Octagon houses: A brief but significant building boom

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When Orson Squire Fowler wrote his book, “Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building” in 1848, he argued that octagon-shaped houses were not only healthier, but also required less heat in the winter and could be modified to suit any family.

Fowler’s concept took off and more than 1,000 octagon houses were built across the country during the mid-19th century, including at least 105 in Michigan, according to Wisconsin historian Ellen Puerzer, who has spent four decades researching octagon-shaped houses.

Octagon houses provide ‘a home for all’

“He toured the whole country promoting the book,” said Puerzer, the author of the self-published “Octagon House Inventory.” “I think it (the book) was a pretty big deal. There were five reprints.”

Puerzer says even though Fowler was a well-known phrenologist – a type of pseudo-science that linked certain character traits to the shape of a person’s head – there wasn’t really a connection between those beliefs and his beliefs about octagon-shaped homes. It was more about health.

“He was interested in healthy issues,” she said. “To him, this was the healthiest building. He said everything in nature is round.”

In his book, Fowler included drawings and plans. He noted that an octagonal house enclosed one-fifth more space than a square house plan and one-third more space than a rectangular house plan with an equal perimeter, according to author John H. Martin in his book “Saints, Sinners and Reformers.”

Loren Andrus, whose Italianate-style octagon house was built in 1860 in Washington Township, used Fowler’s plans for his 3,200-square-foot house.

But the octagon house building boom was brief and essentially came to an end when the Civil War erupted in 1861.

Puerzer says some houses were built later in the 19th century, but only about 30 or 40.

Puerzer, who started researching octagon houses after visiting a five-story one in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1978, continues to track octagon houses on her website, octagon.bobanna.com, with fellow historian Robert Kline. Today she believes about 500, or half, of the 1,000 octagon houses that were built are still standing.

They’ve either been converted into local museums or some are private homes. Many are in the small towns that Fowler visited when he promoted his book.

She believes the concept took off as much as it did, albeit briefly, because it was an architectural style that could be modified for any size family.

“It could be a one-story house with six rooms or a mansion with 50 rooms,” she said. “It could be altered to fit what your income and family size was.”

Puerzer says without historical societies, many of these octagon houses wouldn’t still be standing. She hopes more will step up to save those that are in bad shape “before they’re gone.”


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Twitter: @mfeighan