Wednesday, February 09, 2011

BC2011: The Barn House

In this book, Ed Zotti, best known as editor of "The Straight Dope", recounts his efforts to restore a century-old house to its former glory. Though subtitled "Confessions of an Urban Rehabber", it isn't merely about fixing up a house. Zotti devotes many pages to higher level musings about why people like city living and how cities have bounced back from decline in the past couple of decades (he and his wife purchased the house in 1993, and The Barn House came out in 2008). Parts read like a love story, whether addressed to Chicago, the house, or the process of rehabbing. Zotti weaves humor as well as scholarly information into the narrative.

Although our home is a bit newer (circa World War I), we have had similar adventures over the last 12 years. I would have liked this book if that was all we had in common. But because Zotti is writing about Chicago, I loved it. In fact, he's practically a neighbor; his house is less than 1.5 miles from ours. The period he describes corresponds to the years I've lived in the city, so I've seen the same changes. These factors made reading The Barn House a very personal experience for me. It made me realize that for all that I may complain about the weather, corruption, traffic, politics, etc., Chicago is not only my home, it's the place I want to be. I'm not worthy of being part of what Zotti calls the "city-guy mafia" (people who get things done), but I am a city guy through and through.

Aside from a few diagrams of electrical wiring, The Barn House is not a "how-to" book. Zotti takes on certain rehabbing tasks and farms out others based on his available time and money. The book's broader perspective makes it useful reading for would-be rehabbers. Not only are Zotti's mistakes and successes instructive, but he shares insight into the stress and strain on family and finances caused by such an undertaking. Ultimately, The Barn House is also a pep talk. By placing the micro-level project of rehabbing a house in the context of reviving a city, he reminds us how our individual efforts collectively achieve great things.


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