Although it might sound like a fairy tale, we are not talking about Hänsel and Gretel, but about a mechanical engineer, Elis F. Stenman, who in the early 20th century started work on his summer house, which he designed and built using newspaper layers as coating, inside and outside. A true story, from Rockport, in Massachusetts, not far from Boston. A timeless place which has now become a museum.
by Chiara Italia
It was the year 1922, a detail confirmed by the bits of newspaper cuttings bearing witness to a story that sounds as if it might have been taken from a book by the Brothers Grimm. It’s not a chocolate or marzipan house, though, but rather an actual house covered with layers of paper and which – for about ninety years – has survived sunrays, wind and inclement weather. This house exists indeed: it is in Rockport, Massachusetts; up until 1930 the author and designer Elis F. Stenman lived there, then – during the 1940s – work began to turn it into a museum which can be visited by tourists and people who are curious or interested.
Everything started as a hobby
Its construction work began much in the same way as on any other house, but when it came to building the walls Mr Stenman came up with the idea of using an unusual material, cheaper and easy to procure: old newspaper sheets. He glued together about 10,000 of them and covered the walls to a thickness of about one inch – 2.5 cm. But he did not stop there: all of the furniture indoors (apart from the fireplace, for obvious reasons) is made of paper: chairs, tables, bookshelves, curtains, as well as a clock which has been made using newspaper and magazine pages. There is also a piano, a desk and a chair. These, however, are just some of the original items which Elis Stenman produced for his summer residence.
From a holiday house to a museum
This house has now become a legend through the museum which is run by his grandniece Edna Beaudoin. She actually never met him, because she was just a child when he died; this house, however, is more than just a family heirloom: its value in terms of affective heritage is inestimable. Already in the 1930s this paper house started to become the talk of the town, but it was in the Forties that the museum project actually began, which involved charging an admission fee to pay for its upkeep. Edna thus began to take care of this small jewel made of paper, being aware that its materials cannot be expected to last forever, but that you should not only worry about what will happen in the future. The driving force behind her work is not so much being concerned, but rather a sense of duty and responsibility.
A curious man
She says that Mr Stenman was inquisitive and interested in experimenting, which led him to carrying out tests with recycled paper. Nobody would have imagined that the house could resist for so long, being exposed to bad weather, wind and freezing temperatures. The truth, however, is that it has survived to this day. Of course the house has a wooden frame: its flooring and roof are made of wood as usual. The wall, on the other hand, is covered in layers of paper more than one centimetre thick: there are layers of newspaper sheets, glue and paint on the outside which make it waterproof. Now, almost 90 years later, the top layers on the walls are slowly starting to peel off, showing fragments of articles and advertising from the past, which visitors enjoy reading: a quaint effect which increases the value of this work, creating curiosity and enhancing the interest in this true work of art.
Outside and inside
The techniques and treatments for interior and outside maintenance are obviously different, in the sense that the outside of the Paper House has been covered with several layers of paint. The porch of course acts as natural protection for the house, while the roof is obviously covered with tiles. In any case, this has been sufficient to safeguard the Paper House for all these years. The outside is painted, while indoors – where a different type of care is obviously required – less paint was used because the latter – says Edna – tends to make surfaces darker and to cover most of the original documents of the time. As a matter of fact, reading old newspapers is the aspect that most intrigues visitors and tickles them curiosity.
The furniture in the house is made of wood covered with paper: it includes a real piano, a grandfather clock, a desk, a lamp, some chairs and a table. Everything you might imagine to find in a house built almost 90 years ago. The most fascinating aspect of the Paper House interior, however, is that its furniture is made of small paper rolls, probably half an inch thick, which are cut into various sizes with a knife, then glued or nailed together. This artisan handiwork was completed by Elis F. Stenman in just two years.
It is the question which Edna gets asked most frequently by tourists and visitors alike, and the answer is not so clear after all, because Mr Stenman has not left anything in writing to explain his intentions or the details of the project. What is certain is that he was looking for a low-cost insulating material which would be easily available during the years of the Great Depression, says his grandniece. Newspapers were, as a matter of fact, quite cheap and he found plenty of material for his work. Glue is an also a home-made raw material, produced using flour, water and apple peel. The original idea was probably to board up the walls on the outside, but the house survived the first winter so successfully that he decided to stick to the plan, although several layers of paper had to be added.