1848 to 1870
By Peter Barr
The mid-nineteenth century saw a two-decade long fascination with octagonal homes, which resulted from the publication of A Home for All... in 1848 by one of the century’s most eccentric and original thinkers: Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1889).
Fowler was a popular and persuasive writer and speaker, able to blend the era’s most divergent tendencies: on the one hand, an interest in novelty, efficiency and technology and, on the other hand, a sense of loss that these things were undermining traditional agrarian values and social stability. He traveled the country lecturing on such topics as phrenology (a pseudo-science that claimed to be able to read a person’s personality in the bumps on his head), architecture, health, and social reform. In terms of architecture, he called for the construction not only of eight-sided houses, but of suburban properties with fruit trees and berry bushes where healthy foods would be raised, preserved and consumed.
Fowler’s promotion of eight-sided houses mirrors the era’s fascination with modern technologies, efficiency and fitness. In A home for all; or, The gravel wall and octagon mode of building, he pointed out that an octagonal house, when compared to rectangular houses, was more economical because it offered “one-fifth more room for its Wall.” (Ironically, the octagonal form sometimes resulted in higher construction costs because of the octagon’s peculiar 135 degree angles.) He also pointed out that by providing more window surfaces and an eight-sided cupola above the roof, the home owner could increase and control the amount of health-giving natural light and ventilation to the home’s interior.
Entertaining and full of sensible advice, Fowler’s book encouraged builders to adopt the latest conveniences, including central heating, gas lights, flushing toilets, dumbwaiters, speaking tubes and hot and cold running water (heated by the kitchen range). Following his own advice, Fowler built his own three-story octagonal home in Fishkill, New York, that had all of these features—plus a roof designed to collect rain water, which was then filtered and sent around the house to the washstands and water closets. His book also called on builders to adopt innovative labor-saving techniques, such as the use of concrete walls, which he called “gravel walls,” that were to replace expensive brick and “objectionable” wood.
While this type of concrete wall construction would be adopted a century later by brutalist architects, most nineteenth-century octagonal homes were built either with brick walls (as is the case in Adrian) or with wood walls on a brick foundation.
Despite the sensation that Fowler’s book created, only about two thousand octagonal houses were built in the nineteenth century. The claims of greater wall-to-floor efficiency were usually offset by the added costs of construction. Plus, it was never clear how one could gain maximal use of the structure’s oddly shaped corners. Fitting rectangular rooms and traditional, rectangular furniture into the eight-sided form resulted in left-over triangular spaces that seemed to be suited only for closets.
With the economic depression of 1857 and the American Civil War of 1860-1865, the Octagon fad fell from favor. Today, fewer than 500 octagonal houses from the nineteenth-century still stand, mostly in the Hudson Valley of New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Fewer than 50 survive in Michigan, just two in Lenawee County: the Champion House in Adrian and the Heman R. Goodrich House in Hudson, at 428 South Church Street.
Of course, the octagon is not actually a style, but rather a form, which could be decorated any way the owner desired. Most Octagon cottages received Italianate brackets, as was the case in Adrian. However, one well-known example in Natchez, Mississippi received exotic Moorish details, including an onion-shaped dome above the cupola.