Between 1850 and 1857, people built hundreds of octagon houses, first in the Northeast and then in the Upper Midwest. The craze began with a phrenologist named Orson Fowler, who combined political activism with lifestyle advice and the study of the cranium.
Fowler practiced phrenology, a pseudoscience popular in the first half of the 19th century. He believed you could tell a person’s character and intelligence from the shape and size of his cranium. He wrote and lectured widely on the topic, as well as on temperance, health, education and women’s suffrage.
An intellectual jack of all trades, Fowler also had opinions on architecture. He viewed it as another problem for which he had the perfect solution: the octagon house.
He was born in Cohocton, N.Y., in 1809, graduating from Amherst College in 1834. Then he and his brother opened a phrenology practice. He met clients in his offices in New York and Boston. There he would feel their skulls and tell them about themselves. Clients included John Brown the abolitionist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and President James Garfield. He told Mark Twain he had an underdeveloped sense of humor without realizing who he was.
But he did tell John Brown he was too blunt and free-spoken, according to Fowler’s biographer, Madeleine B. Stern.
Fowler, his brother Lorenzo and Lorenzo’s wife, Lydia Folger Fowler, lectured often on phrenology, popularizing the pseudo-science in the United States. Before the Civil War, phrenology was used to justify slavery because it taught the inferiority of black people based on the shape of their heads.
Orson Fowler, however, opposed slavery. A vegetarian, he crusaded for animal rights, and he proselytized against child labor. He formed a partnership with the publishing house Fowler & Wells, which published Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Then he turned his attention to octagon houses.
Fowler was so busy practicing phrenology, he wrote, that he couldn’t find a comfortable home until he was past 40. But he spent 10 years cogitating on the best mode of building the home of his future years. And then in 1848 he wrote a book about his dream home, the octagon house.
The octagon house was “”a new mode of inclosing public edifices and private residences, far better, in every way, and several hundred percent cheaper, than any other,” he wrote. It would bring “comfortable dwellings within the reach of the poorer classes.” Plus, he argued, the spherical in general was more beautiful than the angular.
Some of the practical advantages of the octagon house included a more even distribution of heat. And it needed only one roof, unlike a rectangle with wings or additions.
Fewer corners would save time doing household chores. And octagon houses offered more windows and more floor space. Triangular closets were the answer to storage questions.
Fowler also believed octagon houses promoted an “interchange of friendly and benevolent feeling.” That was true especially for octagonal schools and churches. And as for barns — wedge-shaped stalls were ideal for horses, narrower in the rear than in the front. The open central space allowed a big storage area for hay and farm equipment.
Fowler was alert to the progressive thinking of the day, wrote Walter Creese in his article, Fowler and the Domestic Octagon.
All around him he saw new ideas, new inventions, new ways of thinking. But not in architecture.
“Why so little progress in architecture, when there is so much in all other matters? Why continue to build in the same SQUARE form of all past ages?” Fowler asked.
The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building sold so many copies it went through seven printings. More importantly, wrote Creese, in contemporary carpenters’ and builders’ books, “their authors paid him the supreme compliment of quotation and illustration, and often included polygonal schemes of their own.”
The Gravel Wall
After Fowler published his first edition of The Octagon House, he discovered something even better: An octagon house with a gravel wall. “Gravel” combined lime, stone and sand for a strong, cheap, vermin-proof outer wall.
He got the idea from a Mr. Goodrich in Milton, Wisc. Goodrich told him his gravel walls were so strong he’d let Fowler take a sledgehammer to his parlor walls. Goodrich would charge six cents a blow, because that’s how much (or how little) it would cost to repair it.
Gravel walls had the added advantage of eliminating expensive framing and allowing the use of cheaper grades of wood.
In his second edition, The Octagon House and the Gravel Wall, Fowler railed against wood. He called it “objectionable.” He reasoned,
500 years in the future, when human population has increased as fastas it has for 100 years past, “her entire surface will be densely populated. But to raise wood enough to erect and repair all the human habitations then needed, will require immense tracts of land, which otherwise could be appropriated to raising food.
He got the idea for octagon houses when he decided to build a home on land he owned in Fishkill, N.Y. He wrote his book on the subject while his house was still in the planning stages. Fowler had so much self-confidence that his inexperience as a builder didn’t deter him.
It took him five years to build a 60-room behemoth with four stories and a cupola. Nothing he’d ever done afforded him such lively delight, he wrote. His love for his new home sometimes interfered with his sleep.
He didn’t love it that much, though. When he suffered financially from the Panic of 1857, he rented the house to a New Yorker who rented it to boarders. The next year many of the tenants suffered typhoid, which may have been caused by cesspool seepage through the gravel walls.
Fowler sold the house in 1859 and eventually moved to Manchester, Mass. He built a house there with an octagonal dining room. In 1897, Fishkill officials condemned Fowler’s house as a public health hazard and had it blown up.
Octagonal Houses in New England
It’s hard to say how many Fowler-inspired octagon houses still exist, wrote Rebecca Lewin McCarley. Some 560 historic examples have been identified, mostly in the Northeast and the upper Midwest. Some, however, have been demolished.
New England has 14 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Maine has four on the National Register, 12 in total. Rhode Island has at least four, New Hampshire at least one and Massachusetts 21. Portland, Conn., has two octagon houses, side by side.
The heyday of the octagon house ended with the Panic of 1857. Subsequent generations viewed them as anomalies and failures, wrote Creese.
“It was primarily an experiment pieced together by an amateur, the result of an uninhibited individualism…furthermore the restless search for new architectural forms,” he concluded.
With thanks to Walter Creese. “Fowler and the Domestic Octagon.” The Art Bulletin 28, no. 2 (1946): 89–102. https://doi.org/10.2307/3047058. Also to Dwight Young, “Orson Squire Fowler: To Form a More Perfect Human.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 14, no. 2 (1990): 120–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40258064.
Danbury Octagon House By Daniel Case – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11113222. Rodney J. Baxter House By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52928905. Edward Brackett House By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11661817. First Portland octagon house PortlandBy Jerry Dougherty – http://public.fotki.com/GCDOUGHERTY/all-towns-and-cities/portland_ct/portland15.html, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29546198;Second Portland octagon house By Jerry Dougherty – http://public.fotki.com/GCDOUGHERTY/all-towns-and-cities/portland_ct/portland16.html, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29546156. Octagon House Josiah Chase By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121455124. Potter Octagon House By Jennifer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121453730.