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.
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?
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.