- 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
The builders of these houses, most of them upper-middle-class men, were intensely individualistic, dogmatic, even exhibitionistic. They drew the inspiration for their homes—and in many cases their plans—from a single remarkable book: A Home for All , first published in 1848 by a former theology student named Orson Squire Fowler.
Fowler graduated from Amherst College in 1834, the same year as his friend Henry Ward Beecher. A convert to phrenology, Fowler turned from the ministry to tour the country demonstrating the new “science.” By 1842 he had founded a publishing company, Fowler and Wells, and was producing The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany , calling himself the largest mail-order publisher in the United States. His company published books and pamphlets on vegetarianism, homeopathy, water cures, hypnotism, shorthand, child rearing, women’s rights, sexual theory (“Let no sun set,” he proclaimed, “without a full, hearty, soul-inspiring love-feast”), the treatment of criminals and the insane, and was first to distribute Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass .
Then architecture caught his fancy. In A Home for All Fowler asked: “But is the square form the best of all? Is the right angle the best angle? Can not some radical improvement be made, both in the outside form and the internal arrangement of our houses? Nature’s forms are mostly SPHERICAL . She makes ten thousand curvilineal to one square figure. Then why not apply her forms to houses?”
The form Fowler chose was the equilateral octagon. An eight-sided house would be cheaper to build, since its exterior walls would enclose more space than a rectangle. It would be easier to heat in the winter and (with a cupola on top) easier to vent in the summer. And the interiors of octagonal houses were brighter, as the sun streamed through windows on eight sides instead of only four.
Fowler was not the first person to use the octagon in architecture. The ancient Greeks and Romans built octagonal structures, and Thomas Jefferson followed their example by designing an octagonal house in Bedford County, Virginia, where he went to escape the crowds that gathered at Monticello. (It still stands today, stately, elegant—and adjacent to 1950s tract houses.)
Thirty years later Alexander Jackson Davis chose the octagon for several public and private buildings, among them the now abandoned insane asylum on New York City’s Roosevelt Island and some lovely gatehouses of private estates along the Hudson.
It was Orson Squire Fowler, however, who created the octagonal style of domestic architecture that we still come across on Sunday drives. And his contribution did not stop with the first edition of his book in 1848. Two years later he met Joseph Goodrich, a founding father of Milton, Wisconsin. The innovative Goodrich had built the first general store in his small community and in 1844 had gone on to put up the revolutionary Milton Inn, a two-story hexagon with a long rectangular wing. Made of gravel, slaked lime, sand, and water—a mixture Goodrich called “grout”—it represents one of the earliest uses of concrete in the United States. (One remarkable feature of this most noticeable house was invisible to those who stopped there for the night. A fortyfoot-long tunnel connected the basement with an old log cabin in the back. Here runaway slaves would hide.)
“I visited Milton,” wrote Fowler, “to examine the house put up by Mr. Goodrich, the original discoverer of this mode of building, and found his walls as hard as stone itself, and harder than brick walls. I pounded them with the hammer, and examined them thoroughly, till fully satisfied as to their solidity and strength. Mr. Goodrich offered to allow me to strike with a sledge, as hard as I pleased, upon the inside of his parlor walls for six cents per blow, which he said would repair all damages.”
When Fowler returned to Fishkill, New York, he leveled his partially built octagon home and rebuilt it with grout. Then he rewrote A Home For All under a new subtitle: The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building New, Cheap, Convenient, Superior and Adapted to Rich and Poor .
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.