An Eight-sided House for Health & Happiness: The Octagon In Context

Barretts Octagon Port Hope

Originally published in ACO Matters December 2020

By Jackie Tinson

ACO Port Hope Advocacy

Fowler was a theology student in Amherst, N.Y. until phrenology caught his attention. He gave up a career in the church and became a practitioner of phrenology, lecturing across America and Canada. As an extension of his philosophy he was attracted to the idea of affordable, comfortable housing for the working classes, believing context to be crucial to health and happiness. He thought it possible to design a house that could be built by anyone who possessed “inhabitiveness” (love of home) and “constructiveness” (ability to build). He despised Greek Revival houses with their “finified carvings and cornicings”.

Their pitched roofs, he asserted, wereexpensive to build and resulted in “hot bedrooms”, and their right-angled corners were a pointless waste of interior space:
“The nearer to spherical our houses are, the more inside room for the outside wall, besides being more comfortable” (i.e. easier to heat). He believed a sphere, a shape found in nature, was conducive to mental well-being, “Men’s habitations correspond with their characteristics” and “the latter can safely be predicted from the former”. He found the Neo-classical house (rectangular with wings) “doubly objectionable” because of the ratio of exterior wall to floor area. He settled for the octagon. Round structures are difficult to build but Victorian builders were familiar with 135° corners because of the popularity of the bay window. Fowler would have seen eight-sided Dutch Reformed churches in New York State built by early Dutch settlers, and other examples of octagons, like Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat, Poplar Forest, in Virginia (1806), existed. Fowler, however, claimed originality. For economy, walls were to be constructed of a kind of cement made from a wet mixture of sand, gravel and mortar poured into forms on site. Fowler called this the grout wall.

Fowler Octagonal Mansion
Fowler Octagonal Mansion

Although the octagon was a short-lived craze, the grout (or gravel) wall was widely adopted and the technique developed into modern concrete. Interior walls were plastered, and exterior walls stuccoed and scored to imitate cut stone. Fowler embedded ducts for heating and ventilation (and speaking tubes) within the walls as the cement was poured. The middle of the 19th century in North America was a time of innovation and change with increasing industrialization, the coming of the railway, and political turmoil over the issue of slavery. Talk was of the new discipline of psychology, social reform (including dress reform i.e. anti-lacing), hygiene and sanitation. People were experimenting with spiritualism, vegetarianism, and temperance. Novelty was also sought in architecture with Greek Revival fast falling out of fashion. Enter Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) whose book, The Octagon House: A Home for All, 1848, promoted the idea of the eight-sided house. Fowler was not an architect, yet his book had an impact on architectural design across the United States, Canada, England and parts of Europe throughout the 1850s and 60s.

Staircase and landing, Octagon House Port Hope
Staircase and landing, Octagon House Port Hope

A central (often circular to limit hall and landing space) staircase ending at a large cupola created a conduit for fresh air and light. Fowler thought the cupola a place whither a man could withdraw to escape the family and find some peace and quiet, a sentiment impolitic to express today.

However, he did recommend a “gymnastic room” for women, as well as a “dancing room” because “mankind are [sic] dying off like diseased sheep, in consequence of pure ennui”. He also recommended including a W.C., (“under the stairs is just the place for one”). It was not intended for everyday use, however, but “only in cases of special need, the one generally used being outside, as usual.” He added that the question of whether to include this feature should not be discussed with “squeamish maidens and fastidious beaux”. Surprising that the idea of an indoor privy could be distasteful at the time, although perhaps it was the mechanics that were distasteful. The W.C. was designed to drain through a shaft down one of the chimneys into a receiving box in the basement. Each room had a ventilator, open at both the top and bottom with registers to control the flow of air. The shafts were to be carried to the top of the house where they could be exhausted under the eaves between the rafters and “the bad air cast out of the building”. (Miasmatic theory was current until late in the 19th century.) Bedrooms were to be as large as possible because waking up in small rooms made a person feel “dull, stupid, oppressed, yawny, lax, and all unstrung in body and mind because you breathe your air over and over again”.

Rooms were squared off with the pie shaped angles made into cupboards. Quirky to note that although phrenology was used to justify slavery and support white supremacy, Fowler, a prominent proponent of the pseudo-science, designed a house where room angles could handily be used to create “cupboards within cupboards” (reminiscent of the priest holes built into English country houses during religious persecution under Elizabeth 1st) to hide runaway slaves moving north on the underground railway. A house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still has its double cupboards. Fowler wanted to make use of every inch of the house and recommended the kitchen and dining room be located in the (raised) basement. Few builders followed this advice and kitchen wings were often added as extensions.

He favoured wrap-around verandas on all floors, but most were one-storey and built across only three of the eight sides. Although his stated purpose was to design a type of affordable housing, the style worked best in large buildings and most octagons were commissioned by the affluent. Fowler’s own house in Fishkill, N.Y. (“Fowler’s Folly”) was very grand. Three storeys in height with four verandas, it had sixty rooms and a twenty- foot glass domed octagonal cupola. Oddly it had no interior (let alone central) stair, because he wanted, he said, to maximize room size. Rooms were accessed from the verandas. Although at first glance Fowler’s octagonal design appears limiting, it has been interpreted in a surprising variety of ways. In 1857 Fowler suffered a financial reversal, forcing him to let the house to tenants and retire to a farm. By 1880 the house was derelict and in 1897 it was condemned and razed. Fowler had died in 1887.

Tiny Octagon House, Bruton St., Port Hope
Tiny Octagon House, Bruton St., Port Hope

There have been four octagons in Port Hope, two of which remain. Ian Montagnes (Port Hope: A History, 2007) records that two octagonal school houses were built in 1853. The one on McCaul Street burned down shortly afterwards, and the one on Little Hope Street was razed in 1873 when a new school went up a couple of blocks away. Of the two that remain, the miniature brick octagon on Bruton Street oozes charm, while the Martha Street octagon, built in 1856 by mill owner William Barrett, is acknowledged as the finest example in Ontario. It’s a classic of the genre, with stuccoed exterior, basement kitchen and dining room, circular stair, cupola, and two-storey veranda. Part of the original summer kitchen which was built as an extension but accessed directly from the basement, now forms garaging for the owner’s collection of classic cars. The house is spacious (4,100 square feet) with room flowing into room off the staircase landing. To add to its glamour, it’s haunted.

When Kay and Paul Wilson took possession forty odd years ago, their mover refused to enter the house saying he felt negative energy emanating from it. He left their belongings at the front door. Since then they have found their granddaughter talking to a woman she called Mary who was invisible to everyone else. And they have identified a spot in the living room which people with paranormal sensitivity have found unnerving. An early glass negative shows this to be the spot where the body of Philip Passy, the second owner of the house, was laid out in his coffin. (One of the Passy women was named Mary.) This writer lingered on the spot hoping to feel some sort of vibe and was disappointed when she felt none. She did, however, find the ambience of the house felicitous in its roundness and, yes, she did have a sense of well-being. Paul says lights go on and off at odd times during the night, but he hesitates to get up to investigate, not knowing quite whom he might meet.