House

The story of a young couple on a tight budget, an architect determined to excel, and four carpenters devoted more to craftmanship than to profit
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THE house looks like adjacent boxes, one large, one small, a child's outsized building blocks, with many rectangular holes in the plywood walls. To Bill Rawn, though, it is a new reality. Bill has made other inspections while Apple Corps was building, but the house lacked shape the last time he saw it. Now Bill can see the refined adult in the gawky child, and he is so moved he can hardly speak at first.

Bill and Judith stand gazing at the south wall from the field above - the Wiffle Ball field, Judith and Jonathan call it, though in spite of their efforts it is as much sand as grass and what grass there is has grown crunchy underfoot.

"Don't you think when you get it all lined up, it starts being a little special?" Bill says to Judith, in a deep voice on the verge of cracking.

"Bill, don't be defensive," Judith says. "It's very nice."

Jim shows them around inside. Some of the partitions, the ones that help to bear the weight of the second floor, are in place. There are, as Ned has remarked, lots of places to hide in now. In the dappled sunlight that comes down into the roofless house, the uncovered lumber turns golden and light orange. Apple Corps has not yet built a rough staircase, so the party ascends to the second story on a ladder. "This is totally unbelievable," Judith says when she gets to the top. "Jonathan got up here and said we had to put the principal room up here. Maybe I'll move up here."

"It really is an extraordinary view," Bill says.

The house has risen above some treetops. From the second floor they can see Castor and Pollux again. Those landmark maples have been invisible since the leaves came out. You can see the towers of the University of Massachusetts and, off to the east, the gently rolling woodland that stretches out most of the way to Worcester.

SUMMER heat arrives amd so does the roof, one day in the second week of June. The roof comes in the form of another huge pile of lumber that makes the lumberyard's truck look small. It is to be a very sturdy concoction, with triangular gussets of plywood nailed and glued as fasteners between rafters and collar ties.

Hanging off their ladders, the carpenters bolt sidewall brackets made of oak through the plywood walls and into the studs behind. Onto the brackets they heave new planks, making an open walkway along the top of the house's walls. Each plank spans the distance between two brackets, and at each intersection the end of one plank rests on the top of the end of another, making for a two-inch-deep step. Working on this scaffold, feeling their way along it without looking down, the carpenters encounter these small steps again and again. Always the step comes unexpectedly. It's a momentary free fall of two inches. They flinch and grimace and go on.

They set up ladders side by side, between ground and scaffold. Two men ascend in unison, on separate ladders, each holding an end of a piece of lumber. Two mcn up top on the scaffold take the boards from them. A chant begins: "Pain!" "Gimme more pain!"

"Ned and I got a system," Richard says to Alex, as Alex reaches the scaffold once again.

"I am glad," Alex said.

"Part of it's hollerin'" Richard says.

They trade roles. Those who play the ladder men request greater diligence in bending down from the receivers up top. The receivers demand improvements in speed from the ladder men, and every so often one of them asks, "You couldn't get a hoist, eh, Jim?" In this way, piece by piece, the huge lumber pile ascends. They nail the collar ties in place, on the plates that rest on top of the two long walls. They nail and glue the gussets to the collar ties one morning. That afternoon they make the angled cuts on the upper ends of the rafters, using a drawing on the kitchen floor as a template. On the following day roof-raising commences.

It is a Friday. Jim is supposed to set out for Cape Cod with his family. He's supposed to take the day off, but he comes by the site that morning anyway and helps his partners carry up the rafters.

They are very merry, and merrier after lunch, as they erect the first rafters and sections of ridgeboard, the horizontal timber that defines the peak of the roof. Richard and Jim stand on sawhorses, holding up the ridgeboard. Ned nails rafters to the ridge on one side, Alex on the other. They secure the rafters' outer ends to the gussets. The stout rafters of Douglas fir, which are pink like fillets of salmon, make a widening tent above them.

"I feel real good about this detail," Ned says, running a hand over one of the plywood gussets.

"A lot of these old roofs were way underbuilt," says Richard, restorer of old houses. "Not this one, though. And this house is framed to the thirty-second of an inch, right to the ridge."

In fact, the rafters meet the ridgeboard nearly perfectly. Richard stops nailing to say, "We should do like they do with a sports car, with a gold plaque that tells how fast it's gone. We should have a little gold plaque in the attic: Framed to a Thirty-second."

A voice calls from below. It's Judith. "'Lo," Richard says, looking down from the eastern edge of the building.

"Ooh la la," Judith says. "It's wonderful. It looks like a house. "

"We'll have you in by Easter," Richard says.

"Oh, great," she calls back. "But we don't celebrate Easter. How 'bout Passover?"

"Okay. Just give me a few Easter eggs," Richard says.

"We don't want to push you," Judith says. "We'll just be in our tent all that time."

When Judith leaves, Richard muses, "If we don't get done until next Easter, it'll cost us a lot of money." He's thinking of those hundred-dollar-a-day penalties for not being done by the end of October.

"Yup," Alex says. "They'll have it for just about free."

"Well, think of it, Alex," Richard says. "Today we're working for free."

"Because it's such a nice day?"

"No," Richard says. "Because we were supposed to finish the roof yesterday."

Ned laughs. Alex laughs. They are very merry today.

Apple Corps has always attached a bough from an evergreen tree to the roof of a new house frame. "We do it," Richard says, "because someone else did it before us." Ned can't remember anyone following the custom when he worked for his father in Pennsylvania. He began to follow it when he got to New England, and for the same reason that Richard did - other, older builders did it. To Ned, the custom feels right. He does not know just what to choose. He counts the Douglas fir among the noblest of trees, but it grows only out west. The house is too cosmopolitan in wood to make this job easy. The white pine, though, is New England's tallest, most elegant and precious softwood. Ned takes a white-pine bough from the woods beside the brook and carries it up the ladder.

Ned wears a pair of black combat boots, shorts with ragged hems, and nothing else. He has gone bronze in the sun. He stands on tiptoes on the scaffold under the ridge and reaches up toward the top of the house, the greenery in one hand, his hammer in the other. Reaching up with difficulty, frozen for a moment against pink rafters and blue sky, Ned is statuary in the heroic tradition.

"A good day," Alex says. "Fun times. Much more fun than putting tar on the foundation wall."

Casting backward glances, they amble over to Jules's driveway. "This is going to be one stately-looking house," Richard says. "It's going to be wonderful." They stare up at the roof. The house, a box this morning, now looks very tall. It begins, as Bill would say, to stand with its shoulders up. "This is neat," Richard goes on. "I never thought I'd get a chance to build a house with all the stuff this one's going to have on it. It's like building a thirty-two Ford, you know?"

Ned laughs. "Ah, Richard."

They stare at it a while longer.

"A proud building," Ned says.

All the way down the driveway, they glance back over their shoulders at what they have built.

APPLE corps usually collaberated with customers on designs, and the carpenters liked to build that way. To imagine, then to build - - there's a roundness to that kind of work that's pleasing. The carpenters liked the intimacy and the friendliness that sometimes came from serving people with their ideas about houses as well as with their manual skills. Building was never quite the same with an architect involved. Apple Corps made plenty of mistakes all on their own, of course, but somehow those weren't as memorable as the ones that architects caused.

Chatting in his kitchen with Sandy and a friend one day, Jim says, "When you see a house written up in The New York Times Magazine, they usually give the name of just the architect and the owner, and I think the builder has every right to be pissed off." Jim leans against his kitchen counter. "The thing about the architect is, the architect is sort of the artist, and the practical person who works with his hands always disdains the architect. Why should a guy be able to make a living doing that, just because his head works in a different way? But there are these things that Bill should know, and I have to come up with them."

Jim raises his voice slightly. "I've got to bring reality to the Souweines. He brings them the pretty pictures. I bring that." Jim smacks his fist into his open palm. "I've got to bring them that." He punches his hand once more. "And that," he says, and then he smiles.

AFTERWARD, when the affair of the frieze board has run its course, each party will give a different accounting. Apple Corps will blame Bill, who will mildly blame Jim, and Judith and Jonathan will blame both Bill and Jim. They could as easily conjure up a trickster god who oversees construction sites. Jim plans to put on the shingles once the roof is framed, so Jim gives Bill "a reprieve" on some of the drawings, including the drawing of the cornice.

The Souweines, meanwhile, have begun again to worry that the design of their house has grown excessively distinctive. Jonathan stands in the driveway, looking up at the frame of the house. "Enough is enough. It has a taste of a Greek temple. Fine. But it's not a Greek temple, and we're not Greeks." He and Judith have resolved to put red shingles on their roof. "That gives it a little color, a little fun, in what could be a pretentious house," Jonathan says. He thinks the red roof will resemble a necktie, he says. He owns a few ties with generous amounts of color in them. He grins.

But New Englanders, Jim learns to his slight surprise, have not taken to red shingles. No one has them in stock. Apple Corps will have to wait, and in the meantime, the only thing they can do is build the cornice, the trim that will go just below the roof. So they start on it about a week earlier than Jim had intended.

Jim drives to his favorite lumberyard in Amherst to buy pine boards for the cornice. He goes to that yard partly because they let him choose his wood himself. The specifications call for number-two pine on the exterior, which generally means white pine with knots in it. There are knots and there are knots, though. Dead knots, roots of branches that died before the tree did, tend to fall out of a board. Knots left by living branches will bleed through paint, but you can treat them for that, and they won't fall out. Knotless, number-one pine for the cornice would cost at least $1,000 extra. The Souweines seem strapped for cash now. Jim feels sure that Jonathan wouldn't spring for number-one pine, so he doesn't bother to ask. Jim does spend over an hour, in the lumberyard's fragrant hangar full of wood, searching through piles of pine, rejecting every board with dead knots in it, except for one. He can't find any more boards without dead knots, so he has to take one that has them, and he decides to make that board symbolic. He looks it over and addresses this remark to it, as he loads it on his pickup: "There, Jonathan, there's your six hundred and sixty dollars."

Jonathan has been telling Bill that he has to get the remaining drawings out to Amherst much faster than he has been doing. Bill is now searching for an assistant, but somehow he finds the time to draw the cornice in detail. The drawing makes it plain that two wide frieze boards are supposed to be built out three and a half inches from the wall. Jim picks up the drawing of the cornice on the morning that Apple Corps begins to build it.

Jim and Richard feel stumped about how to build one detail of the cornice that every drawing has included. The problem has to do with the application of some crown molding to the eaves. Jim and Richard spend an hour of that morning crouched on the kitchen floor, trying to solve the problem. Preoccupied with the crown molding, Jim does not think about the frieze. He thinks he knows Bill's intentions for that detail. Jim does not consult the new drawings, the ones he just picked up at the bus station. They sit inside his leather case, over in a corner.

They've built the cornice and the red shingles have arrived when Jim calls Jonathan to talk about the stairs. Jim mentions, by the way, that they've improved on a feature of Bill's plan. The improvement has to do with the crown molding on the eaves.

Jonathan doesn't know exactly what Jim's talking about, but he does not like the sound of it. Neither does Judith.

Back when they got stumped over Bill's drawing for that molding, Richard declared, "That isn't proper." He decided to apply the crown molding differently, the way the old-timers used to, a modification that cost Apple Corps about $30 - a small price for propriety. A few weeks later, passing by an old house in his truck, Richard stops and, looking up, sees that very same molding applied in just the way that Bill had specified. "Whoops."

The crown molding is a false issue, though. Troubled by Jim's call, Jonathan phones Bill and tells him he'd better come to Amherst soon. Bill must visit anyway, to talk to Jim about redesigning the staircase.

A tall wooden ladder leans against the high staging on the front end of the house. It wobbles as Jim climbs. Bill follows, looking slightly nervous. He stares at the crown molding. He shrugs. "It's different than what I expected," he tells Jim. "I don't have a lot of problems with it."

When Bill drove up to the house, he noticed the knots in the cornice right away. He decided not to think of them again. Too many other potentially explosive subjects already lay between him and Jim. Every time he has glanced up at the house, though, Bill has seen those little round black spots, like pox on the crisply installed trim beneath the roof. After a while, when Bill looks at the house he can see hardly anything but knots, and he can't contain his worry.

"I assume there's no problem with knots in the trim wood?"

Jim looks up with widened eyes.

"I wondered why we didn't have clearer pine," Bill adds.

"Because it isn't in the contract," Jim says. He explains the issue as he sees it. Then Judith comes over and the meeting ends.

It's late. The other carpenters have left. Jim heads for his truck. "Are we okay, Jim?" Bill calls.

"I don't know what you mean by 'okay,"'Jim replies. He adds, "I'm just in a hurry. I'm not upset."

Then it's just Judith and Bill, in front of the shell of the house in the bright summer evening.

Judith says that she fears they must write a change order for the master bathroom's fixtures.

Bill grasps her arm and lays his head upon her shoulder for a moment, a contortionist's trick for big Bill to perform with little Judith, and he says, "Look, my friend, if that's the only change order that comes out of today's conversation, you'll be lucky."

Bill tells her about the knots. She says, "They did an awfully nice job." "Oh, yeah!" Bill says, with feeling. But those knots are driving him crazy, he tells her.

"There's some things you can worry about, but I think it's a little late for this one," she says. Bill tells her clear pine would cost $1,000 extra. She says, "Forget it, Bill." In a moment she leaves him standing there, in front of the skeleton of his first house.

Didn't the contract call for clear pine? Bill asks himself. He stares up at the cornice and laughs a short, deep, sorrowful laugh. "Funny how something like that can really get to you. Boy! I'm really..." Bill knows those knots will bleed through the paint. He's always thought of knots that show as a sign of general shoddiness. He suspects that the contract doesn't call for clear pine. He has always specified it on buildings in the past, on occasions when wooden trim was involved. "I'm surprised I didn't catch that."

Bill gazes up at the cornice, and suddenly he looks puzzled. He walks backward, away from the house, all the way back to the Wieners' woodpile. He tilts his head, for a slightly sidelong view. He makes his hand a visor for his eyes, and he says softly, "I always thought it came out a couple of inches from the face of the house." He stares. "It's..." He laughs. Then he groans, "Ohhhhhh," like someone desperate for bed.

The frieze, one of the most important elements in Bill's synthesis of Greek Revival, lies flat against the house, a broad band extending out just the thickness of the boards that make up the frieze. Those boards are only slightly thicker than the clapboards that will lie below them. The frieze won't stand out to meet the eye. It won't create the proper look at all. "It just doesn't seem substantial enough. "

Bill gazes. He groans. He tries out reassurance. "It'll look a lot better." But he adds, "It better. Because it looks really weak right now." He laughs, and it sounds like an echo from an old well. "You pour so much of your soul into it," he says. "It's very different from most fields. There are so many vagaries that can change things and explain why it didn't come out in exactly the form of your vision." Bill stands beside the Wieners' woodpile, staring up in the evening light at the tall, elegantly proportioned skeleton. Standing in that same spot ten days ago, Ned called the building "proud." Bill says, "It's so funny, because every time I look at this house now, all that I can see is the frieze."

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