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Book Review : Nail-by-Nail Look at a House That Trivia Built

November 12, 1985|ESTHER McCOY | McCoy's most recent book is "The Second Generation: Sequel to Five California Architects" (Peregrine Smith). and

House by Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95, illustrated)

Trivia collecting can be bane and boon, you reflect, reading a new book in which the protagonist is a house and the author is unsparing of details. The house is conceived by the architect, contracted for by a group of builders calling themselves Apple Corps, and financed and finally occupied by a young couple, the Souweines, of Massachusetts. The author is Tracy Kidder, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for his 1981 "The Soul of a New Machine."

The collected trivia comes from many sources. There are side trips down the streets of Amherst, looking at Greek Revival houses and stopping in front of the one where poet Emily Dickinson lived. As a few lines of Dickinson creep back, you are confronted with a cost breakdown of Henry Thoreau's hideaway on Walden Pond--total: $28.12 1/2. The Souweine house, built between May and October of 1983, cost $146,000. That's $50 a square foot, inexpensive for a Los Angeles house with a lot of detailing. In the Thoreau lumber list, only two windows are mentioned, and you wonder if those could have been the only ones. Could this be why the house caught the imagination of a generation of environmentalists interested in passive solar heating?

Soothing the Gods

Then on to the lore of wood framing. And on to the almost universal practice of tying boughs or flowers to newly framed roofs. This, Kidder writes, "was meant to soothe the gods in trees. Having taken wood from the tree, builders bring the tree back to the wood. The tree becomes the house, and in ceremony, the house becomes the tree."

The author asks how golden was the golden age of woodworking, the Colonial era. One Colonial builder, he reports, constantly was being hauled into court to answer charges that you could put your hand between the boards of his floors, or that a house of his construction was "not soficiently unarpined nor tightly covered."

"House," however, essentially is concerned with the people who build the house and their interaction with clients and architect. The jacket blurb speaks of a book that takes us straight to the heart of American life. In the book itself, as in reality, house building takes us straight to the pocketbook.

En route, we hear that the architect, who works for a big New York office, has never designed a wood house before. The story gathers momentum when Jules, father-in-law of the client, an attorney whose cases have dealt mainly with builders, opts for a fixed-price contract. The bid of Apple Corps is set for the fat to take care of the lean. But it doesn't take care of the things the client adds, or the mistakes of the architect or builders.

Discord Over Staircase

The wrangling--much of which is centered around a staircase, which the architect had not fully detailed, and a frieze under the eave line--could have been predicted. Jules' way of dealing with Apple Corps is an offer to split the difference. The $900 additional cost of the elegant stair does not sit well with the builders, but the request that the builders "guarantee the knots" in the frieze board brings a laugh.

Told in the present tense, the book has the immediacy of oral history, or history overheard. It reminds me of the conversations in "Jersey Devil," a book about a group of architect-builders (Princeton dropouts) who take their name from a mythical prankster. No dependence there on Greek or any other revival styles. By contrast, the architect in "House" crams up on Greek revival before designing his first house and then, illogically, pulls in architect Lou Kahn's phrase about "what a building wants to be." As if the house in this case had a choice!

The strengths of this book lie in the characterization and the mentioned oral vividness. Its flaw--serious in a book entitled "House"--results from the fact that the author's talent is lineal rather than visual. There is not one sharp image in "House" of any house, or of a building of any sort. We read a great deal about craftsmanship but are given no picture, nothing to see, not even the disputed staircase and frieze.

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