.

2014-07PetroskiFp261.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThere are 16 of these doors in all. Each is made of knotty pine panels of a uniform width reinforced on the back side with a Z-brace. Although this exposed reinforcement might seem to be more appropriate for a barn door or fence, it befits this kind of informal house. These are not crude barnyard doors, for all edges (of both door and brace) are finished with a graceful rounding that softens what might otherwise be harsh lines. Only the interiors of closets remain unfinished, and this view provided me the means of deconstructing the house without removing so much as a nail. The exposed two-by-four studs and support pieces called furring strips to which paneling is attached show a neatness of workmanship even in dark corners that few eyes would ever see.

The house as built had a flat roof, and that made its designer the butt of jokes among some of the old timers on the island. For a long time it puzzled me as to why otherwise so careful a carpenter would put a roof with a slope of 1 in 24 on a house that was sure to experience heavy New England snows. An early scale model of the house— evidently made in lieu of pencil-on-paper plans—showed it with a hip roof (one that is pyramid shaped, with four sloped sides), so why was that changed? In the end, I reasoned that he did so for ease of construction and because he knew that everything in his house was overdesigned. His overdesigned flat roof, resting on sizable timbers, would be able to withstand the pressure of even the heaviest Maine snows.

When the house was altered in the 1980s, the most dramatic change was the addition of a steeply pitched roof. This not only made the house look more like it belonged in Maine but created a large attic space. Later, one of the original bedrooms was converted to a master bathroom, and the workmanship of both that alteration and the new attic stairway enclosure is in sharp contrast to the original. We appreciate the added convenience provided by the house’s revisions, but the sense of proportion and finish the engineer-turned-carpenter had is missing in the added work.

In Viollet-le-Duc’s novelette, the problem faced by Paul and Eugène was to design and build a house. The problem I set myself was to figure out how and why a house was designed and built the way it was. In both cases, we faced the additional problem of designing and composing a story about the subject house, a problem that involves both analysis and synthesis, the essential tools of science, engineering, architecture, and virtually all creative human endeavors.

©Henry Petroski


  • Petroski, H. 1990. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Viollet-le-Duc. 1873. Historie d’une maison. Paris: J. Hetzel et Cie.
  • Viollet-le-Duc, E. 1874. The Story of a House, illustrated by the author; translated by George M. Towle. Boston: J. R. Osgood.
  • Viollet-le-Duc, E. 1876. How to Build a House: An Architectural Novelette, 2nd edition, translated by Benjamin Bucknall. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. 2012 reprint, Hong Kong: Forgotten Books.
  • Vitruvius. 1914. The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1960 reprint, New York: Dover Publications.

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