Scattered here and there through-out the Finger Lakes region you’ll find these curious octagonal structures – on a village street, nestled against a wooded hillside, overlooking a scenic valley or vineyard. They’re conspicuous and engaging in their angular quirkiness. Often with a large cupola protruding from the center of a gently sloping roof, or sporting an encircling veranda, each has its peculiar history and an appealing story.
Octagonal houses and buildings can be traced to antiquity, but their notable presence in New York State, particularly in and around the Finger Lakes, is no accident. Here the major proponent of their construction had his roots, but before his fascination with octagons surfaced, his life fol-lowed a much different path.
Orson Squire Fowler was born October 11, 1809 in a simple log farm-house on the present site of the municipal building in Cohocton, Steuben County. One of the first white children born in the tiny pioneer settlement, the youngster saw Cohocton erect its first sawmill, tannery, and schoolhouse.
Raised in a literate and devout family, and blessed with an active and fertile mind, Orson was influenced by his mother to write and encouraged by his father to enter the ministry. After taking preparatory studies with various clergy, he moved on to Ashfield Academy and eventually Amherst College in Massachusetts.
At Amherst Fowler befriended Henry Ward Beecher, later one of the great reform speakers of the day. The two attended a lecture by notedAustrian doctor, Johann Spurzheim, and were immediately taken with his odd topic, analyzing a person’s behav-ior and character by examining the bumps and contours of the cranium, all expressed in a refined language. The friends became immersed in this new science of phrenology, even earning money on the side with their own examinations and lectures. Fowler recalled that his fellow students “flocked around me, all curious to hear what I would say about them…”
Choosing a Path
After graduation in 1834, Fowler chose to forsake the ministry and vigorously set out to make a career of phrenology and other curiosities inhabiting his active mind. His philosophical interests were many and varied: from perfection of the human character to memory, from the benefits of fresh air to heredity, from careful selection of food and avoidance of stimulants to magnetism.
In New York City, with his broth-er Lorenzo and other family members, Fowler created a dynasty – lecturing, reading craniums, writing books and essays, and publishing. Tourists beat a path to the door of the Fowler Phrenological Institute to see its fascinating collection of skulls, used both for research and museum purposes. Having a cranial reading done by the Fowlers became a fashionable event for common folk and celebrities alike. As the prominent heads of a phrenological empire, the Fowlers became famous, wealthy and respected.
At the same time, their pseudo-science was sometimes satirized in the press, the institute once referred to as the firm of “Bumpus and Crane.” Even Mark Twain, always the skeptic and prankster, sought to debunk the Fowlers, on one occasion visiting Lorenzo anonymously for a “cold reading,” and then months later appearing as himself for a second examination. Later, Twain wittily related how the first visit’s analysis revealed his total absence of a sense of humor, while on the second Fowler located “the loftiest bump of humor he had ever encountered in his life-long experience.”
But as described by writer Carl Carmer, “Orson Fowler, with distinguished, flowing beard, high forehead, strong nose, and piercing blue eyes, continued to expound his phrenological and moral ideas from the lecture platform.” In Fowler’s mind, phrenology opened the door to individual self-improvement, and he tirelessly pro-moted his beliefs. Phrenology influenced much of accepted 19th century thinking on the motivation of behaviors, even finding its way into the works of Poe, Whitman, Melville, and other noted writers of the day.
As years passed, the business remained active, profitable and in reliable hands. Fowler, a bit eccentric and ever the innovative thinker, grew eager to indulge himself in yet another compulsion – architecture and design.
Home Sweet Octagonal Home
When in 1848 Fowler wrote and published his small volume, A Home for All: or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, the fad of the “Octagon Mode” was born. One reviewer called the book “novel,” saying, “Mr. Fowler’s architectural aphorisms are sensible, but peculiar.” The book went through multiple printings. Fowler’s theories and innovations were received with enthusiasm by imaginative readers infatuated by his melding of science and nature.
The heyday of the octagon building was underway. With a flourish, over the next decade or so, a few thou-sand of the odd structures popped up, casting their irregular shadows on the American landscape.
Today, by most estimates, less than 500 octagon buildings remain standing, a good many of them still dotting the Finger Lakes countryside. Some were built in a grand style utilizing Fowler’s most innovative suggestions, others in a more humble fashion matching the needs, financial means, and carpentry abilities of their owners. Materials used ran the gamut from wood to brick, from masonry to cobblestone.
For many reasons, Fowler considered the circle as found in nature to be the ideal form, and far superior to the constraints found in the square or rec-tangle. “The spherical is more beautiful than the angular,” he wrote, “and the smooth and undulating more beautiful than the rough and projecting.” He chose the octagon as the most practical approximation of the circle to test his theories for a healthy, convenient and economical living environment – in essence, a circle created with straight lumber.
In his writings Fowler extolled many functional and stylistic virtues of the Octagon Mode:
Floor space increased by 20 percent for the octagon over any four-sided structure requiring the same amount of construction material and expense.
Most rooms remained rectangular – odd shaped corners adapted to closets, cupboards and other “nooks and crannies” for storage.
Superior aesthetics. Novel features were encouraged, such as dumb waiters, speaking tubes, and even indoor toilets.
Large number of windows yielded more natural sunlight, better ventilation, thus cooler in the summer. Easier conservation of heat during the winter months.
“Grout” (consisting of lime, sand, and gravel) promoted as a building material – considered more substantial than brick or wood, and less expensive.
Circular center staircase was a space saver. Fewer corners in floor design saved steps, time and created more efficiency in carry-ing out daily tasks.
On occasion, the style was adapted to rural one-room schoolhouses, utility buildings, carriage houses, barns and even churches. In the case of schools and churches, Fowler argued the design provided more sociability, better acoustics, and enhanced “the interchange of friendly and benevolent feeling.” At least two former octagonal homes now serve as muse-ums in the Finger Lakes region. Both provide a fine opportunity for visitors’ questions, and their unusual features, history, and décor can be viewed up close with able assistance from informed guides. The Hyde House, built in Friendship, Allegany County shortly after the Civil War, was moved to the Genesee Country Village in Mumford in 1980. Julia and Erastus Hyde were spiritualists, and after their deaths occurred within two days of one another, it was believed their spirits continued to occupy the eight-sided home. Museum officials take great pride in the Hyde House and will verify some odd occurrences relating to the building. Another fine example of Fowler’s theories remains in Camillus, Onondaga County. Owned and operated by the town, the 1856 Wilcox House contains grout walls with stucco finish, both rectangular and triangular rooms,
circular central staircase, dumbwaiter, enclosing porch, and is topped with an eight-windowed cupola. It is open to the public on Sundays, holds special events, and can be viewed other times by appointment.
A Variety of Octagon Structures
Octagon buildings found in the region range from the modest to the elegant. The tiny old Billings Corners Schoolhouse in the town of Otisco, now a private residence, has increased somewhat in size with several additions over the years. Its original shape can be easily over-looked when passing the building at Octagon Road and state Route 80. Meanwhile, a landmark octagon in Geneva at Castle and North streets features Italian wrought iron railings and steps, a solid mahogany spiral staircase, black marble fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling windows in some rooms. The home, built in 1853, boasted the first bathtub in town, its water supply pumped to the house from a near-by spring.
The Smith family currently resides in the VanBurkirk-Raines House on Gorham Street in Canandaigua. The home, inhabited from 1872 to 1912 by Senator John Raines, was built just before the Civil War. “Grouped around the central staircase, each of the four first-floor rooms has a mantle-top mirror that reflects a portion of each of the other rooms,” says owner Scott Smith. He adds, “It’s a unique place to live, but with all the angles in its design, an octagon house can be a carpenter’s and a decorator’s nightmare.”
In 1859, a stately octagon home was built along the Pleasant Valley Road, a picturesque byway leading out of the village of Hammondsport. Timothy Younglove, son of one of the scenic valley’s earliest settlers, chose a suitable spot above the roadway for his sturdy domicile. A farmer and surveyor by trade, he also built an accompanying horse barn and smokehouse, both octagonal in shape. Neither survived a 1935 flood. Generations of the Younglove family occupied the Italianate-detailed residence for a full century. In recent years the house, sitting vacant, has deteriorated, but local residents hope it may soon have a new life.
Probably the most historic octagon building in the region sits in a shaded spot on the campus of Elmira College. Mark Twain spent summers for over 20 years at the Quarry Farm high above the town, finding inspiration for his work overlooking the wooded hills and the winding Chemung River. In a distinctive eight-sided study, perched on a knoll with a magnificent view, and created for him by his sister-in-law to resemble a steamboat’s pilothouse, he wrote major portions of many of his most celebrated books. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper all came to life in the cozy spot with its fireplace, desk and rustic book-shelves. The study was moved to the campus in 1952 and is open to visitors.
Continue searching and you’ll find a red schoolhouse near Ithaca, a barn tucked behind a home on Clinton Street in Penn Yan, a small frame house on West Street in Naples, a cobblestone utility building (once a smithy’s shop) in Alloway, a farmhouse (once rumored as a stop on the Underground Railroad) along Route 53 near Prattsburg, a tidy dwelling and matching barn in Homer, an attractive brick residence on a neighborhood street in Syracuse, and many more. Octagons all.
As for Orson S. Fowler, in the same year that he authored his famous volume, A Home for All, he began a master project of his own, a huge, four-story, 60-room octagon house in Fishkill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. Referred to by the local folk as “Fowler’s Folly,” work on the project continued on and off for over a decade. Progress would periodically stall, Fowler then setting out on lecture tours and other ventures to replenish his funds and renew his vitality for the task.
Orson Fowler died in August, 1887 after a full life of lecturing, writing, publishing – and thinking. His Fishkill octagon went through many ownerships and uses over the years, but in 1897, vacant, deteriorating and determined as unsafe by town authorities, it was razed.
Much of Orson Squire Fowler’s “scientific” work in phrenology was later discredited, but many of his ideas were ahead of their time. As for the Octagon Mode, Fowler would, no doubt, be proud to know that so many remnants of his inventive notions still stand in the region of his birth, and that they continue to draw interest to this day. In the end, the pioneer boy who once walked the woods and fished the streams of Cohocton left his indelible mark on the Finger Lakes landscape.
by Jim Hughes
Jim Hughes, a retired high school teacher living in Syracuse, enjoys writing about, photographing, and studying the history of the Finger Lakes region and upstate New York.