Book Scene: The Builder as Hero

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By Stuart Mitchner

My appreciation for home building and home design began in childhood with the Classic Comic of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and peaked when I watched a master carpenter rebuild the interior of the Princeton house we’ve lived in for almost 30 years. I read the Crusoe comic many times over when I was 6 or 7. My favorite image was of the cozy cave-like domicile Crusoe constructed for himself: a desk, a bed, a set of shelves lined with various vases and containers in lieu of books, a hammock, sabres and rifles hanging from the wall. Crusoe, a Do-It-Yourself man almost 200 years before the rise of the acronym DIY, is shown carving stakes for the fence, borrowing a sail from the wreckage of his ship to make a canvas tent overhead, chopping down trees and splitting the trunks to make planks. The big Vermonter who helped make our house a home didn’t need to chop down trees or split trunks, but what he accomplished was no less remarkable.

A House with Character

We found Everett Gross through a friend with a large library for whom Dale (the name used by everyone but us) had fashioned numerous floor-to-ceiling, wall to wall built-in bookcases. Working on saw horses in our garage, breakfast room, and bed room accompanied by classical music tapes, Everett built the equivalent of two libraries for us, one in the living room and one in the finished basement. In both places, the intimate, homey effect he created more than lived up to my old Robinson Crusoe dream. It wasn’t long before my Arts and Crafts-minded wife discovered that the man from Vermont could build anything and everything she asked for, and for a more than fair price. What she wanted above all was character, meaning no run-of-the-mill hollow, flat-surfaced doors or clam shell moldings. Door frames, window frames, baseboards, or shelving, everything was paneled, grooved, rounded, and touched with style. Besides acting as our contractor for the kitchen, which was entirely renovated, Everett laid the floor tiles himself and created a storage closet, as well as putting in French doors to the deck, building medicine cabinets for both bathrooms from scratch, installing a magnificent dining room cabinet with glass doors, and shutters of natural wood for the windows all through the ground floor, where his masterpiece was the array of bookcases and cabinets in the living room. For 25 years he was our mainstay, making all needed repairs, helping out every time the basement flooded, and, toward the end, refusing to charge us. He died two years ago. We will never forget him. How could we? We live in The House That Everett Built.

The Vermont Connection

Looking through some newly published books on remodeling, home improvement, and architecture, I’m reminded all over again of how fortunate we were to find Everett. Coming from Vermont, a man of few words who never said “the other,” always “t’other,” he would have had some interest in the books published by the Vermont-based outfit Storey, particularly The Woodland Homestead, by Brett McLeod. The book, which is attractively illustrated with black and white line-drawings, offers “Case Studies” with titles like “From Woods to Goods” that encourage the development of a person’s “woodland eye” to aid in understanding how “past events” resulted in “current conditions.” Subjects range from a home with a small back yard in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, to a 40-acre homestead in northern Virginia where the occupants hoped to satisfy “farm and forest ambitions.” The author, who manages to balance being a professor of forestry and natural resources with professional lumberjack competitions, oversees a 25-acre mountain homestead.

The Sorceror’s Apprentice

Jane King Hession and Tim Quigley’s John H. Howe, Architect: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design (Univ. of Minnestota Press $49.95) is the most attractive of the newly published volumes under review. Howe is remembered by one of his students as “the sorcerer’s consummate apprentice, interpreting his master’s dreams and visions, translating them into limpid, poetic renderings and beautiful, down-to-earth construction documents—while teaching us along the way.” A charter member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship at 19, Howe remained there for the next thirty-two years, earning a reputation as “the pencil in Wright’s hand” before establishing his own architectural practice in Minnesota. Influenced by Wright’s principles of organic design, he operated under the conviction that “the land is the beginning of architecture.” Architectural historians Hession and Quigley show how this belief worked for Howe in Minnesota, where his buildings “appear to have grown naturally and organically from the landscape.” Also worth seeing are the visionary architectural schemes he created while serving time in prison during World War II as a conscientious objector—futuristic visions that anticipated Eero Saarinen’s later designs for airports and Victor Gruen’s for America’s first indoor shopping mall.

Self-Reliance

Another new book from the Vermont-based publisher Storey is architect Will Holman’s Guerilla Furniture Design, which features plans for building lamps, chairs, tables, and more from salvaged materials. Holman’s grass roots manifesto demonstrates how “the seeds of self-reliance are deeply rooted in American history,” from Native and Colonial to Modernist. Says Holman, “My design sense was shaped by nomadism, recessionary economics, and the great abundance of America’s waste stream. Over the years, it would have been easy to furnish my varied apartments with thrift-store finds and big-box buys. Instead, I looked at each move as a fresh start, a new opportunity to solve a set of old problems: how to get me, and my stuff, off the floor. With little money, few tools, and improvised workshops, I shaped my environment out of paper, plastic, wood, and metal. Guerilla Furniture Design is meant to help readers do the same.”

Web 2The Digital Generation

Brit Morin’s Homemakers: A Domestic Handbook for the Digital Generation (Morrow) is one of 2015’s bestselling house and home titles. Known as “Silicon Valley’s Martha Stewart,” Morin, who is seen smiling on the cover and throughout the book, was named among Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2014. In addition to addressing traditional domestic arts like cooking, sewing, decor, and woodworking, her book also explores high-tech design and features, among other projects, a nightstand that can charge gadgets wirelessly. While Everett Gross might find it hard to connect with the CEO and founder of Brit + Co’s introduction, he would surely approve of what she says in a San Francisco Chronicle interview “To make something with my own hands—it’s something our generation wasn’t taught, and it’s so empowering.” Even though she’s thrived on an online media and e-commerce platform that has 185K Facebook likes and 22.9K Instagram followers, Morin wrote her book as a reaction against being “immersed in the digital world” that has led some to attend “digital detox camps just to get away from their virtual reality.”

For the Robinson Crusoe in all of us, there’s HomeMade Modern: Smart DIY Designs for a Stylish Home (Running Press) by Ben Uyeda, whose popular HomeMade Modern YouTube channel gives step-by-step directions for making environmentally sustainable furniture for inside and outside the home. A designer, lecturer, and co-founder of HomeMade-Modern.com, FreeGreen.com, and ZeroEnergy Design, Uyeda won the U.S. Green Building Council’s Natural Talent Design Competition in 2010 by creating affordable green home designs for the New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood as part of the rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina.

Substantive Skills

Urban Homesteader: How to Create Sustainable Life in the City, a boxed set from Microcosm, collects four previously published titles. The most popular book of the set, Make Your Place, has sold over 110,000 copies on its own, according to publisher Joe Biel, and many of those sales came before Microcosm had traditional distribution. Biel expects the boxed set will do better at nontraditional retailers than at bookstores, because it spans several areas, including gardening, canning, and nontoxic cleaning. “I think consumer interests—and especially the things that motivate those interests—are more complex than bookstore sections,” Biel says. He believes Microcosm’s readers instinctively link preparing food, cleaning without chemicals, getting around urban areas, and making things at home, because those are all lifestyle skills. “What we see over and over in reader habits is wanting to learn substantive and practical skills.”

Though he was no urban homesteader—Everett lived on the Princeton-Lawrencevile Road in a house he built himself—the man from Vermont’s substantive lifestyle skills elevated the business of homebuilding and home design to another level.