JIM Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.
Locke's transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber.
This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public-school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter. It commands pretty views. There's a deep-looking woods on one edge. On another there's a pasture, which turns into the precipitous, forested, publicly owned hills known as the Holyoke Range. And to the north and east there's a panorama. Look north and you see a hillside orchard topped with two giant maples locally known as Castor and Pollux. Look a little east and your view extends out over a broad valley, all the way to the Pelham Hills, which have turned blue at this morning hour.
The air has some winter in it. On this morning in mid April, 1983, a New England spring snow is predicted. The sky looks prepared. It has a whitening look. Several weeks must pass before dandelions appear, but the urge to build has turned April into May. While Locke prepares for the transformation of this ground, four others pace around, killing time. They have their collars turned up and their hands thrust deep into coat pockets. They wait with reddening noses. None of the onlookers needs to be here, but none would have willingly stayed away. Among them is a very tall man named Bill Rawn. He is the architect. He has driven all the way from Boston to witness the birth of the first house he has ever designed, and he grins while he waits. There are Judith and Jonathan Souweine, the woman and the man of the house-to-be. (Their surname is French and is pronounced "Suh-wayne" or, if one is in a hurry, "Swayne.") They have spent months planning for this moment, and they have imagined it for many more. Judith and Jonathan smile at each other. Judith takes a few snapshots while Jim Locke works with the transit.
Turning her camera on Locke, Judith sees a refined-looking young man. "Obviously, his upbringing was very upper middle class," she says that she thought when she first met him. "Everything about him was -- well, you know. He's made a conscious decision not to be a white-collar professional." Locke is wearing jeans and work boots and an old brown jacket, a workingman's uniform. His clothes are clean and he is clean-shaven. He has straight brown hair, neatly trimmed and combed, and a long, narrow jaw. There is a delicacy in his features. You can imagine his mother in him. He has a thoughtful air. He studies his transit a moment, laying two fingers on his lips. Then, as he bends again to the eyepiece, he wipes his hair off his forehead and for a moment he looks boyish and defiant. The ceremony can begin as soon as the bulldozer arrives.
When Locke has begun to wonder whether it is coming at all, it appears - - a small, yellow machine on a large trailer. Locke gives the driver instructions, while the others hang back. The bulldozer puffs smoke and clanks down off the trailer. The first pass the machine makes over the ground, ripping the hair off the earth, looks like an act of great violence. The bulldozer does resemble a beast, but the creature is both unruly and extremely methodical. Gradually the sense of disruption goes out of the scene. The machine goes back over the same, suddenly dark ground. Piles of earth mount up. The hole deepens and, as sand appears, turns orange. Watching the bulldozer work is restful and mesmerizing. Its noise discourages speech, leaving each member of the party alone and thoughtful.
This group does have a few worries. They have not settled all the details of the plan. They have not arrived at a final price for the house. They have not yet signed a contract. Jim Locke wanted all of that done before this day. He felt that he had to go ahead, knowing that if he delayed he might not get the excavator for weeks. But Locke can imagine events that would leave him holding the bill for this work. He and the Souweines have begun to build on faith, without much knowledge of each other.
The party lingers a while. The bulldozer's cab begins to sink beneath the level of the field.
FOR eight years, Judith and Jonathan shared with another young couple a duplex in Pelham, a town that adjoins Amherst. But both families grew too large for the place, and reluctantly they all agreed that the time for moving on had come. Judith's parents, Florence and Jules Wiener, had settled in a new house on about twenty sloping acres. Jonathan and Judith looked around. They decided that they'd like to buy a piece of her parents' property. They liked the idea of locating three generations of their family on adjoining land. It was a traditional arrangement that had grown uncommon. They imagined many advantages. They also thought that it was a slightly risky undertaking, but they like to see themselves as people who are not afraid of taking chances. Jonathan is hardly a typical son-in-law. He adores Judith's mother, and he and her father have been friends ever since Jonathan was seventeen and came courting Judith. Both Jonathan and Jules are lawyers, and it's a family joke that if Jonathan and Judith ever sued each other for divorce, Jules would opt to represent his son-in-law.
So Judith and Jonathan made their offer to her parents, who concealed momentarily their great delight, lest they seem too eager and stir up second thoughts. Jules and Florence deeded to Jonathan and Judith about four acres of land. The Souweines would have a house built on it by the time the youngest of their three children entered kindergarten.
JONATHAN is polite and very direct. In conversation he tends to curtness, but let him get on a subject that truly engages him, such as a coming election, and he becomes positively garrulous, tapping his listener's arm for emphasis, talking so swiftly that his words slur. He looks his best at such moments, or running a meeting, or speaking in front of a political gathering, or striding down a street. He clearly likes command. He is an inch below six feet. He has broad shoulders. He comes at you a little sleepy-eyed, wearing a small, crooked grin, and carrying his arms out from his body in a way that makes you think of impending showdowns in westerns.
Jonathan started college on a basketball scholarship, and even now, in a business suit, his hair in middle-aged retreat, he looks like a busy play-making guard -- what sportswriters call the spark-plug type. He was a good athlete and a better student. He gave up his scholarship, went to Columbia, participated in protests against the Vietnam War, campaigned for a liberal, anti-war congressman, and went on to Harvard Law School. He imagined himself becoming a lawyer who would work for the public good. He spent a year clerking for a federal judge and another in the department of consumer protection of the Massachusetts attorney general's office; in between he took command of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and in that capacity led a number of lobbying campaigns, for solar energy and for a bottle bill and against white-collar crime. Then Jonathan ran for district attorney of Hampshire and Franklin counties. It was now or probably never, he told Judith. Against all predictions - - he was a newcomer, out spoken, and even a little left wing - - Jonathan won the Democratic primary. He lost the general election, and soon afterward he became a country lawyer. For the sake of his family he gave up running for office, but he has kept his hand in as an epistolary politician. He writes letters to editors assessing political candidates. He writes about burning issues of the day and also about local fund-raising events. He has written so many letters, and so many have been published locally, that a Jonathan Souweine letter to the editor has become a virtual institution in Amherst and the towns nearby. Some people think he is still running for office, but clearly he is writing letters instead.
A former lieutenant in Jonathan's campaign remembers a quiet day in their office when a stranger, a middle-aged man, walked in off the street and asked what sort of name was Souweine.
"French," Jonathan said.
The man looked greatly relieved. "Thank God. I thought you were Jewish."
"I am," Jonathan said pleasantly.
"He looked right at the guy," his former lieutenant remembers. "Jonathan told him he hoped that religion wouldn't be an issue in the election. He talked to the guy for about ten minutes, and I remember thinking as I watched, This is Jonathan in one of his best moments."
Jonathan has fun. He does not deny himself the pleasure of a gaudy necktie now and then. He has a way with children. He emerges from a movie about Robin Hood - - his favorite hero - - teaching his boys how to swashbuckle down the street. EJe says, "I love trials. I love the intensity, the action." Losing the race for DA, he insists, was a fine, enlightening experience, nearly as rewarding as winning, he guesses. Jonathan seems to believe in coming home with his shield - - or else on it.
Judith likes to mix it up now and then too. She is small, with black curly hair. She hopes to become a representative to the Amherst Town Meeting, a yearly congress on town affairs that usually lasts for days. It's some people's idea of torture and her idea of fun. She runs Amherst's preschool program for children with special needs. Of the fights between her teachers' union and the local schoolboard, battles in which she will participate during the building of her house, she says, "There's one guy on our team who's not confrontational. But me? My idea is you yell, you scream, you pack the room and have emotional floor fights. What could be better? So we lose. At least we'll go down kicking and screaming." She explains, "If you grow up with a lot of yelling and screaming, yelling and screaming doesn't scare you. In fact, you kind of like it."
She's the bosomy, softhearted, affectionate, challenging mother, who minds everyone's business and who says, when Jonathan scolds her for offering unsolicited advice to friends, "They want my advice. They just don't know it." She is also a woman in a suit. She has a master's and a doctorate in education and has done a great deal of postdoctoral work, particularly in the study of disabilities that cut children off from learning. She has worked as a guidance counselor and a special-education teacher. She developed the pre-school program that she now runs. She has written books and papers and delivered many lectures, and has served as a consultant to a number of schools besides Amherst's - - they asked for her advice. She has contributed to her field. She is "Judith" or "Judith Souweine," and she sometimes corrects people who forget or don't know and call her Judy or Mrs. Souweine. She also laughs a great deal and often at herself. Her smile has light. It tempers the occasional sharpness of her tongue. She's self-assured, sarcastic, and merry as birdsong in the morning. Most strangers find it hard not to warm to her. She cries easily. Her nose turns red beforehand. Talking to Jonathan, she calls him Souweine, or Pook, or sometimes Pookeroo.
Of the friendships they share, Judith says, "In most cases I'm closer to the friend than Jonathan, because Jonathan doesn't talk to people. He just talks to me."
"Judith's a very good friend," Jonathan says. "She likes to chat. I don't. If you've got a good marriage and you like your kids, you just don't have much time to make new friendships. I find I get a lot more back from my wife and kids than from any friendship."
"In our family," Judith says, "I take care of the big emotional decisions."
"I like the ceremonial occasions," Jonathan says. "You can feel emotion, but not too much emotion."
She attends to their social life and to matters of aesthetics. Jonathan, she says, has little aesthetic sense, and he agrees. He is their organizational genius, however. His principal tool is the list. If he has a great deal to do tomorrow, as he almost always does, he cannot sleep until he records his obligations in a list. He pulls lists out of pockets, drawers, his briefcase.
Judith and Jonathan call themselves "B-plus people," a condition they define this way: "Life's not perfect. Get it done." They keep appointments and don't like to be kept waiting themselves. They revel in being busy and worry sometimes that they carry busyness too far. They astonished their housemates in the duplex at first, Jonathan remembers. "Come Friday, they'd be tired out and want to regroup and sit around and read, and there we'd be with every piece of sports equipment you could have and thirty-two community meetings to go to."
They have a fine, sturdy marriage that is more than a marriage. It is an enterprise. They make a formidable combination. They are decisive. They know their own minds. And they knew what they wanted in a house. They wanted a study so that Jonathan could work at home more often than he did. They wanted a remote master bedroom and a special domain for children. To ease traffic jams during the morning rush to schools and office they wanted a bigger kitchen and more than the one bathroom they had in the duplex. "And a place where we can all sit down and play a game," Judith said. "And a place for the kids' markers." They had given huge parties in the duplex, but a larger house would make a better site for parties. "It's nice to have a house where you can do weddings and bar mitzvahs," Judith said. "When I was growing up, there was an unwritten rule that you did those things at home." The location of their imagined house would improve their opportunities for hiking and bike riding and cross-country skiing. Because their yard would not be enclosed in woods, as their present one was, they would be able to do a lot of gardening. When Judith and Jonathan thought of a new house, they thought mainly of their family's busy social, civic, working, sporting, life, and maybe even of packing a few more activities into it. "When you get more space, you can do more stuff," Judith said, smiling.
Judith and Jonathan had imagined in some detail a house that would suit them functionally. Jonathan had already begun making lists. But they were stuck on the question, among others, of what style of house theirs should be. How should it look to their new neighbors, to their friends, and to people passing by on the old road to Boston, down at the bottom of the hill?
Judith and Jonathan had not rearranged their political philosophy to suit fashion or their growing affluence, and they did not want to display their bank account in the facade of their new house. "I won't be a brilliant lawyer," Jonathan once remarked. "I work hard and I'm a good lawyer, and that's good enough for almost any situation, and it's good enough for me." A plain-styled, sturdy house would have suited him best. Judith's first impulse was utilitarian: "It's the structural details that can change the quality of your life." They had made up their minds, though, to build a house of 3,000 square feet, in a region where custom-made houses cost at least $50 per foot. "By any standard," Jonathan would say later, "it's a lot of house and a lot of money." Neither he nor Judith wanted to spend what looked to them like an enormous sum and end up with what Judith called "just a big box." (The enormous differences in the cost of living from one part of America to another are almost entirely accounted for by differences in the cost of housing. What is merely a studio apartment in Boston is an expensive house in Amherst.)
Judith grew up in a large and stylish house on Long Island. It had a foyer and a graceful staircasc and a full butler's pantry. Judith did not imagine a reproduction of that house. It would have cost too much, and anyway, she did not want to imprison herself in the past. But she had been happy in that lovely house, and she did think back to it sometimes when she thought ahead to her new one. So did Jonathan. "I grew up in a Long Island subdivision, in a split-level house. All the houses were the same. I didn't mind. I didn't think about it. Then I met Judith, and Judith lived in this beautiful Colonial house. It was just gorgeous. It made me aware that there was something other than split-levels. It made me aware."
Although she and Jonathan considered many options, they began to feel that they didn't have all the skills to invent their new house by themselves. And time was running out. Finally, late in January, 1983, they decided to call in an architect. "We felt the problems of building a house were too complex for us and we're great believers in professionalism," Judith said afterward. "It looked like a difficult piece of land. We wanted to get someone with a lot of aesthetic ideas, too. Aesthetics are not as important to us as the function. They're important, but they're not where we start."
THE top of a standard doorframe is six feet eight inches from the floor. Bill Rawn's head just misses tops of doorways, like a trailer truck going under highway bridges. Bill is just short enough to live in a standardized world. He is slender. He has thick, dark, shiny hair, hair of good health, and a handsome face. In his office, in Boston, Bill usually wears dress shirts and penny loafers and casual pants - - jeans or corduroys. The pants are usually too short. They leave a lot of ankle exposed. When the time nears for Bill to leave his office, to meet a prospective client or go to lunch, he ducks into his closet. He reappears soon afterward, knotting a tie, dressed in a gray flannel suit, tailored, transformed. He worries that his metamorphosis in the closet may seem "a little false," but there's nothing unnatural-looking about Bill in a suit. He has become a man of affairs. On the street he catches people's eyes. Passing him, you might wonder if you had seen him in the paper or on TV last night.
Bill speaks fluently on other subjects, but it can be nerve-wracking to hear him talk about designs of houses and buildings. When he begins a sentence, you worry that he may not find his way to the end of it. He has a very deep voice, prone to cracking in moments of excitement. Words fail him. He stammers. "Bill's appealing awkwardness," one female acquaintance calls it. When Bill begins to draw, however, he is all authority and purpose. His long fingers move with assurance and grace. Bill's right hand is clearly his proper grammar book and dictionary.
Bill's resume is six and a half well-stocked pages long. Its high points suggest the history of a Renaissance man in delirium. It takes him from Yale and a degree in political science to Harvard Law School, to two years in a large law firm, to the post of assistant chancellor at the University of Massachusetts. In the meantime, he established himself as a successful artist, whose work was displayed in Soho, uptown New York, and Amsterdam. Finally, in the late 1970s, he threw over all of his other careers for the one he had always dreamed of pursuing and went to architectural school at MIT, where he won the design prize for his graduating class. He went on to work, under titless of ascending importance, for Davis, Brody & Associates, a large architectural firm in New York. Around the time when the Souweines were imagining a new house; Bill decided to start his own firm, in Boston.
Bill and the Souweines had met years before, during a political campaign, and for many years since they had spent a summer week together on Cape Cod. Bill spent hours alone on the beach, didn't insist that the others join him, always washed the dishes, didn't care if he got a bed, and actually seemed to prefer a mattress on the floor. When the Souweines decided to consult an architect, they thought of Bill. Perhaps they could help him get started in his practice. Besides, Bill was brilliant. If they were B-plus people, Bill was A-plus -- a perfectionist.
When Bill got the phone call in January, inviting him to Amherst - - to explore the possibilities, no commitments either way - - he felt grateful. He felt flattered. Even though he was essentially a rookie, they trusted him as a friend. The mainstays of his life, friends and architecture, were coming together in his first commission, his first command.
Bill had the feeling he had used up all the time allotted him for trying out new careers. "You start at age forty ... I come from a social world that expects success, whatever that means. It's fine to fiddle around for a while. Your friends are amused, and then you throw all that up to become an architect. You don't do that very many times." In talking about the Souweines' house, Bill said, "Single-family houses are mainly not architected. But they have been a means for architects to acquire reputations."
A house wants a place," Bill Rawn likes to say. When he arrived for his first site visit and consultation, he was pleased to find that his friends' land had meadow on one side and woods on another. They had bought an edge of a woods, and the edge of a woods is a definite place in a way that an open field or the middle of a woods is not.
Jonathan spoke about the front door. The one to the Sonweines' side of the duplex stood out of the way and invited little use. Jonathan said he wanted an unmistakable front door. If they were going to pay for a front door, he wanted people to use it. Bill had a compatible desire. He believed that a house should "respond" to the nearest public thoroughfare. It should not turn its back on public and community, and certainly not if it was the house of Jonathan and Judith Souweine. Bill thought he would also like to keep the new house's windows from opening directly onto Judith's parents' dormered Cape, to the east, or onto the split-levels down the hill across the road, to the north. The road, he noticed, ran past the Souweines' land in a line almost exactly east to west. How to honor the road and the bucolic while avoiding mundane views of other houses?
As Judith and Jonathan talked, Bill sketched a rectangle. One long side of the house that Bill was now building faced roughly south. One of the narrow ends faced west, into trees. The other narrow end looked out on the big, open view. On the long south side he installed a lot of windows. Into the narrow east side he put a front door. He turned the house a little off the east-west axis - - 15 degrees, eventually - - so that the front door, although not directly facing the road, would open up in view of it. No one driving up from the road would miss that front door.
The Souweines described their wish to set aside a domain for their children, one large and nice enough to keep them there a while. Bill drew an upstairs to the house and assigned the whole thing to the children - - three bedrooms, two playrooms. The Souweines wanted to recapture some of the privacy they had enjoyed before they'd had children. To the back of the large rectangle Bill appended a smaller, narrower one, a one-story extension with bedroom and bath, nestled into the woods. The windows of this master bedroom would look out upon the line of the woods, down upon a brook, away from Judith's parents' house, a little bit away from it all.
Judith and Jonathan wanted a big living room. It should serve for formal dining now and then and for parties. It should contain their baby grand piano. It should also invite informal family gatherings. That old home of Judith's childhood had a grand living room and also a de facto one, a den with an unaccountable coziness about it, where the family always congregated, leaving the living room for company. The Souweines could not afford two living rooms, so this one room had to be versatile. Bill drew a living room running the width of the house - - a well-lighted room with windows on both north and south walls and many fine views through them. He made the room rectangular, because in his experience squares diminish the possibilities for coziness. He installed a chimney at the center of the house, behind the living room's east wall, and sketched a hearth for the Souweines to gather around. Judith and Jonathan told him they wanted a spacious, sunny kitchen and an ample breakfast nook beside it - - the house would have no dining room. Bill gave over the southeastern half of the main floor to those rooms. Jonathan said he had to have a study. He would like a pantry, but he would trade it for a study. Bill fit the study into the northeastern side of the plan, next to the foyer. There the little study's window would command both the grand view and the sunrise. Bill rarely feels awake before noon, but Jonathan rises early and Bill wanted him to have the morning sun.
At a single sitting, out of the void of virtually unlimited possibilities, Bill had summoned a floor plan that fulfilled Judith's and Jonathan's most important wishes for a house. Bill felt warmed up himself. This basic form could answer his wishes too. This layout - - the rectangular box with a front door in the gable end, more or less facing the road -- had a historic precedent. Elaborated in his mind, its roof, its paint, its moldings on, it was a kind of American house that he had long admired casually.
"What this house wants to be is Greek Revival," Bill said.
"It does?" Judith said. "How does it know?"
ANYONE in the building trades knows unpleasant stories about architects. The architect sacrifices the client's dreams and comfort for the sake of his own art in so many tales that you have to suspect arrogance is a hazard of the trade. But if you watched Bill help the Souweines make decisions for themselves, you'd know that he is not a martinet. He has a reservoir of what the Romantic poets called sympathetic imagination. But when he believes that he is right, Bill does not give in easily. "He's real mild, and real obstinate," Jim Locke says of him.
When dealing with professionals, many people vacillate between servility and resentment. Jonathan and Judith believe in choosing their experts carefully, conveying their wishes clearly, and then surrendering some of their authority. The Souweines worried that a house whose style derived from Greek Revival might look ostentatious. They had thought they wanted something along the lines of a New England farmhouse. With courtliness and persistence Bill allayed many of their fears. Jonathan and Judith questioned him closely and decided to let him have his way.
Bill belongs to the contextualist branch of the post-modern movement in architecture. The contextualist believes not in form for form's sake, as many modernist architects did, but in appropriate form. To Bill, contextualism means designs that partake of a community's character and history. The nineteenth-century passion for Greek architecture left its mark on Amherst. Bill wanted to capture the spirit of Amherst's old Greek Revival buildings in a new design. Studying those old buildings, he defined for himself the salient visual features of the form; his synthesis was stately but simple, at least when compared with many real Greek Revival buildings. Bill applied this synthesis to three sides of the Souweine house's exterior. He imagined the long, south-facing wall differently.
Bill envisioned a south wall that would mark the house as a work of post-modern architecture. He wanted to create a wall that would emphasize its openings and celebrate southern light, and that would also give inhabitants the feeling of being enclosed. Standing behind walls made of broad sheets of glass had always made Bill feel that he was at the unfenced edge of a precipice. So he filled the southern wall not with huge expanses of glass but with many traditional, mullioned windows. This was his way of supplying interrupted surfaces that would make people sitting near those windows feel unconsciously at ease.
Arranging all the windows into a pleasing composition was a difficult puzzle. Bill worked on it assiduously, alone in the office that he had rented in Boston, racing against a deadline to complete what he considered the most important part of the exterior. He finished on time. The experience left him uncharacteristically short-tempered, but not for long. Although a great deal of drawing lay ahead of him, he had done the hardest part. And he was excited. He was about to see something wonderful happen. He was about to see his first commissioned design turn into a house. He was about to see paper get turned into wood.
COMPARED with towns near the Connecticut River, settlements in the hills just a dozen miles or so to the west and north of Amherst seem like outposts. On March 1, a month and a half before the groundbreaking, as a dank mist fell on Amherst, it rained ice up in the hills. That night, in a little community called Apple Valley, limbs were snapping, a sound just like gunfire, and the power was out. Inside a house on a hillside Jim Locke and two of his partners sat at a kitchen table. They were members of a small building company of equal partners, called Apple Corps. The fourth member, Alex Ghiselin, was out of town. At the table were Jim, a broad-shouldered fellow in wire-rimmed glasses named Ned Krutsky, and Richard Gougeon, a bearded man, who owned the house where they had gathered. In the eerie light of a Coleman lantern the forearms of the three carpenters looked enormous, like clubs.
"This is the best-looking house I've seen in a long time," Jim said.
Jim and his partners had before them invitations to bid on three new houses. The Souweine job was the biggest. They could all see from a glance at the plans that the framing would be tricky and the trim challenging. "It's neat," Jim said. In the drawings on the table, in the flickering light, the three partners could foresee a full and interesting summer of building from scratch. They were eager for the smell of clean, new wood.
Even more than Richard and Ned, Jim wanted to build the Souweine house. In their ten years together Apple Corps had followed a policy that is unusual among builders. The partner who ran a given job - - usually the one a customer called first - - got paid less per hour for planning the work and dealing with money than he and the others received for driving nails and sawing wood. The arrangement was a statement about the group's early social philosophy. It had the practical effect of keeping any one partner from becoming too fond of bossing the others around. Jim had once favored the practice. Now he thought they should abandon it. Jonathan had called Jim. If the Souweines accepted Apple Corps's bid, Jim would run the job. He wanted to run it. For many years Jim had viewed as a chore the part of building that is business. He was ready to let himself get interested in business now.
AT a lumberyard once, needing to measure the width of a board and having no ruler, Jim spread his right hand on the surface of the wood and declared, "It's twelve inches." He had long ago measured the breadth of his opened hands, to enhance their utility. Only on a very large man would Jim's hands look normal. Just one of them opened can cover his long face, from ear to ear and forehead to chin. He could keep one hand behind his back and still play peekaboo with a baby. Although a knuckle is likely to carry a wound now and then, Jim keeps his hands very clean and the nails neatly trimmed. His hands look serene, in the manner of graceful animals.
Jim was born to work with his hands, but he doesn't feel he was raised to do so. Both of his parents excelled in college. Both were Phi Beta Kappas. His father is an eminent lawyer. "Education was pushed at me as a way of being successful," Jim says. He went to a public high school and for a year to a prep school. He went to two different colleges in the 1960s. Some were good schools, some poor, he thinks. Wherever he went, he did badly. "I couldn't really flunk out of college," he explains, "because there weren't really any grades at the ones I went to."
He drifted away from them without a diploma. "It's funny," he says, "because I love learning things and I got some real highs in there, and even now I get purely intellectual joy out of things." Jim speaks softly and always grammatically. He often analyzes his own thoughts and sometimes analyzes his analysis. He seems to have drawn a distinction between education and schools, the sort that some God-fearing people draw between religion and its churches. Jim reads a great deal. Before he would pick up his toolbox in the mornings that spring and summer, he would read, among other things, the books Understanding Wood, Vanity Fair, and Pride and Prejudice and issues of the magazine Fine Woodworking.
Jim had a passion for automobiles as a boy. Drifting around between colleges and afterward, he earned his way as a mechanic. He got married. He was raised near Boston, but born in the Connecticut River Valley. In 1972 Jim came back to his birthplace. He bought acreage in the hill town of Ashfield, in an area of dirt roads and orchards. That summer he set up a tent on his land and built a house. He had no experience working in wood. He and his wife labored alone, one long summer, just they and a book, Rex Roberts's Your Engineered House.
In 1973, after serving that isolated apprenticeship, Jim turned pro. He went to work for a building contractor and learned the trade mostly by watching other carpenters.
Jim and another young settler in Apple Valley worked for the same contractor that year. Their boss's business looked doomed. Jim and the other young man took a job on their own, helping Alex Ghiselin renovate a house. Alex joined them in business. They persuaded a local architect to let them bid on a new house. Then Richard Gougeon came onto the team.
Richard had a different sort of pedigree from Jim's. "Jim and I," Richard says, "we come from completely different ends of the rope." But Richard, more than the other members of the partnership, has been Jim's alter ego, his improbable secret sharer.
Jim lacked interest in school. Richard was dyslexic. Richard worked hard at his books, but he could not read well enough to keep up. He flunked every grade through the tenth but was always passed on to the next. He finally got a chance to acquire some self-esteem when he was sent to a trade school. In twelfth grade there his classmates named him carpenter of the year. Jim had moved to the hills west of the Connecticut River. Richard was raised there. During most of his childhood he lived in a house trailer. His father's family came from Canada in the late 1800s. His father worked as a farmer, as a lumberjack, and as a repairer of equipment - - trucks, tractors, balers.
Richard is short, with a physique that would serve for socialist posters. His beard is full and black. He has a booming voice and usually keeps the volume turned up. His repertoire of laughter ranges from silent mugging, eyes wide and mouth shut as if on something inedible, to bellowing, head back on his shoulders - - it could bring down rain.
Like Jim, Richard built a house for his family in Apple Valley. He did so in his spare time, on nights and weekends, and mostly by himself. By the spring of 1974 he had reached the roof. On a Sunday morning his father came over to lend a hand. They were putting up the rafters when a car pulled in. A moment later there appeared over the top of the ladder a lithe stranger with a nailbag and hammer hung from his waist. That was how Richard first met Jim, when Jim came unasked to help with the roof.
In the years that followed, the partnership survived many squabbles. When they named themselves Apple Corps, after Apple Valley, some hill-town tradesmen smiled. This group sounded like another bunch of hippie carpenters. In fact, though all had built or renovated their own houses and Richard had practiced carpentry since tenth grade, none knew much about the business of contracting.
Apple Corps grew up together, as Richard says. Their skills evolved. Their business practices lagged behind. Contractors get wealthy in part by subcontracting out large pieces of a job, hiring unskilled labor for some aspects of it and semiskilled labor for others, and bringing in the crack carpenters at the end, for the things that show in a house. Even the best contractors cut corners, for the sake of reduced labor costs. Apple Corps always hired subcontractors for the plumbing and wiring, often for the heating and masonry, and sometimes for the painting, but they did the rest of the work themselves. Their reluctance to hire helpers meant that their overhead was low and they could underbid many other contractors. It also meant that they could build only one large or two small houses in a summer, which reduced their opportunities for profit. Although the practice made Richard shake his head (to him, it was a form of not minding your own business), they had turned down jobs once in a while, because they did not care to execute certain sorts of designs with certain kinds of materials. "I've never put on aluminum siding yet," Jim remarks, with evident satisfaction. They did no advertising to speak of, and you could not even find the company's name in the phone book. In the last good year of forty hour weeks each of the partners had earned about $20,000 in salary and profit, enough to live comfortably, but hardly enough to get rich. They had often talked about making more money, but collectively they had felt reluctant to change their ways.
In their ten years Apple Corps had laid hands on more than two hundred houses. They had left their mark on the countryside. They had gotten steady work solely through the recommendations of former customers and the good notices of tradesmen. Jim always hated the company name, but he felt proud of Apple Corps's accomplishments.
WITH Ned's and Richard's help, Jim came up with an estimate. The Souweines accepted his bid. But Bill had been given scarcely a month to invent a new house, and the plans Jim bid on, though nice-looking, were sketchy. The imagined house began to change. Jim, Bill, and the Souweines held many long meetings. During these, Judith made a study of Jim.
"Jim's of, you know, the same genre we are. But he's gone a different way. He made a conscious decision not to do what Jonathan's done. So all that makes it a little more complicated than if we'd hired another builder." Jim's apparent concern for the quality of her new house amazed Judith. She liked that side of Jim, but other traits she found slightly exasperating. Jim seemed reluctant to bargain, unwilling to enter the fray of commerce: "It's sort of naive, sort of purist Yankee." In fact rural Yankees once made a name for themselves as clever horse traders, but at some point, in the western hills at least, Yankee tradesmen gave up bargaining for the take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Judith considered the possibility that the slight discomfort she felt with Jim might stem from "an ethnic difference." She had known anti-Semitism, though, and she had not felt that from Jim. It would be odd if she had, because Jim's father is Jewish. Jim had no reason to mention that fact to Judith. Jim's friends describe his looks, accurately enough, as "Waspy." But Judith guessed right anyway. "It doesn't have to do with being Jewish or non-Jewish," she concluded. "It's a cultural-political difference."
ON a Monday in late April, Jim walks into Jonathan's office in Northampton carrying a zippered leather case wedged tightly under his arm. Any purse snatcher would know that something inside was worth caring about. The case contains Jim's final price for the house and, on many sheets of yellow legal paper, the history of that price. It started at $162,000. The Souweines subtracted the garage and half a dozen other expensive items. The price fell to about $139,000. It started back up again as the Souweines and Bill made new substitutions and additions. Jim's case contains the estimated cost of materials from Apple Corps's usual supplier; firm estimates on foundation work, plumbing, heating, wiring, painting, and insulating from Apple Corps's usual subcontractors; and Apple Corps's estimate of its members' own labor. Jim has put all those figures together and has added ten percent to the total, to cover overhead and profit and fear of miscalculation. He has come up with a hill-town Yankee's price. It is an exact looking figure, rounded to the nearest ten dollars.
From his last meeting with Jonathan, Jim knows that the Souweines hope for concessions on the price, but he's not sure that, even as it stands, it is high enough to cover the cost of this house and bring in a modest profit for Apple Corps. The builders have turned down all other jobs for this one, though. In planning this house Jim has invested at least two weeks' time, for which he hasn't yet been paid. Losing this job would rank among the large setbacks in Apple Corps's history. Jim feels nervous. He says so, rather nervously, to Judith and Jonathan.
Judith sits knitting in a chair in front of Jonathan's desk. She smiles at Jim and trades some small talk.
Just to build the house they want - - and never mind the purchase of the land - - Judith and Jonathan must borrow, at 13 percent interest, $100,000, the maximum that the local savings-and-loans will lend for house construction. To raise the remaining tens of thousands, whatever they come to exactly, the Souweines hope for a good and timely sale of their old house, and, of course, houses aren't always easy to sell. Jonathan hasn't lost much sleep over the money, but the sheer amount makes Judith nervous. She confesses later to an embattled feeling - - "It's us against the world, you know." The world is a troupe of unknown lumber dealers and workers, with a building contractor at their head. You turn everything over to a gang of people who don't really know you or have any reason to care about you. You turn over dreams, pride, and money. It's a frightening gamble. Judith and Jonathan don't intend to undertake it without some reassurances and some measure of control.
Jonathan hopes that Jim's final price will be around $142,000. He fears it will be more, and if it is, he'll ask Jim to lower it, if only to get proof that Jim will compromise with them. Judith is a trained psychologist, among other things. She can foresee an argument. The prospect doesn't frighten her. She smiles and knits. A button on the lapel of her blazer reads, GOOD CONTRACT GOOD EDUCATION, a token of the role she plays in negotiations elsewhere. If she feels at all nervous, it's well concealed in the thrust and parry of her needles.
They begin. "Okay, Judith, tell him," Jonathan says.
"I will really go crazy if I have to live with my father for a month. My sense was it was absolutely clear we'd be in by September first," Judith says to Jim. She smiles.
There's intimacy in this plea. Jim turns to her and leans in her direction. "What can I say? I can't build it any faster. I would like to do it sooner."
Evidently, Judith has resigned herself to October 31 -- after which, according to the contract, Apple Corps must, pay the Souweines $100 a day if the house isn't complete.
"Okay," Jonathan says, smiling at Jim. "How much are you going to build this house for?"
"I still don't have the prices on the window casings," Jim says. "My supplier let me down. He went to a banquet tonight. But in theory, with narrow casings, it's one hundred forty-six thousand six hundred and sixty. The reason I'm so nervous, I've been over and over this so many times I don't really understand the numbers anymore. My partner Richard looked at the plans today, and he said, 'It's okay, we can build it for that.' So I guess it's all right."
"What are the high points?" Judith asks. "What have we changed?" She knits. Jim extracts his yellow pad from his case and reads numbers, all the deletions they've made, all the additions.
"Does that make sense?" Jim asks.
No one speaks.
"Something bothers you?" Jim says to Jonathan.
Jonathan has been studying his own sheaf of yellow paper. He looks up abruptly, like a man awakening. "No," he says pleasantly.
Again there is silence. Again Jim breaks into it. "I have no idea how to value Bill's time," he says, referring to the architect. "I know I'd have had to do more drawings without him. I know I've been to more meetings than I ever have before, and I don't know if that's because of him. And on the other concerns you had, Jonathan, we just didn't add very much as a fudge factor in our original bid. Frankly, there are a couple of things we left out and we haven't put them back in. So I've allowed two hundred dollars for Bill's work, and that two hundred dollars is the only one of the things we talked about that I'm willing to remove."
Judith knits. Jonathan leans a contemplative elbow on his desk. Finally Judith speaks up. "You and I,"'she says to Jonathan, "I think we should talk about it."
Judith might just have fired a starter's gun. Jonathan jumps up. Judith arises. They vanish into another room.
Jim's price exceeds the one that Jonathan hoped for by several thousand dollars. Jonathan knows an estimate on something as large and complex as a house can't be as precise as Jim's figure suggests. To Jonathan, Jim's price begs for some negotiation. To Jim, the price represents hours and hours of honest addition and subtraction. For his part, Jonathan believes that Jim has been honest, and though disappointed, he's prepared to find the several thousand more than he'd hoped to have to pay, if Jim in turn will round the number down to the nearest thousand.
"I think he's gonna go nuts," Judith says. Jonathan stands firm. He just wants Jim to come down a little on the price, and she agrees Jim should.