The Octagon house is easily recognized by the eight-sided shape of the exterior walls. Most are two-story with low-pitched hipped roofs and wide eave overhangs; eave brackets are common. Occasional examples show six-, ten-, twelve-, or sixteen-sided forms; a few are round. About half have an octagonal cupola and most have porches. Many show Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, or Italianate decorative details; others lack detailing.
This is a very rare style; probably only a few thousand were originally built, mostly in New York, Massachusetts, and the Midwest. Several hundred of these survive; most were built in the decades of the 1850s and ’60s.
The style owed its popularity to Orson S. Fowler, a lecturer and writer from Fishkill, New York, who in 1849 published an elaborate defense of its virtues entitled The Octagon House, A Home for All. Following Fowler, at least seven other pattern books of the 1850s also illustrated Octagon houses. Fowler stressed that an octagon encloses more floor space per linear foot of exterior wall than does the usual square or rectangle, thereby “reducing both building costs and heat loss through the walls.” He also maintained that Octagons were superior to square houses in “increasing sunlight and ventilation” and in “eliminating dark and useless corners.” As can be seen in the two typical plans shown in the accompanying drawings, he conveniently ignored interior room shapes, which were not octagonal and therefore still had “useless” corners, including triangular spaces not found in conventional shapes. Furthermore, much of this “increased sunlight and ventilation” went into pantries and closets; most rooms, in fact, have only a single exposure rather than the two commonly found in conventional houses. Such practical problems are undoubtedly responsible for the only modest success of the Octagon movement.
Fowler also advocated other improvements such as indoor plumbing, central heating, “board walls” made of lumber scraps and “gravel walls” of poured concrete. He was not generally concerned with decorative treatment beyond “the beauty of the octagon form itself,” although many Octagons were built with decorative detailing. Fowler claimed his domestic use of the Octagon to be original but there were scattered earlier examples including Thomas Jefferson’s summer house, Poplar Forest, completed in 1819. Octagonal wings and projections were also common in Adam houses (1780-1820). (Source: McAlester, 1984)
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