Octagon houses

This exhibit was created in collaboration with Emily Nelson, an undergraduate History major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


A tour of 19th century Wisconsin architecture brings up lumber baron’s mansions, dairy barns, and . . . octagon houses? It was once a craze among the stylish to structure their homes in the shape we now associate with stop signs. Around the time Wisconsin became a state, this trend caught on in its major cities. Milwaukee in particular embraced octagonal homes wholeheartedly.

Floor plan for an octagon home, from Orson Squire Fowler's "A Home for All: Or, A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior form of Building." Internet Archive via Google Books/University of Michigan.

Floor plan for an octagon home, from Orson Squire Fowler’s “A Home for All: Or, A New Cheap, Convenient, and Superior form of Building,” 1848. Internet Archive via Google Books/University of Michigan.

The unique shape was made popular by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler of New York, who promoted a healthier lifestyle through design. In his book A Home For All: Or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building (1848), Fowler argued that a building with eight sides would be better lit and better ventilated through its ceiling cupola. Though its health benefits are arguable, the greater volume of space the octagon afforded homeowners was obvious.

Approximately one thousand octagon houses were built in America between roughly 1850-1870. Though fewer than one hundred graced the landscape of Wisconsin, those that did are rich in history.

Octagon house in Pewaukee, photographed ca. 1940. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-43256, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Octagon house in Pewaukee, photographed ca. 1940. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-43256, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Curiously enough, whether due to their odd shape or their age, octagon houses are often reported to have supernatural residents. The octagon house in Fond du Lac offers tours advertising the high possibility of a ghostly experience. The story associated with a home in Pewaukee claims that the man who built it killed his wife and that mysterious noises now haunt the walls. This may, however, be more likely caused by the intercommunication speaking tubes installed in the walls.

Surviving Octagons

Most octagon houses in Wisconsin have been torn down in favor of more modern construction. Some, however, are still cherished by their communities. The most famous, the Moffat Octagon House in St. Croix County and the Watertown Octagon House in Jefferson County, are maintained as historical museums.

Octagon house in Hudson, constructed in 1855 for Judge John S. Moffat. The home, shown here around 1877, is now a museum operated by the St. Croix County Historical Society. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-5671, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Octagon house in Hudson, constructed in 1855 for Judge John S. Moffat. The home, shown here around 1877, is now a museum operated by the St. Croix County Historical Society. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-5671, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Octagon house in Watertown, constructed in 1853. This image, a colored glass lantern slide, dates to 1938. C. E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection, Kenosha History Center.

Octagon house in Watertown, constructed in 1853. This image, a colored glass lantern slide, dates to 1938. C. E. Dewey Lantern Slide Collection, Kenosha History Center.

Watertown’s octagon house was designed and built in 1853 by John Richards, the first lawyer in Jefferson County. The house is one of the largest single family residences of the pre-Civil War period in Wisconsin. Presented to the Watertown Historical Society by descendants of the Richards family in the summer of 1939, it features eight sides, three stories, four chimneys and fifty-seven rooms of rich mahogany furniture and 19th century luxury. Richards’ grandson, William Thomas, suggested that such luxury was prompted by competition among Watertown settlers to out-do each other in building their homes.

Vanished Octagons

Gordon Cottage on Humboldt Avenue in Milwaukee, shown in 1898. Built before the Civil War by candy maker George Gordon, this home was razed by the City of Milwaukee Park Commission in 1940. Milwaukee Public Library.

Gordon Cottage on Humboldt Avenue in Milwaukee, shown in 1898. Built before the Civil War by candy maker George Gordon, this home was razed by the City of Milwaukee Park Commission in 1940. Milwaukee Public Library.

Linus Dewey, a house-painter from Minnesota, built this home on Milwaukee’s 4th Street in 1855. According to the Historical Messenger, published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 1947, after it fell into the hands of renters with the passing of the Deweys, one resident is believed to have used some of the interior woodwork for firewood. The house has since been torn down. Milwaukee Public Library.

Linus Dewey, a house-painter from Minnesota, built this home on Milwaukee’s 4th Street in 1855. According to the Historical Messenger, published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 1947, after it fell into the hands of renters with the passing of the Deweys, one resident is believed to have used some of the interior woodwork for firewood. The house has since been torn down. Milwaukee Public Library.

Stereograph of octagonal schoolhouse, 1857. Ripon Historical Society.

Stereograph of octagonal schoolhouse, 1857. Ripon Historical Society.

The Milton House in Rock County is not an octagon but a hexagon. This six-sided poured concrete structure was built as a stagecoach inn in 1849 and was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is now maintained as a museum by the Milton Historical Society. Photograph by Lowell “Bud” Gruver, 1982. Hedberg Public Library, Janesville.

The Milton House in Rock County is not an octagon but a hexagon. This six-sided poured concrete structure was built as a stagecoach inn in 1849 and was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is now maintained as a museum by the Milton Historical Society. Photograph by Lowell “Bud” Gruver, 1982. Hedberg Public Library, Janesville.


Sources

The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections:

  • Janesville’s Past, Hedberg Public Library. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
  • Kenosha County History: Images and Texts, 1830s-1940s. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
  • Milwaukee Historic Photos, Milwaukee Public Library
  • Ripon Historical Society
  • Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society
  • Further reading

  • Zida C. Ivey, “The Famous Octagon House at Watertown,” Wisconsin Magazine of History vol. 24, no. 2 (December 1940)
  • Robert Kline and Ellen Puerzer, “Wisconsin,” Inventory of Older Octagon, Hexagon, and Round Houses
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