'Octagons' stand as relics of past

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The octagonal-shaped house had its heydey just before the Civil War, and many examples survive in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, as well as in a few other states.

Why an octagon?

A self-styled architect and builder of the day, Orson Fowler, wrote a book in 1853 entitled: "A Home for All." The author theorized on solar energy and argued that a house should be heated through many windows in walls that always receive the rays of the sun. Further, he said, a house can be easily cooled by allowing the heated air to escape near the roof as the fresh breeze sweeps into the house through the windows.

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The book launched an "octagonal craze," even though a few eight-sided buildings had been built many years before. Many people began to build homes, barns, churches, and schools according to the suggestions of Orson Fowler.

The fad lasted less than 10 years as the money panic of 1857 brought a halt to numerous builders' dreams and resources. Some "octagons" continued to be built, however. The structures that are still standing today can, for the most part, be considered relics of a historic past.

In 1973, Fowler's book was republished by Dover Publications Inc. of New York.

Ohio alone has 20 octagon buildings, five of them in Ashtabula County, in the northeast corner of the state.

Conneaut, a city of 15,000, boasts of two such houses, plus an octagon barn. The Cummins Cannery built the first octagon in 1863, 10 years after the Fowler book, and the building had many owners over the years. At one time it housed a bicycle-repair business and another time it was a two-apartment dwelling.

In 1955 Mr. and Mrs. Carmen Zeppettella bought the big house and began to modernize the interior. The result is a 15-room house designed for contemporary living even while retaining the flavor of its historic past.

A third generation of the W. C. Kaiser family still occupies a 10-room, red-brick octagon in Conneaut that was built in 1860.

Two octagon barns were built on the Lue B. Turner farm in Conneaut in the 1870s. While only one remains today, it is a splendid example of the barns of yesteryear.

When the surviving barn was built, imported blue-glass windows from Belgium were installed. Today the windows are boarded over. The only remaining artifact is the weather vane, which denotes, by its bovine outline, that this was a dairy farm.

An 1840 octagon residence on State Route 46, near New Lyme, belongs to the James Kukla family. It was reportedly a stop on the underground railway during the Civil War.

Another underground terminal is the Douglas Dolan home near Windsor, built by W. H. Higley in 1847. Mr. Higley was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, who had designed and built an octagonal retreat in Lynchburg, Va., which later burned.

The octagonal lookout tower on top of the Dolan home was used to sight signal lights of approaching refugees during the Civil War. In clear weather, visbility is good as far away as Bloomfield, eight miles off.

Clarence Darrow, the famed lawyer and crusader for human rights, was born in Farmdale, Ohio, in 1858 but grew up in an octagon house in Kinsman. The house was bought three years ago by its present owner, Mrs. Eleanor Logan Brown, and it is largely through her efforts that the house has been restored to the beauty and authenticity of a century ago.

Mrs. Jean Sherry, former owner of the Darrow house, is credited with having the house recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Large or small, one floor or four, the octagon house still holds a fascination for anyone who appreciates the old -- even an eight-sided house.

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