Paper House

January 20, 2012 — Not even any of the three little pigs were silly enough to make their houses out of paper. But that’s what separates man from the animals. Silliness. Also, that they haven’t figured out how to make bacon out of us yet.

In [paper beats] Rockport, MA, just northwest of Gloucester and right on the end of the peninsula that is Cape Ann, sits a full-sized 90-year-old house made of paper. End of article.

In 1922, a mechanical engineer named Elis F. Stenman looked at his calendar and said, “God damn, that’s a lot of blank spots,” and then decided to fill them by building a house out of materials so improbable that our culture doesn’t even use “house of paper” as a metaphor…even though it sounds like a perfect one.

At his day job, Stenman designed machines that made paper clips, so doing things to paper was kind of his thing. Originally, the paper was just supposed to be insulation for his summer house. In fact, the important bits of the house, the roof and the floor and the frame, are all wood. However, at some point, he liked the material so much, that he didn’t clapboard it up and even went so far as to make all the furniture for the place out of paper, too.

Now, almost 90 years later, the single-floor house still stands at 52 Pigeon Hill Street, and it’s open for visitors.

The people who own the paper house these days are located in an adjacent, more conventional abode. On the day we visited, and probably most of the time, a sign on the red-painted wooden front porch of the Paper House read, “Honor System Today. Please Go Right In.” I didn’t understand that first sentence, but the second one sounded cheery.

The exterior of the house, in between the red wooden frame, is made up of about an inch of paper, pressed together and glued with a homemade concoction of flour, water, and apple peels that sounds more like a desert recipe than a construction material. The paper is sealed with a varnish that gives the walls a deep brown hue akin to leather and is layered in a scale-like pattern of diamond shapes. The varnish is translucent enough that you can still see the newsprint from headlines and classifieds and comics almost a century old. In places, the varnished layers have ripped, revealing naked newsprint beneath.

Inside, it’s much the same as the outside, except instead of marveling at the walls, you’re marveling at the furniture. Every stick of it is made of rolled, one-inch diameter tubes of newspaper.

It’s a remarkably cozy effect and somewhat pseudo-rustic. There are lamps, tables, chairs. A grandfather clock that incorporates newspapers from the capitols of the 48 states that made up the Union at that time. A desk was created out of newspaper stories about Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing. The only interior elements that aren’t paper are the brick fireplace and the piano, although the latter is still covered in those paper tubes.

Honestly, the whole thing has a very cabin feel due to its size and the face that everything is brown and gives the impression of being made out of very tiny logs. I guess that’s what I meant by pseudo-rustic. The house is also fully electric and at one time even had running water. No bathrooms, though.

All told, about 100,000 newspapers went into its construction, adding one more thing to the “Stuff my Kindle can’t do” list.

On the way out, as per posted instructions, we threw a couple of dollars per into the mailbox of the adjacent house. ..although I probably needed it more. After all, the plaster in my house is cracking in a million places and I’m pretty sure I have termites, while Stenman’s Paper House will probably last until the last person on the planet forgets Star Wars. Or until this happens.