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Octagon houses provide ‘a home for all’

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Orson Squire Fowler was a man ahead of his time.

Born in the early 19th century in New York, Fowler was a well-known follower of phrenology, a now-debunked science that linked the shape and size of a person’s cranium to character traits and mental abilities. He also was an author and lecturer who advocated regular bathing (contrary to Victorian times) and frowned at women using corsets, saying they were bad for their health.

Fowler’s most lasting legacy, though, may be his contribution to American architecture, specifically octagon houses. Fowler, who believed eight-sided houses were healthier, more energy-efficient and more affordable to build than any other kind of house, wrote a book in 1848 called “A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.”

Octagon houses: A brief but significant building boom

Touring the country after his book came out, Fowler’s concept took off for a period and today, hundreds of octagon houses are still in place thanks to volunteer groups, historians and private owners.

Built primarily during the second half of the 19th century before the Civil War, Michigan has, or had, 105 octagon houses, the third highest number of octagon houses in the nation, according to historians Ellen Puerzer and Robert Kline, who maintain a website that lists octagon houses by state and county across the country. Only Fowler’s home state of New York has more with 191 and Pennsylvania with 109.

“I’m not really sure why Michigan has so many,” said Puerzer, author of “Octagon House Inventory,” a self-published book. “I do know Orson Fowler did travel extensively promoting his book so most likely he did travel to Michigan.”

Locally, there are more than four octagon houses still standing in Metro Detroit, two in Washington Township alone, one in Oxford and one in Westland. One of the most well-known is the Loren Andrus Octagon House on Van Dyke in northern Macomb County’s Washington Township.

Finished in 1860 by surveyor and farmer Loren Andrus, the Italianate-style house sits on what was once a 340-acre apple and peach farm. It was Andrus’ family’s private home for 30 years before it eventually switched hands many times, becoming a restaurant and an educational site for Wayne State University.

It was eventually abandoned in the 1980s. On the verge of being demolished, a volunteer group stepped in to save it and open it to the public. They’ve raised thousands of dollars over the years to restore the staircase, replace the roof and other repairs.

“When we took it over it was in really dire shape,” says Jan Donovan, head of the Friends of the Loren Andrus Octagon House, which has about 100 members. “Even as early as the late 1990s you couldn’t go upstairs.”

Today, the 3,200-square-foot house with 12-foot ceilings and 16 rooms (eight on each floor) is open once a month March through October and for special events. Volunteers dress in period clothing and visitors can tour the entire house; some are shaped like triangles because there are no hallways. There will be a Victorian Christmas celebration on Nov. 19-20 (see box for details).

During an open house earlier this month, dozens of people trudged through rain to tours its rooms, all staged with period appropriate furniture.

Donovan says visitors are drawn to the house’s uniqueness. “People don’t have an opportunity to see a house like this,” she says.

Bringing home back to life

One hundred and thirty miles to the west in the historic town of Marshall, just east of Battle Creek, George and Debra Whelan didn’t just want to see a unique house. They wanted to live in one and restore it.

Longtime preservationists, the Whelans, who previously lived in New Jersey, first spotted their future home, a 5,000-square-foot octagon house built in 1856, in an ad in Preservation magazine. They’d been looking for a Victorian or Italianate-style house to buy and work on in their retirement.

Drawn to the house in Marshall, George and the couple’s son Keith arranged a road trip so they could stop and get pictures.

“I was already hooked on the house, but after seeing the photos I just fell in love with it. I said, ‘That’s the house,’” says Debra.

Originally built by a man named Increase Pendleton who’d attended one of Fowler’s lectures, the house was at one point converted into a rooming house. By the time the Whelans bought it in 2009 for $170,000, the partitions had been removed, but there was a massive amount of work to be done. Doors and window frames were missing, along with moldings.

“We did have the moldings but it was like a jigsaw puzzle to put them back on,” says Debra.

Project-by-project, Debra and George are bringing the home back to life. They’ve redone the staircase; patched walls and ceilings; and restored original windows. Debra, an artist, learned a technique to faux paint wood grain on the doors to make them look more expensive, a common practice in the Victorian age.

The restored parlor is a bold mix of purple, Debra’s favorite color, and green, which George loves.

Since purple and green are complementary, it “helped to make both stand out,” says Debra. “Normally, in the past, we wouldn’t have chosen such a deep color for the walls but since the room is so large and has so much natural light, we took a risk that it would work and make a statement.”

Debra says her favorite part about the house is its spaciousness. “I love the flow of the house. It just makes you feel good when you walk in the house,” she says.

Groups step up

In Wayne County, one of the showcase buildings of the Westland Historic Village Park on North Wayne Road is an 1850s octagon house.

Originally built in the late 1850s on Newburgh Road in Plymouth Township, it was the home of Walter Emmet Smith, whose family operated the Clyde Smith and Sons Nursery for a time, says Jeff Koslowski, president of the Westland Historic Commission. The house, which has two wings that were added in 1937, was donated to the historic park and moved there in 2002.

It wasn’t an easy task, moving a 150-year-old home, but it was “a small price to pay,” says Koslowski.

“We have hosted weddings, showers, special guest lectures, and all kinds of other presentations inside,” says Koslowski. “We have had family members who used to live and work inside tell us stories. To them, it was a home.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan

Loren Andrus Octagon House

The Friends of the Loren Andrus Octagon House in Washington Township will host a Victorian Christmas Celebration from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 19 and 12-5 p.m. Nov. 20. There will be holiday decorations and a St. Nicholas Market in the lower level community room. Admission is $6 or $4 with a non-perishable food item. There also will be Victorian Christmas Tea from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 3, 4 and 10. Tickets are $22; seating is limited. Call (586) 781-0084.