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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

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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