Monday, December 11, 2023

Happiness Was An Octagon

Eight sides to hold you.

The Alpheus Winterborn house in Hoosac, Minnesota, is best-remembered for being eight-sided (as seen in The Treasure of Alpehus Winterborn, 1978).  So was the Pendleton-Alexander House in John Bellairs's native Marshall, Michigan, and – well, there used to be a lot of eight-sided houses across the United States.  Eight-sided buildings are in Europe, too, and I've mentioned a few of those (mainly the Tower of the Winds and the Temple of the Winds). The Bellairsia site published the below article several years ago, and I'm re-introducing it again now.  

Happiness Was an Octagon

by John I. White
American Vignettes:  A Collection of Footnotes of History
Travel Vision, A Division of General Drafting Co., Inc.
©1976

One of America’s most bizarre architectural fads was the octagon house.  Hundreds of these odd structures were built more than a century ago and, strangely enough, even though you may never have heard of an eight-sided dwelling, there probably are a hundred or so still standing today, and furnishing quite adequate, if unusual shelter for the owners.

Aside from their unconventional shape, perhaps the most curious thing about these houses was the fact that the craze for them was sparked not by an architect, but by a New York City phrenologist, Orson Squire Fowler.  For those who have forgotten or those who haven’t heard about it, phrenology was once an extremely popular method of character analysis and vocational guidance based on a study of the shape and protuberances of the human head.

Orson Fowler, a graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts, was conducting a thriving business lecturing and writing books on the pseudo-science when, at the age of forty, he took up home designing as a sideline.  Already an extremely popular writer, in 1848 he opened new worlds to his readers with a book setting forth very persuasively the alleged advantages of octagon-house living.  He titled it A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.  At about the same time he set an example for his followers by embarking on the construction of a huge four-story octagonal mansion at Fishkill, New York, incorporating his own advanced ideas.

Shortly thereafter, while on a lecture tour of Wisconsin, Fowler discovered another innovative builder, named Joseph Goodrich, who had constructed a house whose outside walls were formed of a mixture of water, lime, gravel and sand that hardened like rock and consequently was fireproof and ratproof.  Fowler immediately applied this principle to his own Fishkill project, pouring a substance resembling concrete into wooden forms.  Then in 1853, coincident with the completion of his house, he brought out a revised edition of his book with the updated title:  A Home for All, or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building.

The “gravel wall” portion of Fowler’s crusade attracted relatively few converts.  Perhaps handling a heavy, sloshy mixture on a large scale was too difficult for the average do-it-yourselfer of the 1850’s.  But the eight-sided house, which Fowler claimed as his own invention, was a far different story; they were built in the East, in the Midwest and even in far-off San Francisco.  By the time the great man had moved into the Fishkill mansion that was to serve as headquarters for his phrenology lecturing and book publishing business, Fowler fans were busily building brick, stone and wooden octagons, using plans for various sized dwellings used in his books.

The main rooms in these far-out structures did not have peculiar shapes, as one might suppose, but usually were rectangular.  Leftover triangular shapes became closets, kitchens, bathrooms, and stair spaces.  In the grander octagons, a circular stairway occupied the center of the house, extending from the ground floor to a glass-enclosed cupola on the roof, the latter a distinguishing feature of most octagon houses.

In addition to plugging the gravel wall and the octagon shape in his book, author Fowler expounded on virtually every phase of home building.  For example, he urged separate sleeping rooms for children.  His advice which follows seems as good today as when he wrote it.

Sleeping by themselves is also a first-rate plan both for health, and to prevent their imbibing anything wrong from other children; nor are their slumbers disturbed by a restless bed fellow.  Nor do they keep each other awake nights, or in bed mornings, by talking.  In fact, many most desirable ends does this plan subserve—at least enough to require its adoption by every parent who can afford it.

Where money was no problem, he had this suggestion for the home builder.

Most desirable, in every really good house, is a play-room for children, a gymnastic room for females, and a dancing-room.

Fowler was all for compact houses, for both functional and aesthetic reasons.

Wings on houses are not quite in as good taste as on birds.  How would a little apple or peach look stuck on each side of a large one?  Yet winged houses are just as disjointed and out of taste.

At the end of his book Fowler conceded that some might no care for his “gravel wall” construction.  So he offered an interesting substitute which he called “board wall” construction to contrast it with the usual method of framing a house upright with members, nailing clapboard on the outside and placing laths and plastering on the inside.  He suggested having boards cut five and six inches wide and from one to two inches thick.  Alternately, these were laid flat with the outside edge even, one on top of the other, and each nailed to the one beneath it.  A good, solid wall, to be sure.  But here was the real trick.  With the alternating width of the boards, one ended up with the horizontal grooves for anchoring the inside plaster, thus eliminating the expense of lathing.

Fowler’s own solidly-built home at Fishkill, New York, has long since disappeared.  After having several owners, it eventually became a run-down eyesore known locally as “Fowler’s Folly” and, in 1897, on orders from the town fathers, was destroyed by a hefty charge of dynamite.

The majority of surviving octagon houses can be seen in the northeast and north central regions of the country, predominately in New England, New York, Ohio and Michigan.  However the fad, at its peak found its way into more than twenty states as well as Canada.

Perhaps the most striking of these unusual buildings open to the public is the brick Richards’ mansion built in 1856 at Watertown, Wisconsin, thirty-five miles west of Milwaukee.  Owned by the local historical society and on view from May through October, it has fifty-seven rooms (if one counts the closets and halls) and a spiral center staircase.

Just for the record, the famous red brick Octagon House in Washington, D.C. at the corner of New York Avenue and 18th Street, N.W., is not an octagon at all, but an elongated hexagon with a rounded front.  Ages ago somebody unsure of his geometric forms dubbed it an octagon and the label stuck.  Long headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, the building, dating from 1800, became a national historic shrine in 1970.

1 comment:

Jean said...

A good 25 years ago I went to a wedding reception in Southern California and the groom's family home turned out to be, at least in front, two octagons with a hall attaching them together. I seem to recall wood siding, perhaps redwood shingles? It wasn't an antique home or anything, just an eccentric house from the 60s.