First published: Fall 2008
The town of Rockport, New England is a mecca for both artists and connoisseurs, whose galleries add cachet to this favoured weekend destination. Venture off Main Street into Rockport’s residential area, however, and a series of handmade signs point the way to a singular, off-the-beaten-track attraction: the Paper House, on Pigeon Hill Street.
At first glance, the house looks like any other. With its wrap-around porch, tidy wood trim and flower and rock garden, the small cottage fits right into the neighbourhood. But a hanging rectangular sign, ‘Paper House’, highlights the unique newspaper construction of this unlikely landmark, Elis F. Stenman’s personal testament to human creativity.
Stenman, a mechanical engineer and amateur inventor, lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and designed machines to make small wire devices such as paper clips and hook-and-eye fasteners for clothing. When he bought land in Rockport in 1922 for a ‘summer house’, it was not surprising that, with his love of tinkering, he would build something unusual. Stenman was fascinated by the subject of insulation material. At the time, people were laying paper on the floor in the attic or under a rug for insulation, and he decided to try using it on the walls. With no apparent pre-conceived master plan, the house design evolved, becoming a quasi-scientific experiment to measure the strength and insulating properties of newspaper and the durability of newsprint.
Being a thrifty Swedish immigrant who hated the idea of wasting anything, Stenman began to save the three newspapers that he read each day. ‘I always resented the daily waste of newspapers after people read them for a few minutes,’ he told a local news reporter. Other people became involved in saving newspapers for him. One friend, who lived in Washington, DC, gave him foreign newspapers; another wrote letters to each state capital, explaining the house project and requesting a newspaper.
In 1924, Stenman hired a carpenter to erect a frame for the house and lay a wooden floor. He himself proceeded to wrap sheets of paper around a piece of fine wire, rolling them tightly until he had a thin, stiff rod about three-quarters of an inch (20mm) in diameter. He inserted the rods into the frame of the house and added wallboards made with 215 sheets of paper glued together using his own concoction of flour, water and apple peel. Similarly, he fashioned hundreds of shingles from triangular-shaped sheets of paper. These were varnished several times to make them weatherproof. Stenman’s original plan had been to cover the outside of the house with clapboards, but when the paper walls survived their first winter with little damage, he became curious to discover how long such a house could last.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #64