- Historic Sites
Age Of The Octagon
A HERITAGE PRESERVED The brief mid-nineteenth-century popularity of eight-sided houses has left us a strange and delightful architectural legacy
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
In his book he also campaigned for such innovations as indoor toilets, dumbwaiters, central heating, tanks for filtering rainwater, and heating coils to provide hot tap water on every floor. The farsighted Fowler even suggested the use of glass walls supported by structural elements of iron.
Some of his ideas have a particularly contemporary ring. In one passage he argues that form must follow function: “Nature furnishes our only patterns of true ornament. All she makes is beautiful, but mark, she never puts on anything exclusively for ornament AS SUCH . She appends only what is useful, and even absolutely NECESSARY . …” And later: “Beauty and Utility, so far from being incompatible with each other, are so closely united in art as in nature; that is, are INSEPARABLE .”
With the approach of the Civil War, Fowler made a characteristic stand. Hoping to maintain the territory of Kansas as a free state, he encouraged a congregation of settlers to found a village based on the principles espoused by his press. It would have a central octagonal common from which would radiate eight roads. Between the roads, in a four-square-mile area, sixty-four families would build octagonal farmhouses with octagonal barns. They would send their sons to an octagonal agricultural college and would educate themselves in an octagonal museum. In Octagon City, on the banks of the Neosho River, they would discuss the evils of alcohol, red meat, slavery, and rectangular architecture.
But when its supporter visited the new Eden in 1857, he found a windowless log cabin and a rusting plow. The spring had dried up, the crops had been raided by Indians, and some of the settlers had died, while the rest dispersed. Battered by the 1857 financial panic, Fowler sold his share in the publishing company and his octagon house in Fishkill. He continued to lecture and write, fathered three children after he was seventy, and died at seventy-eight in Sharon Station, Connecticut, in 1887. His Fishkill mansion was turned into a boardinghouse, then a military academy, then again a boardinghouse. From 1880 on, it stood deserted until, in 1897, it was declared a “public hazard” and dynamited.
The panic that drove Fowler out of business pretty much put an end to the brief vogue of the architectural form he championed. But the houses remained. In later years prevailing styles were grafted onto some of them: some received a siding of shingles; others a Second Empire mansard roof. One way or another hundreds of them managed to survive into the twentieth century. Many of the ones that have made it this far are in good hands; preservationminded people have been buying them up and restoring them for more than a decade. And indeed, some contemporary builders, paying particular heed to heat conservation, air flow, and spatial planning, are turning back to A Home for All , finding in Fowler’s 130-year-old book elegant answers to today s architectural concerns.