The Garage-Mahal and other Manifestations of the Edifice Complex

     It is said that the acorn (a form of nut) does not fall far from the tree. There were 13 dentists in my extended family and might have been more if women had been treated more fairly during the prior century. My Uncle Harry was famous for designing surgical instruments. My father shared this trait, and I seem to have acquired it as well. My father was also a builder of houses and liked nothing more than to move enormous rocks to build a wall or a flight of stairs. As a youngster, I received a loving indoctrination into the mysteries of building with fieldstone, the use of tools of all sorts, but also how to prepare a wax bite for taking impressions. My most valuable legacy from my father was the belief that, by applying myself, I could acquire almost any manual skill.

     Having graduated from HSDM in 1968, I entered the MGH Oral Surgery residency training program as one of Walter Guralnick's first cohort of residents when he became Chief of Service. As a first-year resident, I moved into Ten Emerson Place in Charles River Park. Having, at the start of this adventure, no furniture of my own, I spent the first few nights sleeping on a rolled-up, dark blue carpet that I had bought with a suite-mate in Vanderbilt Hall. Within days, I started to acquire the first of an odd collection of "pre-owned" furniture, much of which persists in my current home. But it wasn't just furniture: I started to assemble the beginnings of what has to have been the only machine shop on the 25th floor of a high-rise apartment building. Early on, I semiconsciously appreciated a personal need to have avocational pursuits to act as a counterpoise to the demands of hospital life and the rigors of patient care at the MGH.

     As has been true for me from the earliest moments of sentient life, the potential for injuring other people has always made a more profound impression on me than the possibility of doing good. This was especially evident to me as a new resident, as was the fact that the technical aspect of surgery that held such allure for me was a source of anxiety for most patients. After hours, and what hours they were, one of the appealing attributes of a block of aluminum or a two-by-four was that, if you cut it the wrong way, you could select another piece and start again — not so with patients.

     I lived next door to the Hospital for eleven years, completing residency and a year of research, and returning to Medical School to become one of Dr. Guralnick's new breed of OMFS, with two degrees and the additional surgical training that this allowed. Having joined the staff of the Hospital, by the 11-year mark, I started having fantasies about moving CRP's sign, visible from the expressway, that says, "if you lived here you'd be home now" to a new position in front of the Charles Street Jail. I knew then it was time to find a new home and some absorbing new projects.

     I started to look for a house. I wanted to avoid a major commute. Like the third little pig, I wanted a stone or brick dwelling. I envisioned a place that was part dwelling and part work space for building or restoring furniture and machinery. I wanted a place that needed work that I could reconstruct to meet my needs. I anticipated spending perhaps five years redoing a building and then being able to start using my shop space in earnest. I had designs on a stone building in Charlestown near the Warren Tavern. I could have gotten a 99-year lease on it, but, in my thirties, that didn't sound like genuine ownership. The concept of ownership seemed more permanent and "real" at 25 than it does today, at 60.

     As if by magic, a "for sale" sign appeared on the wall of an alluring if down-on-its-luck brick building in Cambridge. I passed this building at least once a week on my way to my favorite surplus electronic and machinery outlet, Eli Heffron, and Sons. It had always called out to me for some reason having to do with the simple austerity of Federal style construction and its obvious need of sympathetic attention. In a rare moment of decisiveness, as soon as I saw the "for sale" sign, I made inquiries and entered into negotiations with the real estate agent representing the owner, a young architect who was driving a taxi to support himself and ready to move back to Brooklyn.

     In order to acquire the house, which I loved at first site despite its decrepitude, I had to simultaneously acquire, on the same lot, a larger wood-frame building housing a restaurant surmounted by four rent-controlled apartments. This was a daunting prospect, but I was hooked by the possibilities I saw in the brick building.

     I immediately moved in. Eleven years had seemed like a long time at CRP. I hardly gave that place a second thought once I transitioned to the "Nightmare on Elm Street" — now the "Elm Street Iron Works." The several decades I have lived there thus far have gone by like a shot. I was incredibly wrong in how long it would take me to "complete" the project. The adventure will enter its 24th year this spring, and there are some signs of at least reaching steady state with the impending completion of a studio space for my wife, Lisa.

     You may reasonably ask where does a family fit into this strange chronology?

     I never gave this subject much thought, but, at some point, it became obvious to me that I was spending an extraordinary amount of time and energy, like a chambered nautilus, building a well-constructed shell around myself while my contemporaries were engaged in raising families. I am sure my project seemed more predictable in a way — more under my personal control and therefore safer than, say, having a sixteen-year-old child with a learner's permit, the thought of which has always been sufficient to provoke a cold sweat.

     There is a long history of artists whose passionate, if not fanatical, absorption in creative enterprises can be interpreted as an antidote to depression. While neither as fanatical norElm Street Iron Works as depressed — nor as gifted — as some artists for whom the above is an apt characterization, I have come to accept that the same has generally been true for me.

     About 15 years ago, feeling as if I was walking through molasses while on vacation and with a disturbing loss of manual dexterity, I landed in my own hospital with neurological symptoms that were attributed to previously unsuspected but impressive high blood pressure — so-called "essential" hypertension. (What could be less essential than high blood pressure?)

     I was forced to conclude, lying on my back in the Phillips House, that, if I was going to have a reasonable future, I would need to change the trajectory of my life by altering my mode of interacting with the world and with myself. I was lucky to have two very close friends from my medical school class who where psychiatrists. I asked one of these friends to see me in the hospital and requested a referral to a therapist. I have since concluded that having a "coach" is a good permanent adjunct to the lives of some individuals, including myself.

     I have been extremely lucky in therapists and secretaries, having had two of each — all excellent. I have been even luckier in wives, having had just one of those. Thirteen years ago — ten years into house construction and two years into therapy — Lisa and I got married, whereupon she assumed the demanding post of Chief Resident in what then became the "Elm Street Iron Works . . . and Pet Emporium."

     As smart as it was to marry Lisa, almost as smart as that was staking out a generous portion of the house as shop space before getting married. Lisa claims that one of the most touching things I did when we got married was to actually empty out an entire closet for her. The wonder of that event has worn off over the ensuing years. She also says that the decision to welcome a new refrigerator to our kitchen was harder for me than the decision to get married. My idea of a refrigerator at the time was a 1930's GE Monitor Top. Some progress along these lines have been made as exemplified by the studio space we are currently completing for Lisa — arguably the nicest space in the house. Lisa says that the house was my way of screening women to find out who could "take a joke."

     In doing clinical research — especially retrospective chart reviews — the disappointing thing is all the useful data that no one thought to record at the time. Although I have a large volume of photographic material relating to the house, the gaps in my documentation of key stages of construction is shocking in retrospect. In the heat of the action it proves difficult to remember to stop, clean up and get the camera. Similarly, it is hard to maintain a conscious overview of a building project as history, especially if a point of the exercise is a certain form of willed obliviousness regarding externalities.

     In my Freshman Mechanical Engineering Seminar at MIT, we spend part of a session discussing what is gained or lost in expressing a thought while adhering to the discipline of a particular poetic form — a sonnet in Iambic pentameter, for example — as opposed to expressing that thought in prose. The point hopefully gets made that the discipline adhered to is an essential element in what is created — not just a stricture. Similarly in engineering, the creative process involves adherence to disciplines regarding factors such as size, weight, energy consumption, choice of materials, etc.

     What were the voluntary disciplines adopted in the building of the Garage-Mahal?
  •    Rapid elimination of a mortgage.
  •    Paying for the project "out of pocket," as much as possible.
  •    Recycling of old building materials and architectural elements.
  •    The avoidance of new, store-bought stuff as much as possible.
  •    Leaning towards time in the inverse relationship between time vs. cost of construction.
  •    Novel use of found objects obtained from salvage yards.
  •    Humor in the sense of juxtaposition of the incongruous.
  •    An insistence that participants in the work be friends, even if on the payroll.
  •    Doing as much of the "interesting" work myself, i.e., "artistic control."
  •    Not asking anyone to do stuff I wouldn't do myself. (Couldn't is another story, especially as regards painting.)
  •    Shameless overbuilding as regards strength. (Fighting a sense of impermanence. Building a legacy.)
  •    Incorporation of sunlight, plants and color.
  •    Comfort: A living space should not intimidate its guests but should welcome them. A living space should encourage creativity.
  •      Would I do it all over again?

         I am very aware of having some spectacular imperfections as a human being, but my judgment about my life is greatly influenced by where I find myself at age 60. So here I am, before an audience of peers, colleagues, present and past students and mentees, my wife and numerous friends. There are many things I could have done better — especially in my relationships with other people — if I had had more wisdom, better skills or knew then what I know now. Basically, I like where I find myself and might not be as well situated for the ensuing years if I had followed a different path.

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