Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
There are a few things that the houses we profile in this space have in common: They all are old, they all have fireplaces, and they all are rectangular (or some amalgamation of rectangular boxes stacked atop or attached alongside each other). That is, until now.
In the 1850s, a phrenologist named Orson Squire Fowler (who was also a polymath of sorts) penned a treatise on homes that he hoped would shift the conversation away from the boring and overused rectangular plan of houses onto a different and more efficient shape, that of the octagon.
Outlined rather humorously, whether he wanted it so or not, in the 1854 book A Home for All: Or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, Fowler argues that an octagon encloses approximately 20 percent more space than a square of the same perimeter, therefore rendering it a more efficient and economical shape for a house.
Fowler also proposes that the more common style of house at the time, one of a rectangle with wings off to the side (presumably used for servant quarters), is wildly inefficient and—even worse—simply unattractive. "And then, how it looks!" Fowler writes. "Wings on a house are not quite as good taste as on birds. How would a little apple or peach look stuck on each side of a large one? Yet winged houses are just as disjointed and out of taste." The shade of it all.
Fowler expounds upon his ideal octagonal home, which includes central heating, a cistern for collecting rainwater, and a water filtration system: "Filtered rainwater is the very best drinking water in the world," he says. What Fowler seems to be doing is looking for the very best quality of life at home. And an octagon-shaped house is his answer.
The book was wildly successful when it hit bookstores in the mid-19th century and, as a result, thousands of houses and barns were built according to Fowler’s specifications. Some of those houses are on the market today, stretching from the northeast to the south. Here are a few of them.
Lutherville Timonium, Maryland (4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, $769,000)
Built in 1856—just two years after Fowler released his book—this 2,880-square-foot home features floor-to-ceiling windows, two (working) fireplaces, and a bevy of angular rooms that must be a little perplexing, at first, to furnish.
What’s great about this house, which sits just 20 minutes north of Baltimore, is how it has been maintained and updated over its lifetime. The kitchen has been refitted with modern appliances and countertops that work with the angles of the house and the bathrooms have been sensitively restored, but the woodwork hasn’t been disturbed at all, something rare in houses that receive a 21st-century update. This is your choice for move-in-ready, octagonal living.
Guilford, Connecticut (4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, $649,000)
What curb appeal this octagonal house in New England has! We're especially into the paneled front door, the little eyebrow windows just under the roofline, and the matching octagonal garage in back.
While the circa-1856 house has been updated inside, probably a bit too much for our liking (see what we said about these renovated houses getting stripped of some detail?) there are still some wonderful architectural moments inside. Case in point: Take a look at the wide floorboards throughout the house, the fireplace in the kitchen, and the stunning spiral staircase in the heart of the home.
The central stairwell, which culminates in an octagonal cupola, allows light and air into the home. Another quality of these houses that Fowler boasted about is how bright they are, thanks to the variety of angles by which light can enter the house and its rooms.
Portsmouth, Virginia (3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, $90,000)
While, yes, we will be among the first to admit that this house needs a lot of work, we can’t help but fall for the idea of fixing up a historic house. Maybe we’ve been reading our Renovation Diaries series one too many times, but there is something to be said about simultaneously rehabilitating and renovating an old house into something customized and new.
This brick house, built in the early 20th century, is actually a bit atypical for octagonal houses. Fowler hated bricks, and the building of octagonal houses dropped off steeply in the late 1800s.
Inside, there is a host of bad synthetic wood paneling that we’re sure is hiding a century’s worth of detail. Seeing what’s behind all of that would be like the architectural equivalent of going on a treasure hunt—hopefully there’s a bit of gold behind that wood paneling, instead of a whole mess of mold.