The Octagon House

The shape of the Octagon House makes it unmistakable.

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Photo: The Octagon House, Genesee Country Village and Museum

Octagons are not the most common Victorian style, although following the publication of A House for All in 1848, as many as several thousand were built over the next ten years. These unique houses are a pleasant surprise when spotted on an older streetscape. Their appearance and the philosophy of the man who wrote the book distinguish them from other homes of the era.

For once, no European style figures into the inspiration for these homes. The author of A House for All, Orson Squire Fowler, believed that the circle was nature’s most perfect building form. He pointed out that the circle encloses the greatest amount of interior space with the least exterior wall. This apparent efficiency also presented a problem, however, because the building materials of the day tended to be straight rather than curved. But Fowler thought the problem through and devised a flat- sided shape that remained essentially circular but that could be built with rectilinear materials. The Octagon House, with its eight flat sides, was born.

The Victorians had a great confidence in progress and a belief in America’s Manifest Destiny. Fowler argued that his circular form of building was the most healthy and efficient, that it enhanced airflow and natural lighting. His thinking suited the optimism of the time and many communities that prospered at the middle of the last century have at least one octagonal house to attest to the persuasiveness of Fowler’s argument.

The shape of the house makes it unmistakable, with its eight equal sides. Typically two stories tall, many examples also have cupolas on top and one or more porches. Fowler was more interested in theory than in alluding to architectural history, so he did not dictate stylistic details. As a result, those found on octagonal houses vary greatly. Some octagons are decorated with the classical pilasters and frieze boards of the Greek Revival House, others with the brackets usually found on Italianate Houses. Still others have details more characteristic of the Gothic Revival House.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The Octagonal House had a brief vogue, and “Fowler’s Folly” (as his own house was also known) fell out of favor by the beginning of the Civil War. However, there was a second brief octagonal fad in the 1970s: If you live in an octagon, open-plan interiors with few partitions and modern methods of construction (two-by-four framing, plasterboard walls, and other contemporary materials) will immediately distinguish a twentieth-century octagon from those of Fowler’s era.

In the Octagon Houses, some rooms will have triangular shapes, with corners at acute or oblique angles. This can make furniture placement difficult, although most layouts tended to divide the floor plan into rectangular major spaces, leaving oddly shaped secondary rooms like pantries and closets built into the acute angles.

Putting an addition onto the Octagon House is usually difficult. From the start, Fowler envisioned his design as being regular in shape with eight equal sides. Adding a boxy wing that would jut out from one or more of those sides is in conflict with that conception. One solution to space limitations that was adopted on the seventies revival was pairing two octagons, but that in most cases is neither practical nor a visually satisfying solution. A low wing off the rear of the house, however, can be an effective answer, particularly if it shares the detailing of the main house.