The Octagon Houses of Orson Fowler

Mar 10, 2021 1 comments

Orson Fowler wanted to design the best house, but he detested the traditional boxy shapes. Too many right angles, he thought. In his mind, the circle was the most natural shape, but since a circular house was difficult to construct out of wood, he made a compromise—the octagon.

Fowler started a craze for eight-sided houses, that lasted throughout the second half of the 19th century, with the publication of his book, The Octagon House: A Home for All, in 1848. “The octagon form is more beautiful as well as capacious, and more consonant with the predominant and governing form of nature, the spherical,” Fowler wrote.

Rich-Twinn Octagon House

The Rich-Twinn Octagon House in Akron, New York, was built in 1849 and was restored to its current state in the 1990s. Today it is a house museum and is occasionally open for touring. Photo: Zrfphoto /

Fowler was America's foremost lecturer and practitioner of phrenology, a pseudoscience that seeks to track down an individual’s many personality traits to the bumps and dents on his skull. This quack theory was originally developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, and although his writings were not universally accepted, many found merit in his arguments, because it helped justify the prevailing prejudices, such as racism (Fowler wrote that coarse hair of African people correlated with coarse fibers in the brain, and thus coarse feelings) and gender stereotyping (the characteristic shape of a woman’s head was believed to be indication of underdeveloped organs necessary for success in the arts and sciences.)

Fowler set up offices in Manhattan, Boston, and Philadelphia, and eventually in London, where he felt the heads of his clients and made an estimate of their character, in much the same way an astrologer reads palms and predicts the future. Fowler attracted many notable personalities including President James Garfield, John Brown the abolitionist, Oliver Wendell Holmes the jurist and author, and Clara Barton, the future founder of the American Red Cross. Fowler reportedly told Barton, then 15 years old, that “she would never assert herself for herself …and that she would suffer wrong first—but for others she would be fearless.”

chart of phrenology

A chart of phrenology from “Webster's Academic Dictionary”, circa 1895. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fowler also attracted Mark Twain, but not because the latter believed in phrenology. Twain appeared before Fowler in disguise to test the phrenologist, and allowed him to examine Twain’s head. Fowler ran his hand over the writer’s head and announced that he found a small cavity in Twain’s head where there should have been a bump. Fowler observed that this represented a total absence of a “sense of humor”. Twain felt humiliated by this assessment, but he swallowed his pride and kept his feelings to himself. Three months later, Twain went back to Fowler for a second opinion, but this time revealed his identity. Twain was amused when Fowler immediately found the loftiest “bump of humor” where he had previously found a cavity.

Orson Fowler

Orson Fowler

Fowler’s studies in phrenology took him into another field, where instead of studying the contours of the skull he began to study the shapes of houses. It was under this new role as an architect, that Fowler proposed the octagon house. Fowler argued that the octagon afforded increased floor space for the same perimeter as that of a square or rectangular house, and larger wall areas for windows which translated to more light. It wasted less space on hallways since all rooms radiated from one central hall. Not only an octagonal house was more healthy to live in, it was also less costly to build.

To illustrate and justify the technical and ideological proposals that the book outlined, Fowler built a magnificent octagonal house for his family in Fishkill, New York. The house had four floors and sixty rooms and forty other miscellaneous rooms and closets. At the center stood a spiral staircase that rose seventy feet to a glass enclosed octagonal cupola. Each floor was encircled by a porch that went all the way around. The house had central heating, running water, indoor flush toilets, a roof cistern to collect rain water, natural gas lighting, and a water filtration system. There were speaking tubes for inter-communication between the various rooms, and dumbwaiters to bring foods from the kitchen in the basement to the dining room.

Orson Fowler’s house in Fishkill, New York

Orson Fowler’s house in Fishkill, New York. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fowler’s idea of octagon-shaped houses caught on at once, and hundreds of octagonal houses were built across United States and Canada. The fad continued into the 1890s, but the majority of these houses were built in the 1860s, before the American Civil War.

According to one estimate, more than two thousand octagonal houses still stand; many of these are now designated National Historic Landmarks of the United States. Notable examples include an octagonal house named Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi, built by millionaire cotton dealer, Dr. Haller Nutt; Armour-Stiner House in the Hudson River valley in New York, which is perhaps the only domed octagon house in the world; The Octagon House in Washington, D.C. where President Madison lived after the White House was burnt by the British; Thomas Jefferson's retreat Poplar Forest; and May's Folly in Georgia, to name a few.

Armour–Stiner House

Armour–Stiner House in Irvington, New York, built in 1859. Photo: csouza_79/Wikimedia Commons

The McElroy Octagon House on Gough St. San Francisco, California

The McElroy Octagon House on Gough St. San Francisco, California, built in 1861. Photo: David Edelman /

Yale-Cady Octagon House in in Newport, New York

Yale-Cady Octagon House in in Newport, New York, built in 1849. Photo: Debra Millet /

Ezekiel B. Zimmerman’s octagon house

Ezekiel B. Zimmerman’s octagon house, built in 1883, in Ohio. Photo: Tom Bower/Wikimedia Commons

# John H. Martin, Saints, Sinners and Reformers, The Crooked Lake Review
# Eliseu Gonçalves, The Octagon in the Houses of Orson Fowler, Nexus Network Journal


  1. Inside layout and photos would have been nice. We can see the outside from the street.


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