An Eccentric Victorian, His Book and the Giant Pink Pastry of a House He Inspired

Has any man in history loved anything as much as Orson Squire Fowler loved the octagon? Fowler, born in Cohocton, N.Y., in 1809, published a book in 1848 arguing that all houses should be eight-sided. He influenced a (failed) utopian community in Kansas called Octagon City, delivered an estimated 350 public orations on octagon supremacy and built himself a 60-room octagonal palace in upstate New York.

His enthusiasm was not merely contagious but downright virulent. In the decades following the publication of “The Octagon House: A Home for All,” octagonal homes “broke out in New York State like a rash,” as an article in this newspaper put it. So too in the Midwest, which briefly became a hotbed of Fowler-incited dwellings.

An architect’s rendering of the octagonal Armour-Stiner House in Irvington, N.Y.Credit…Illustrations by Joseph Pell Lombardi & Associates

His résumé is that of a classic 19th-century polymath. Fowler was a sexologist, hydrotherapy proponent, amateur architect, publisher (including of Walt Whitman), phrenologist (chronistically, if unfortunately) and eclectic lecturer who evangelized on behalf of vegetarianism, women’s suffrage, prison reform, dancing and mesmerism. He believed in a diet consisting of wheat bread and fruit juice; he contended implausibly that glass was the best material for a home’s roof. If Fowler was an eccentric pebble dropped into the pond of Victorian America, the remaining octagons scattered across the United States are a final faint ripple of his influence.

“The Octagon House” — which is available free online — is where Fowler consolidated and illustrated his lust for eight-sided polygons. In it, he describes octagonal construction as “far better” in “every way” and “several hundred percent cheaper” than any other building method. Along with being pro-octagon, Fowler was anti-other-shapes, dismissing many of them in a section called “Defects in the Usual Shapes of Houses.” The square comes in for especially vicious criticism. “Is the right-angle the best angle? Can not some radical improvement be made, both in the outside form and the internal arrangement of our houses?” Fowler asks at the beginning of a section whose title — “Superiority of the Octagon Form” — strongly foreshadows the endpoint of his rhetorical questioning. (Six pages later he fully tips his hand, admitting that he finds square cottages “deformed.”)

Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

The means by which I discovered “The Octagon House” was — brace yourself — an octagon house. One day in July I was moaning to my most proactive friend about being bored. Minutes later she had booked tickets for a Sunday afternoon tour of the Armour-Stiner Octagon House in Irvington, N.Y., which she’d been eager to visit for years.

Built in 1860 by a banker named Paul Armour, the home was bought and renovated in 1872 by the tea merchant Joseph Stiner, who operated dozens of stores in Manhattan alone. (Like Starbucks, but olde.) It was Stiner who went hog-wild with décor, outfitting the manse with ornamentation so elaborate it looks like the result of fractal growth. Fanciful ironwork twirls around a veranda painted in colors reminiscent of apothecary lozenges: rose, raspberry, cream, burgundy, violet. He also topped the house with a cupcake-like dome and embedded the face of his prized show dog, Prince, in 42 locations across the property.

Carl Carmer, who once owned the Armour-Steiner House, is shown here in 1951 in front of one of the metal dog’s heads mounted onto the porch railing.Credit…Fred J. Sass/The New York Times

Although it is privately owned, this crown jewel of octagonal living is open to the public for a mere $29. The price of admission includes an expertly annotated journey through the interior and an invitation to explore the adjacent foxglove garden and greenhouse, or simply to relax on the porch and consider a birdhouse depicting the house in enchantingly precise miniature.

The birdhouse is a miniature replica of the main house.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Since 1978 the Armour-Stiner property has been under the stewardship of Joseph Pell Lombardi, an architect who bought it for $75,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The purchase came with conditions: Lombardi was required to restore the home to its former splendor and could not subdivide the three-and-a-half-acre lot. No problemo. Lombardi was equipped with not only the guts but the goods to accept this assignment, having previously led restorations of the Chrysler Building lobby and Liberty Tower.

Over some 40 years Lombardi meticulously rehabilitated the house. He assembled a full set of long-discontinued Roman Medallion silverware, shored up the house’s dome (then collapsing in slo-mo) and embarked on a forensic analysis of paint layers to ensure that modern swatches matched post-Civil War hues. Gnarled roots in the garden were studied to establish the species and placement of vanished trees. Missing roof pieces were sourced from slate quarries and installed in their original pattern.

The rich slate shingle detail of the domed roof — and the striped porch roof — can be seen from above.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

It was a twinkling sunlit day when my friend and I approached the house from its pink-tinted concrete walkway. Ten other visitors had reserved spots on the tour and the group was barely able to stifle the merriment that attends any chance, paid or not, to invade a stranger’s residence.

Just inside the entryway stood a walking stick with a man’s tiny numbered head for a knob.

“Do any of you guys know what phrenology is?” asked the tour guide, a young woman named Lila.

“Yes,” the group nodded.

“By now, of course, we know that connecting the lumps and bumps of a person’s skull to their inner personality traits is a total pseudoscience,” Lila said. (More nods.) The walking stick, she explained, was a reference to, you guessed it, Orson Squire Fowler, the octagon superfan who had inspired the gleaming bauble in which we stood.

Inhabiting a complete aesthetic vision is one of the pleasures of encountering any successful work of art, and the feeling is enhanced when that art is something you can physically occupy. The tour group sighed over an Egyptian Revival-themed music room with pharaoh-embroidered chairs and a spinet piano decorated with hieroglyphs (or, rather, “an Americanized version of an English interpretation of Egyptian motifs,” as Lila put it. Not unlike an interior-design version of the game “Telephone”).

The music room.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

One of the quirks of an octagonal floor plan is that the main rooms are sandwiched between smaller triangular spaces. What these pie-slice rooms lack in practicality they make up for in hide-and-seek potential. A second feature of octagonal homes is an abundance of windows. This aligns neatly with the Victorian mania for ventilation: Stagnant air, Fowler wrote, “renders intellect obtuse, memory confused, and the feelings blunt.” Like humans, homes must breathe, and a house without ample oxygen was merely a tomb.

One of the house’s wedge-shaped rooms as it appeared in 1966.Credit…Bill Aller/The New York Times
This is a pie slice-shaped room as it appears in the Armour-Stiner house today.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

As a work of theory, “The Octagon House” wobbles. Fowler’s phrenological follies have a way of oozing into his architectural conjectures. Animal habitations, he writes, correspond perfectly with the characteristics of their residents — for proof, look no further than the “coarse nest” of the equally “coarse-grained” goose! So too with humans. To Fowler, a fine and elegant house signified — and yet was also, somehow, the cause of — the fineness and elegance of its tenants.

It couldn’t have been Fowler’s flimsy arguments that prompted thousands of Americans to build octagon homes. The magnetism of his book arises from an aura of hearty encouragement and celebration of the can-do spirit. To leaf through its pages is to behold a sort of proto-“Whole Earth Catalog.” D.I.Y. tips and diagrams abound. There are budget recommendations and layout ideas for a “poor man’s” octagon. The need for credentials is dismissed with a wave of the hand; who needs formal degrees when you have a vague but achievable idea of “progress”?

This classified ad ran in The Times on Feb. 10, 1946.
This clipping is from a Times article dated May 22, 1951.

If Fowler, who died in 1887, could time-travel to our present era, he would face a mixed bag of revelations. The growth of plant-based diets and sex positivity would exhilarate him, assuming he’d have a chance to enjoy those developments before being irreversibly canceled for his phrenology zeal. Certainly he would be troubled by the diminishment of the octagon in today’s shapescape, where it primarily appears in a form that thrills nobody: as that universal killjoy, the STOP sign.

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