Octagon House, 1850-1860

The Old House Web

By Deborah Holmes

Maine octagon house

This octagon house in central Maine awaits restoration. Dormer windows are unusual for this style house, which usually included a cupola. -- Photo: Deb Holmes 2002

The mid-19th century saw an American fascination with exotic architecture, and forms from other countries -- Turkish pavilions, Swiss chalets, Chinese pagodas -- began springing up. The unique American contribution to innovative house shapes was the octagon house, a style made popular by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler.

Fowler extolled the virtues of healthier life-style and economy of his design. Although more than a thousand octagon houses were built, American preference for four-sided dwellings won out. Most of these homes, from grand mansions to humble country Victorians, were built within a decade between roughly 1850 and 1860.

The octagonal shape lent itself to various embellishments of style, from Greek Revival, shown in the picture at right, to Georgian, and even Moorish. Rare variations of the style include the circle and hexagon.

The eight-sided house was more than an architectural invention to Fowler -- he extolled it as the pathway to a healthier lifestyle. The former medical student described an octagon house in his 1848 book, 'A Home for All; or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building.' Such a building, he argued would be better ventilated (through a cupola) and lighted, and thus healthier.

Some benefits were more apparent: the houses provided a greater volume of space than a square or rectangular house and rooms were easily accessible from a central stair hall. Fowler claimed that the "gravel-wall construction" (poured concrete) made the octagon house cheaper to build. Most octagons, however, were built of wood or brick, which in fact, meant higher costs to adapt these structural materials to the 135 degree contours of the octagon.

Decades before Fowler's book was published, another architectural pioneer, Thomas Jefferson, began building Poplar Forest. The eight-sided brick structure featured such innovations as skylights and an indoor privy, and was the only octagonal house built by Jefferson. George Washington also dabbled in revolutionary architectural ideas -- building in 1792 a 16-sided threshing barn on his Mount Vernon estate.

But it was Fowler who inspired a building boom of octagonal houses. At least one thousand buildings across the United States and around the world were constructed due to the influences of Fowler's book. Many, including the author's own massive 60-room "Fowler's Folly" near Fishkill, New York, have been destroyed over the years, but a significant number of octagon houses still survive.

octagon drawing

A cupola provided all rooms with light and ventilation in an eight-sided house.

circular stairway

The artistry in a circular staircase is captured in this photo of the McElroy Octagon House in San Francisco.

-- Photo for the Historic American Building Survey, Jack Boucher, 1960.

Fowler also achieved fame as a phrenologist believing in the theory that mental abilities and character traits could be 'read' by studying the shape of one's head. One of the more famous skulls Fowler studied was that of Cornelius Alverson Burleigh, in 1830 the first man executed by hanging in London. The unfortunate Burleigh was the victim of a botched execution, and failed to die on the first hanging attempt. The stunned prisoner climbed back up the scaffold and was hanged a second time. This time the execution was successful.

In keeping with 19th century norms, the body of Burleigh was then given to a group of medical students and doctors for public dissection. Among the medical students was Fowler, who claimed Burleigh's head for his phrenology studies.

sc octagon

The Zelotes Holmes House in Laurens, South Carolina, was built from 1859-1862, using the "gravel wall construction" (poured concrete) advocated in Fowler's book. The house is unusually large with each outside wall measuring 21 feet. The pink granite foundation supports the "gravel walls" of slaked lime, sand and stone, 18 " thick in the cellar and tapering to 12" at the roof. The exterior is finished in tan colored smooth stucco, scored to imitate stone. The house features 14 octagonal chimneys, three original porches and a cellar with dirt floor under the entire house.

-- Photo for the Historic American Building Survey, James Boucher, 1986

elevation drawing

South elevation drawing of the Holmes house. For a larger view, and north elevation drawing, click here.

Also: First floor drawing ~~ Second floor drawing ~~ Roof drawing

holmes house
HABS photo of the first floor east room of Holmes house, and below, the second floor east.

holmes house

Not all octagon houses fared as well as the ones in the photos above. This Pennsylvania house had a road named after it: Eight Cornered House Road in Berks, PA. Unfortunately it was torn down shortly after this photo was taken in 1971.

penn house

mass house

The Bevis House in Chelsea, Massachusetts is a modest example of an octagon house.

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