The Octagon form of architecture was conceived in 1848 in the prolific mind of Orson Squire Fowler, phrenologist and author of books on sex, family relations, and many other subjects. His book A Home for All, or, the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building struck the fancy of a certain few, and Octagon homes were built across the country, for just about a decade until they fell out of favor almost overnight. This home in West Gardiner, Maine, was built by Jesse Tucker in 1856 on land his father had cleared, replacing a more standard structure. The new octagon house was being constructed as a gift to Jesse’s soon-to-be wife, but tragically fell from the roof of the barn when building, and died. The home was completed, and it was seemingly acquired by Jesse’s twin brother David. The home remained in the Tucker family until the 1950s.
The 16-sided Nott Memorial Hall is one of America’s most dramatic High Victorian buildings, is the centerpiece of the Union College campus (and a major reason for my stop in Schenectady when driving through New York). Union was the first non-denominational institution of higher education in the United States, and the second college established in the State of New York. Eliphalet Nott became college president in 1804, and envisioned an expanding campus to accommodate a growing school. In 1806 a large tract of land was acquired to the east of the Downtown Schenectady, on a gentle slope up from the Mohawk River. In 1812 French architect Joseph-Jacques Ramée, equally skilled in landscapes and structures, was then hired to draw up a comprehensive plan for the new campus. Ramée worked on drawings for about a year, and construction of two of the college buildings proceeded quickly enough to permit occupation in 1814. The Union College campus thus became the first comprehensively planned college campus in the United States! As part of Remee’s plan for the campus, a round, Neo-Classic “pantheon” building was proposed at the center of campus (a prescendent for Thomas Jefferson’s plans for the University of Virginia just four years later). The building never materialized in Unions early days. Construction finally began on the building in 1858, based on designs by Edward Tuckerman Potter, grandson of President Nott, but apparently took nearly 20 years to complete due to the Civil War and funding issues. The Nott Memorial as completed, is 89 feet in diameter and capped with a ribbed dome. The dome is sprinkled with 709 small colored glass windows, making it one of the finest buildings on a college campus in the United States!
Lemuel Clarke Richmond (1782-1876), a whaler, built this Octagon home in his seventies. This was the second home he built in Bristol Rhode Island, the first being the Richmond-Herreshoff House I featured previously. When Lemuel Richmond sold his 1803 Federal style home, his home was empty as his wife passed and all of his children married and moved out of the house. Octagon houses are fairly rare nationwide, and most were built in a small timeframe in the 1850s. The publication of Orson Squire Fowler’s A Home for All: or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building in 1853 briefly brought popularity to octagonal structures. The
octagon, according to its proponents, offered greater floor space, increased air and sunlight, and was a healthful natural form. Orson Squire Fowler was a phrenologist (a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits) and lecturer who had a huge impact on American architecture, though only for about a decade. The Richmond House in Bristol also features an octagonal cupola, bracketed porch, and a single-room addition over the porch over the front door. Could you live in an Octagon?
The Paragon Park Carousel at Nantasket Beach in Hull, was built in 1928 for the Paragon Park Amusement Park (last featured), and is possibly the oldest remaining feature of the old park. When the park was created, many wealthy summer residents clutched their pearls as their quiet, peaceful summers would soon be overrun by those looking for rides and pleasure. From its inception in 1905, Paragon Park placed a carousel at the hub of its amusement attractions, just south of the main entrance gate. While this was just the first of several carousels to be installed in the park, its inclusion in the earliest iteration of Paragon Park shows the importance of the form as an attraction. The current carousel was built in 1928 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company for Paragon Park, the carousel featured two chariots pulled by two horses each and had four rows of horses (66 in all). One of only 18 four-row carousels ever produced by Philadelphia Toboggan Company it is some forty feet in diameter. Housed in a specially built twelve-sided stucco structure to protect the delicate motor and paint in poor weather. When Paragon Park was sold to developers in 1986, parts of the carousel ride were auctioned off, but most were purchased by a locally organized preservation committee. That same year, it was moved a short distance to its present location to save it from the wrecking ball. It is now operated by the Friends of the Paragon Carousel.
The Old Round Church in Richmond, Vermont, was built in 1812-13 under the direction of local craftsman William Rhodes to be the Town Meeting Hall and place of worship for members of five denominations in the area. While the church is known as the Old Round Church, it is actually a sixteen-sided polygon, but I think it is safe to say the Old Round Church sounds better than the Old Hexadecagon Church… Traditionally, 18th- and 19th-century meetinghouses were rectangular in form and many followed popular builders’ pattern books which standardized the rectangular Wren-Gibbs architectural type. Experimentation was generally limited to decorative detail, steeples, porches or the orientation of the entrance, and not to the form, which is why this building is so unique. Within a few decades of the church’s opening, the founding denominations began to move out, some of them to build worship places elsewhere in town. In 1880, the Old Round Church reverted to the Town of Richmond and continued in use as the town’s meeting hall until 1973, at which time safety concerns forced its closure to the public.The Richmond Historical Society was formed in 1973, shortly before the church had to be closed and in 1976, the town deeded the church to the society, who then gathered funds to restore the building, protecting it from a much darker future. The Old Round Church remains one of the most unique architectural designs in Vermont and is always a treat to drive by in all seasons!
One of the more “Vermont” building types is the cattle barn. When I was driving through the charming town of Tunbridge, I saw a massive barn out of the corner of my eye and had to slam on the brakes to get out and take a photo of one of the most unique I have ever seen! This octagonal bam was built by Lester Whitney, a descendent of the Whitney family, which played a significant role in the pioneering, settlement and community life of the historical town of Tunbridge. The Whitney Farm was primarily a dairy farm, with the growing of corn and hay, raising horses, making butter, and cutting ice from a pond created by damming the brook near the old brickyard. The Whitney’s raised sheep, made maple syrup and had an apple orchard south of the house. The purpose of a round barn was that the circular shape has a greater volume-to-surface ratio than a square barn. Regardless of size, this made round barns cheaper to construct than similar-sized square or rectangular barns because they required less materials. It also would be easier for carriages, plows and animals to navigate as there were no sharp corners to go around.
One of the most unique buildings I have ever seen is the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The chapel, built in 1870 in the American Stick Style, is in the form of an Octagon, very unique for churches. Built as an inter-denominational house of worship, it is significant as the first non-sectarian religious building to be erected in a community that until 1870, was noted primarily for its strong association with the Methodist Church and its summer camp meeting (Wesleyan Grove) assemblies. The Chapel offered islanders and seasonal visitors regardless of religious affiliation
not only an opportunity to worship but a gathering place for cultural activities. According to historic images, the chapel once had more elaborate stick work and finials, since removed, likely due to storms and general maintenance concerns. The chapel was designed by island resident Samuel Freeman Pratt (1824-1920) who had no known architectural training besides working as a wood carver in Boston, yet his work is characterized as having a dynamic and festive style. Pratt’s other major contribution to Oak Bluffs’ architecture, the Sea View Hotel, was erected at the head of the wharf in 1872, but burned down in 1892.
Sally Francis Jones, born in Danvers in 1812, married George Nourse in November of 1832, at the age of 20. The couple had two children before 1838, when George was lost at sea and never returned home. Sally lived in the family home for some time until she sold the estate and purchased land from a family friend in town. With both of her children out of the home, she decided to build a distinct Octagon house. Influenced by Joshua Silvester, who built a cement barn in the octagon shape attached to his cement house at 11 Peabody Avenue, today across from the Peabody Institute Library, her home was constructed of a brown concrete and painted a brown color, giving the house the nickname “the mud house”. Ms. Jones resided in the home for ten years, before selling the home. The house remains as one of a few extant Octagon homes in Massachusetts, and a rare example of a concrete Octagon home.
One of the most unique homes close to Boston is the Enoch Robinson House, built in 1854 by its original owner. Enoch Robinson (1801-1888) was a noted inventor and businessman. Born in Boston, he apprenticed to his gunsmith father in a variety of trades including glass-cutting. Robinson moved to East Cambridge in 1825, and entered the New England Glass Company. He developed a patented method of pressing glass furniture knobs in 1826. In 1837, he built a furnace and factory in Boston to manufacture knobs and established a lock business in 1839. With his sons, Robinson operated the lock business for many years. He moved to Somerville in 1847 and built his unique house in 1856.
The house is located on Atherton Street in the Spring Hill neighborhood of Somerville and stands out among traditional late-19th century homes nearby. The home diverts away from Octagon homes because who needs corners anyways. The exterior of the Round House features two flush stories, with a third stepped back behind battlements. The home was vacant by the 1970s until in 1986, a restoration program, led by students from Boston’s North Bennet Street School did a small amount of work renovating the exterior, but the project fell apart and the house remained in a state of decay. The home was purchased by a contractor in 2007 who worked with the Somerville Historical Commission to restore the home to its former glory. It is now a single family home.