One man's idea on how to move up in the world

Almost by definition, tower builders are dreamers. They make things up as they go along.

In completing his dream project - a lookout tower on a secluded property in Maine - Bill Henderson says he had no texts to guide him. Instead, he relied constantly on what he calls "intuitive engineering."

The problem, he says, is you don't know until later if you have intuited correctly. He's grateful that the tower he built - with its castoff kitchen table and chairs, corduroy recliner, and squeaky bed - shows no signs of toppling.

Mr. Henderson's account of building makes for an unusual, introspective book: "Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction" (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). The paperback edition is expected in bookstores in mid-April.

Sprinkled throughout are paeans to various other towers: the Eiffel Tower, Tower of Pisa, Thoor Ballylee (Yeats's summer retreat), and Henry Lueher's rustic tower, dubbed the Pettitbone Pagoda, in Pettibone, N.D., among others.

This latter landmark (destroyed by high winds in 1999) has special appeal for Henderson, as do the famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles, all of which speak to Henderson's sense of ingenuity and economy.

Lueher's eight-story tower was begun from grain-elevator rubble. The three lacy spires Sam Rodia built over many years in Watts were crafted from steel reinforcing rods and wire mesh, and decorated with seashells, broken glass, and porcelain.

Henderson calls Rodia's creations "the ultimate backyard tower construction" and the tallest structures ever made by one man, topping out at 99-1/2 feet.

While inspired by Rodia's example, Henderson's vision was much more modest (a boxy, two-story hideaway with a rooftop lookout). He lists every expenditure, from tar paper to joist hangers, and calculates his total materials at $2,234.54.

A creative writer and small-time publisher, Henderson lives in what he calls the working-class section of East Hampton, N.Y. There, at the local dump, he was able to scavenge for windows, doors, and furniture as he planned his tower.

Thermal-pane doors, for instance, are often discarded because many don't slide properly, he says.

Whatever "finds" Henderson made at the dump and yard sales were transported to the Maine coast, where his family enjoys a summer cottage he built during an earlier carpentry fling.

After completing the cottage and writing his memoirs, Henderson got an itch to build again and purchased a parcel of land across Eggemoggin Reach in Sedgwick, well up the Maine coastline from his cottage.

Building the tower, he realized, might not seem the most sensible way to spend his summer weekends, but he found priceless personal rewards in doing so. Mostly, it renewed his spirit, lifting the mental clouds that hung over his marriage, faith, and concern for friends.

Henderson calls himself a two-time loser at organized religion, but his spiritual journey is aided by the utter joy he takes in building the simple way, without power tools and almost no help.

For the most part, a rope to hoist and hold boards in place was his only pal on a blissfully lonely job site.

He was forced to hedge his "no machines" rule only a little. When the rocky ground resisted his hole-digging efforts, a backhoe operator was called in.

Even the backhoe operator, however, wasn't able to reach the four-foot depth needed to sink poured-cement foundation posts below the frost line.

In dealing with this dead end, Henderson returned to his job site one weekend to discover another reason for re-siting his tower. Just 20 feet away, to his surprise, a neighbor had begun building a retirement home.

Not wanting the neighbor's upstairs bedroom to interrupt his view of mountains and ocean, Henderson moved operations onto an almost flat sheet of granite elsewhere on his 1.78 acres.

This time he managed to secure three corners of his 10-by-12-foot, lumber-built foundation using J-bolts driven into the granite.

The site, atop Christy Hill, could hardly be better. At 400 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest points along the East Coast, and reportedly the peak of a partially submerged mountain.

But a spectacular view is no prerequisite for would-be tower builders. As Sam Rodia's life work illustrates, Henderson says, any backyard will do.

Supposedly Rodia didn't apply for a building permit, maybe because he didn't know what he was going to build.

Henderson had the advantage of building in Sedgwick, where he says the "only job of local government is to keep hands off." In gaining approval, he needed to agree to just one vague stipulation, namely that he someday build a 1,000-square-foot house on the lot.

Where the bureaucratic hurdles are greater, Henderson suggests submitting understandable but not overly precise plans. Calling your project a studio - a tall studio, not a tower - also might make it more palatable to neighbors and zoning board members.

"Studio carries a tone of seriousness, culture, and the rest," he says. "People like that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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