Mr. and Mrs. Elis Stenman Inside Their Paper House, circa 1932

In 1922, Elis F. Stenman, a mechanical engineer living in Cambridge, and his wife Esther bought land in the Pigeon Cove section of Rockport to build a summer house. They had been fascinated by a trend to use newspaper for insulation and even for construction and decided to try it themselves. In 1924, they had a carpenter erect a frame and lay a wooden floor. Then Stenman went to work, wrapping sheets of newspaper around a piece of thin wire and rolling them into tight, stiff rods. He used those to fill out the frame and then made walls out of 215 sheets of paper glued together. He finished the house with shingles constructed of paper and thick layers of varnish to protect it from the weather.

The Paper House today

Then came the furniture. There is a piano made from newspaper reports of Admiral Byrd’s South and North Pole expeditions. There is a writing desk made entirely of newspapers reporting on Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic. There is a radio cabinet made entirely of reports of Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign and election. There is a grandfather clock made of newspapers from the capital cities of each state in the U.S. There is a fireplace made from the rotogravure sections of the Boston Sunday Herald and the New York Herald Tribune. And there are a table, chairs, lamps, settee and desk made from the Christian Science Monitor.

All tolled, some 100,000 newspapers went into the construction of the house and furniture.

The house quickly became such a popular tourist attraction that the Stenmans moved to a second house down the street and operated the Paper House as a museum. It remains one today. Mr. Stenman told a newspaper reporter in 1932 that he had received thousands of offers to sell his furniture, but that he never would. The furniture represented his life’s work, he explained, and meant far more to him than mere money.

Stenman died in 1942 at the age of 68. In 1956, the Boston Globe featured a story about Esther Stenman, who was then 80. The article talked about the seeming indestructibility of the house, which has withstood fierce winters and strong hurricanes. Mrs. Stenman said that they never even worried about fire during the four years they occupied the house. “We always used our fireplace in the winter to heat the rooms.”

This postcard shows the Stenmans inside the house, with Mrs. Stenman sitting at the desk made from the Christian Science Monitor. The postcard has no date. I estimate it is from around 1932-1934.

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One Response to Mr. and Mrs. Elis Stenman Inside Their Paper House, circa 1932

  1. coffeecup says:

    The last time I was there was 20 years ago and I always liked the curtains for they were made from Life, Look and other colorful magazines. Most of the room is black and white colors but the curtains are multicolored. A cozy little place to visit.

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