Eight Was Enough

Hundreds of octagon houses have outlasted the 1850s trend.

The Hill-Jones Octagon House opened last year after a three-year restoration.

Credit: Peter Rulon

Once plagued by woodpecker holes, rotting timbers, and falling plaster, the Hill-Jones Octagon House recently resumed its place as the centerpiece of the community of Cedar Point, N.C.

The eight-sided, two-story structure was built in the early 1850s as a home for plantation owner Edward Hill. When its last owner moved out in the 1970s, it began a downhill tumble into disrepair and decay. The coastal North Carolina dwelling has withstood countless hurricanes, blistering summers, and foraging wildlife. Until the owners deeded the property to a fraternal organization five years ago, the structure appeared destined for certain demolition. Today it's completely restored.

The house is one of the few hundred houses built from plans formulated by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler in his 1849 book The Octagon House: A House for All. Octagonal houses came into brief vogue in the 1850s when Fowler, a leading practitioner of phrenology (the "science" of determining a person's character by the shape of his skull), claimed the octagonal configuration was more practical than ordinary floor plans, as well as more efficient to heat and cool.

Although his enchantment with the architectural form didn't set off a stampede for the unusual design, the structures popped up in limited number around the country. Now, more than 150 years after the publication of Fowler's book, architectural historians estimate that only several hundred octagon houses remain.

Architect John Milnes Baker, author of American House Styles: A Concise Guide, says there's a renewed interest in preserving historically significant architecture. "And octagon houses certainly have benefited from that interest," Baker says.

Most, as the former dwelling places of local elite, have been converted into community museums. One, built in 1856 in Camillus, N.Y., which boasts eight square rooms with a corresponding number of triangular rooms and a deep cellar, is now owned and operated by the town. Another house now operated by a nonprofit in Washington, Mich., underwent a number of transformations, including stints as a farm, a restaurant, and a college campus. Watertown, Wisc., recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of its massive, solid-brick octagon house, with five stories and 57 rooms.

While relatively rare in foreign architecture, octagons appear more frequently in America. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, constructed at least one octagon-shaped building, Poplar Forest, south of Lynchburg, Va., which was built in 1805. Jefferson also employed a circular design in many of his other creations.

"Why the octagon became such an icon in the United States remains a mystery," says Tom F. Peters, a professor of architecture and history at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and director of the school's Building and Architectural Technical Institute.

The privately owned octagon houses built in the Fowler era often had central spiral staircases rising through the floors like a gateway to the clouds and crowning cupolas, which provided both light and ventilation. Odd-shaped rooms, hidden nooks and crannies, and a profusion of windows lend the dwellings an eccentric charm.

Octagon houses in the South dwindled during the Civil War when Union troops used some as shelter or destroyed them. Union soldiers occupied the Hill-Jones Octagon House, and may have intended to torch it, historians believe, but it survived. 

Inside the Hill-Jones House's cupola

Credit: Peter Rulon

Last year, workers completed a three-year renovation of the Cedar Point house, transforming the property from vacant derelict to the center of a planned retirement community and children's summer camp.

The house passed through several generations of Hill's direct descendents until its last owner, also a descendant, gave it and its 60-acre site to the Masons five years ago, according to Brian Lassiter, the Hill-Jones Octagon House project manager. The new owners wanted the house restored.

"One of the conditions was that we had to keep the character of the house completely intact during our renovation work," Lassiter says. That often meant going to great lengths to stay true to the house's original construction. "We bought cypress siding and had it milled to match what was already on there."

Like many of the octagon houses built during this period, the North Carolina residence was constructed of premium hardwoods. Others were made using a type of unreinforced concrete advocated by Fowler.

Since the Hill-Jones house is situated on the coast in an area known for its fishing and ship construction, project manager Lassiter believes shipwrights constructed it during the off-season. Heavy beams and other touches belie the maritime influence, and Lassiter says the solid construction is one reason the house has lasted. "The house's shape perfectly deflects the wind," Lassiter says.

As symbols, octagons have been incorporated into Native American burial mounds, and Feng Shui practitioners claim they imply harmony. Although a few prisons have used an eight-sided design, octagons primarily exist in today's culture in the form of stop signs and warnings of hazardous material.

As a floor plan for private dwellings, the octagon has probably reached its nadir. However, as the few standing octagon houses silently attest, some ideas not only outlive their creators but withstand both the forces of nature and time.

This story was originally published on Preservation Online on January 28, 2005.  

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