In a blog post on Steampunk Architecture that I wrote almost three years ago (and which has consistently been one of my more popular posts), I included a picture of the Armour Steiner House in upstate New York which has the distinction of having an octagonal floor plan. Prompted by a post in the always interesting website Atlas Obscura, I looked around for more examples of these unusually shaped buildings. And it turns out there’s an interesting story behind them.
Octagonal buildings seem to be rare in Europe except for some religious buildings. There are octagonal parts of buildings, but few buildings (and no houses that I could find) whose floor plan is a regular octagon. Octagonal buildings did exist, however, by the early 1800s here in the USA. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest had an octagonal floor plan, even given the two classical porticoes on the northern and southern sides.
Octagon houses became much more popular in the USA because of one man, Orson Squire Fowler, who published his ideas for octagonal houses in 1854 in a tract titled, “A Home for All.” In this book, he describes the many advantages to octagon houses. Fowler calculates that octagon houses have greater square footage for a given external wall length than typical rectangular houses, which also allows more light to penetrate through the windows since there are few inside corners. Octagon houses also stand up to the weather better because the octagonal structure distributes wind loads more efficiently.
Fowler was the foremost proponent of octagonal houses. However, his day job was phrenology, the “science” of determining a subject’s personality and mental attributes by analyzing the shape of the skull. The concept was that different mental abilities are located at specific area of the brain, and that a greater use of a particular ability would enlarge that section of the brain thus causing a bump in the skull. Conversely, lack of use would cause a cavity. Needless to say, phrenology eventually lost any scientific validity it had, although phrenologists could be found practicing well into the 20th century. Lest you think that Fowler was a garden-variety crackpot, he was also an advocate for many other issues that seem surprisingly modern, such as women’s rights (long before women could vote), children’s rights (in the time of rampant child labor), and vegetarianism (in a day when the common diet was much more carnivorous than today). Fowler was definitely an interesting historical figure, and the US has interesting architecture thanks to his ideas.
Fowler also practiced what he preached, at least in terms of houses. He built his own octagon house in Fishkill, New York which was completed in 1853. It was a huge three story building with sixty main rooms, and featured such modern touches as central heating, indoor plumbing, and gas lights. Many of the existing octagonal houses tend to be of similar Italianate style, but more modest. However, the octagonal form allows for great variation.
While one could think that the octagonal floor plan must be made of eight pie-shaped wedges, here’s one of many variations of floor plans for an octagonal house. Generally, they had central stairways surrounded by four more-or-less rectangular rooms. The small triangular pieces left over were used as closets, bathrooms, pantries, and vestibules.
The Armour-Stiner House, shown at the top of this post, was originally of the same Italianate design, but fifteen years after being built, it was greatly enlarged by the addition of the ornate dome. Another house with a possibly even fancier dome is Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi. The house is definitely Victorian, but the dome shows an obvious “Oriental” influence. Building started in 1859, but was soon halted by the outbreak of the Civil War. The owner, Dr. Haller Nutt, died shortly before the end of the war, so the house remains uncompleted with only nine of its 32 rooms finished.
While gazebos, solaria, and greenhouses are often hexagonal or octagonal in shape, they’re not as interesting as houses, with one exception. Mark Twain had an octagonal study at his sister-in-law’s home in Elmira, New York where he spent his summers. The study was perched on a hill overlooking a valley and with a view of distant hills. In this tidy little study, Twain wrote The Adventures of Huck Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among other works. The study was moved in the 1950s to the grounds of Elmira College, where it may be visited.
I’ve researched (OK, Googled) to see if there are any other regular polygonal houses documented, and found an amazing website with an encyclopedic list of octagonal, hexagonal, and round houses. Octagonal houses are the most common, followed by hexagonal, then round. Modern architectural drawings of houses of all kinds of shapes exist, but it’s not clear if they were ever built. (A house with an equilateral triangular floor plan seems needlessly complicated.)
As it turns out, I have a personal connection with one of these houses, a round house, in fact, in my hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts, just a block away from the hospital where I was born. The Enoch Robinson House, built in 1854 or so, is one of very few period round houses still in existence. It has three stories, and apparently once had a cupola atop it. The house seems to have not been lived in for many years, and has thus deteriorated from neglect. But the latest Google Street Map image (Sept. 2014) seems to show some work being done on the house, and Somerville is gentrifying, so there’s always hope that the right person will adopt this unique house for their very own.
The Victorian Era was punctuated by individuals who left their mark through sheer force of will and an unwavering belief that their ideas were right and must be broadcast to the populace at large. Orson Squire Fowler was one of those individuals. Without his die-hard belief in the superiority of octagonal houses, we would not have the rich selection of unusual Victorian homes.
If you’re interested in Old House Idiosyncrasies, look at my other posts in this series: