Thanks to the frenzy of enthusiasm for Victorian architecture during the 1970s-80s, we had lots of reference materials, largely in the form of period architectural magazines, coming across the doorstep. Plus, our reputation as builders of miniature Victorians brought in clippings from people all across the country. In one envelope was the story of the 1859-60 Orson Fowler-designed octagon house, the Armour-Stiner House (now the Carmer Octagon), in Irvington, NY, built in 1859-60, then recently nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. It was, and is, basically, a spectacular dome, all decked out in ornate Victorian gingerbread, and a fish-scale slate roof. It was so picturesque, so unusual and over-the-top loony, that we knew immediately we had to build it. We also realized it would take a particular kind of customer to love such a house. As we cut and glued our way through our tower Victorians, the idea of the octagon simmered along. That simmering was fired up by the purchase of a Dover re-issue of The Octagon House: A Home for All, Orson Fowler’s paean to the 8-sided house.
The octagon style has been referred to as the brain house, and rightfully so. Before he designed houses, Fowler practiced phrenology, the study of the skull’s bumps and contours to determine one’s character. While a brain-shaped, or round, house was not particularly practical, the modified octagon was. Fowler also championed women’s rights, suggesting the fairer sex throw off their corsets and follow a course of brisk exercise. To help this idea along he proposed an open, light-filled ballroom at the top of the house, where the presumably unfettered woman could jog and cavort in privacy or bad weather. He also put the all the home improvements in the basement or first floor as an aid to women, his theory being that once the wife made the beds upstairs, she could come down for the day “to pick berries for her husband’s lunch,” do the cooking, cleaning, laundry and dishes downstairs, thereby saving her multiple trips upstairs every day. One has to wonder at his notion of the only upstairs chore being to make the beds. And the berry picking? But his heart, I imagine, was in the right place. He also believed that square-cornered rooms harbored drafts and germs. I wondered what kind of furniture and carpets one put in pie-shaped rooms. Not to mention how we would do those thousands of tiny, fish-scale roof slates. Or a domed roof.
We had far more questions than answers about how to recreate such a structure in miniature, but were not deterred. I can’t remember exactly the sequence of events, but as the time approached for us to wind up #25, The Port Townsend House, I wrote to the next customer on the list to say her turn was coming up. It was another of those serendipitous moments when we broached, with trepidation, the idea of an octagon to her. Maybe we even sent her the initial sketch of the house. By then we were hooked, and had decided to build an octagon next, even if we had to search for a buyer. We waited for the mails to wend their way eastward. Then, I think the customer called. She couldn’t have been more enthusiastic—the octagon was a style she had studied and adored for years, to the point of wanting one in full-size. A woman after our own hearts, and the architect of another quirky adventure. In 1982 we commenced with the Octagon, house #26.