Right up the road, in Rockport, an under-the-radar museum is the enduring marvel of engineering, with newspapers.
Visitors and residents alike are familiar with the dramatic perimeter drive around Rockport’s gale-bitten granite coastline. But for those who head away from the ocean at Pidgeon Cove mark and turn into the Cape’s interior lands—peppered with charming historic homes along granite walled streets and quarries—there’s a surprising stop that’s quick and rewarding: The Paper House.
The “museum,” such as it is, can easily take less than 15 minutes to whip through, stem to stern. And at a suggested $2 donation per person, that’s not a bad deal. But, heck, you’re there anyway so go ahead and double your time and learn why this place is considered one of the more unique and quirky historical destinations in the US as cited in Atlas Obscura, Trip Advisor, and Roadside America.
The Paper House, you see, was constructed in the 1920s almost entirely from newspapers. That’s right. Newspapers.
Well, if you want to get technical, the estimated 700-sq cottage has a porch, a wooden frame and a traditional roof. Beyond that, it diverges from convention.
Designed and built as a summer cottage, the house took more than eight long years by Elis F. Stenman, a mechanical engineer. The home’s sheer existence a century after it was built is testament to Stenman’s imagination and stick-to-itiveness. Ever the engineer, Stenman created a special tool to help roll newspaper sections into tight logs, only applying an adhesive made from flour, water, and apple peelings at the very end of the process to bind each roll. Then he stacked, gummed, and applied each log between the framing, creating a relatively tight, and certainly durable exterior and interior walls.
An immigrant from Sweden, Stenman apparently read three newspapers a day and, not surprisingly, he hated waste. After beginning the project in 1924 word must have gotten out because neighbors and friends offered their newspapers to help him out. By 1927 the house had already become a curiosity and Stenman opened it up to visitors.
The house completed, Stenman continued and tackled furniture for the home that can still be seen today. Furniture includes a table and chairs, lamps, a settee, all made in an octagonal motif. (For those who have visited Historic New England’s Sleeper McCann House on Eastern Point, this furniture design may evoke Henry Davis Sleeper’s “Octagon Room,” also designed in the 1920s and overlooking Gloucester Harbor).
Moving on, there is also a desk, make of the Christian Science Monitor, a cot containing papers saved since World War I, a piano covered in paper rolls, a radio cabinet made in 1928 during Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign, and a writing desk make of newspaper editions covering Col. Charles Lindberg’s historic flight across the Atlantic. Continuing the “one piece of furniture, one newspaper” theme, there’s a bookshelf make of solely foreign newspapers, a grandfather’s clock made of newspapers from the capital cities of the then 48 states, and a fireplace mantel made of the lifestyle sections of the Boston Sunday Herald and the New York Herald Tribune.
In the end, approximately 100,000 copies of newspapers were used in the construction of the house and furniture.
Today, the Stenman family still owns the house and continues to offer it up to visitors every day from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., from April to October.
Between the home and the furniture, this project took 20 years of Stenman’s life, and it was certainly not in vain. After all, his little cottage made of sheets of newsprint has endured quite well over the last century, with its countless Nor’easters and blistering summer heatwaves.
That’s saying a lot, Mr. Stenman.
The Paper House
52 Pidgeon Hill St. | Rockport
Open daily 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. from April to October
$2 donation (and more if you like)