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Stories from the world of paper

The Paper House of Rockport

2014-04-22 - A house made of newspaper: In the spring of 1922, Elis F. Stenman, a Swede who had migrated to the USA, decided to build a summerhouse in the vicinity of Boston. After he had the basic frame, floor and roof made of wood he came up with the idea of using a rather unconventional material for most of the house, and began to ask his friends and neighbors for their old newspapers.

Over the next few years, Stenman and his family layered and pasted more than 100,000 newspapers with a home-made glue made of flour, water and apple peel. Stenman built the walls and doors of the house out of 215 layers of newspaper. The walls were sealed with varnish to protect them from wind and weather. On most of them it is still possible to see and read USA news articles from the 1920s. What began as an experiment also led to an unusual collection of fixtures made almost entirely of newspapers.
Furniture that tells stories On a part of the desk you can still read about Charles Lindbergh‘s historic transatlantic flight, while the radio cabinet reveals details of Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign. The grandfather clock contains the title pages from the daily newspapers of all US Federal States – only 48 at the time as Alaska and Hawaii had not then been added. The piano incorporates newspaper reports on Admiral Byrd's expeditions to the North and South Poles. The house also features chairs, a table and sturdy bookshelves. Even the curtains are made from brightly colored magazine pages. Stenman built these curiosities from rolled and glued newspaper logs that he cut to size with a knife and then assembled. In the case of some items, functional reasons precluded the use of paper only, which is why the piano and the fireplace are just covered with paper. According to Stenman‘s wife Esther, sometimes they even used the fireplace, which is clad with issues of the Boston Sunday Herald.
A look into the past After around 90 years, the top layers of the walls are gradually starting to peel off, continually exposing new fragments of articles, wanted ads and advertisements that tell a story of times long past. The house is a time capsule that gradually reveals new stories of old, while the stories on the top slowly disintegrate through exposure to the elements.
Although the paper walls have been holding out against the weather for a very long time, the house would probably have disappeared years ago were it not for the shingle roof. The house has been a museum since the 1930s and is now managed by a great-niece of its builder. Until 1930, Elis F. Stenman lived and worked in his paper house during the summer months and even installed electricity and running water. He had actually planned to cover the outside walls with clapboard. However, the story goes that the paper survived the first winter so well that he was curious and so opted not to fit the clapboard. No-one knows why the engineer came up with the idea of using newspaper. His descendants assume that the passionate inventor simply wanted to try out a cheap, readily available insulation material during the time of the Depression.
Today the paper house in Rockport is a popular destination for visitors to the Cape Ann tourism region. Since 1942 an admission fee has been charged. However, it is not as timeless as the house itself; thanks to inflation it now costs two dollars compared with the original ten cents.


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The Boston University (09.28): Day Tripping: 12 Hours in Rockport

Paperhouse Rockport