Revealing the secrets of a quirky house.
Petroski (Engineering and History/Duke Univ.; To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure, 2012, etc.) and his wife, Catherine, bought a house in Arrowsic, Maine, for their summer retreat. Due to its unique design and craftsmanship, Petroski, whose curiosity (about toothpicks, pencils, bridges, assorted useful objects and feats of engineering) knows no bounds, set out to investigate the house’s history. The result is a charming book that will delight fans of PBS’s This Old House and, for that matter, anyone who has ever owned, remodeled or admired a house. This one was the handiwork of Bob Phinney, built about 60 years ago when, in his late 30s, he moved with his family from New Jersey. He was a “folk architect,” Petroski writes, who designed “a machine for living in” and “a structure worthy of an engineer….” A compact 1,200 square feet, the house consisted of three small bedrooms: one for his three sons, a master bedroom for him and his wife, and a tiny room for his daughter. Half the house was a living room and kitchen, divided by a massive stone fireplace. What caught Petroski’s attention was Phinney’s meticulous workmanship: nailheads, for example, aligned precisely and were flush with the surface of the wood; pine used for wall boards was chosen for its elegant and distinctive delineation, with no “incongruous juxtapositions of incompatible grain patterns and edge knots.” With the help of historical archives, friendly neighbors and photographs, Petroski creates a biography of the house, a natural history of coastal Maine and a portrait of Phinney himself: “Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he may not have been tall,” Petroski infers from the house’s short doorways, “but he had high aspirations for his art….His unerring care is manifest in every detail.”
Petroski, too, has an unerring eye for detail, which makes this admirably crafted book a delight to read.