Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: The Barn House by Ed Zotti

A month ago, I received a copy of The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber (2008, New American Library) by Ed Zotti. Zotti is editor of the popular syndicated column, The Straight Dope. If you're familiar with that column then you won't be surprised that Mr. Zotti has created a book full of humor*, wisdom, research, and sharp social commentary.

Being a fan of architectural history; especially when it comes to residential buildings, this book is right up my alley. With this book, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I ended up with was a personal account of a house renovation, but also a history of the urbanization and eventual gentrification of a neighborhood in Chicago. I was introduced to new concepts given name by Zotti, such as the City Guy Network and the Brotherhood of the Right Way (actually a particular gender didn't seem to be a requirement for membership in either group, it was just a naming thing).

The Brotherhood of the Right Way is a group that, according to Zotti, shares a simple belief that "there is a right way to do everything, and one's task in life was merely to determine what the right way was, and to do it." Therefore, a quick half-assed solution is not considered sufficient. I can definitely agree with that group's philosophy.I really enjoyed this book; however, my only drawback is its lack of photos. Zotti describes in detail his decrepit but hidden gem of a house, noting its quality wood, craftsmanship, and quirky original design decisions. He has a gift of making the original materials used in the house sound wonderful in their opulence and yet, no pictures. These are things you want to see. I personally would have loved to see the faulty and curious renovations past owners with inadequate budgets and huge rehab dreams made and he had to fix. His descriptions are excellent for someone familiar with plan drawings and house construction; however, for the beginner rehabber or a first-time home owner (whom I assume are his audience) the descriptions may not be enough.

As a good companion piece to Barn House, I suggest a favorite book of mine, Erik Larson's 2003 novel, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, Madness, and the Fair that Changed America. It's not necessarily in the same vein (One book is about a personal home rehab and the growth of a city, the other is about the growth of a city and a serial killer) but if want two books that give you a feeling that Chicago has and always will be a city to watch, then these tomes won't steer you wrong. What they have in common is a mix of fiction, fact, and history, both architectural and city of Chicago.

In the end, Barn House seemed almost as much a study of the growth and changes in Chicago as it was a home owner's diary of a hard-won rehab project. In fact, this book makes living in Chicago seem so appealing I almost forgot about the double-digit snowfalls and how much I HATE the cold. Good work, Mr. Zotti!

Important Note*This is one book where you don't want to skip the footnotes!

Illustration: Charlie Friedlander

1 comment:

day-lab Blog said...

sounds good...gonna have ti add that to my list! :)