The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


October 2, 2011

Eight sides to this story

County leads the state with number of octagonal homes

They had twice as many sides as the typical bungalow and four times the charm. Efficient in use of space and materials, they were “green” buildings more than a century before energy conservation was an issue in American home construction. A millionaire could construct one of hardwoods and brick and have himself a mansion; a common worker could use a mix of gravel, sand and lime for the walls and end up with an equally serviceable home.

The octagon house thus fulfilled the promise Orson Squire Fowler made with the publication of “A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient and Superior Mode of Building” in 1848, a book that enjoyed nine printings, including a second edition in 1853 that introduced the novel use of concrete for the walls of his eight-sided homes. The book attracted devotees in all 40 of the states, with a particularly strong following in Ohio and Ashtabula County, which has more of these extant structures than any other county in the Buckeye State.

Fowler, a native of New York, was champion but not inventor of the eight-sided structure. Forts were sometimes built with eight walls to provide more “fields of fire’ for the defenders. There were barns, schoolhouses and bath houses built on octagonal plans years before Fowler embraced the design. The first courthouse in Circleville, Ohio, was of octagonal design.

Nationally, the landmark octagonal home was designed by Thomas Jefferson and built in Bedford County, near Lynchburg, Va. Known as Poplar Forest, the house was intended to be a residence for his daughter, Maria, and her husband. But Maria died in 1804, halting Jefferson’s work on the plan.

He revived the plan two years later and built Poplar Forest as a personal retreat.

These were isolated instances of octagonal construction, however, and it took Fowler’s book to convince home owners that eight sides are better than four.

 Among his arguments for the design was more efficient use of space — the plans utilized a center staircase with usually four rectangular rooms surrounding it; the triangular corners thus created were used for an entry and storage, or the partitions were removed to create larger rooms with sharp angles.

Improved ventilation also was noted as a benefit; the air flow was through the downstairs windows, up the center stairway and out the cupola atop the home. These window-laced structures on octagonals that were associated with the Underground Railroad are often, and probably mistakenly, identified as “look-out towers” for observing the approach of slave hunters.

Fowler’s other interest was phrenology, a pseudo-science that suggested a practitioner could determine a person’s propensities by examining their cranium. For example, he identified the location of “bumps of knowledge” and “bumps of amativeness” (sexual prowess). Fowler had a thriving practice in New York, site of his Phrenological Institute, and authored “Phrenology, Proved, Illustrated, and Applied.” From 1838 to 1911, his “American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany” was published. He even published a 1,052-page sex manual in 1870, a book that destroyed his reputation. He died in obscurity 17 years later.

Many Ashtabula County residents were subscribers to his journal, and, as late as 1879, there are newspaper references to phrenological meetings being held in the county.

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