Friendship's Octagon House

    Many of the mid-1800 built Octagon homes have been lost to history.  Luckily, one of Allegany County's Octagon Homes was spared thanks to Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, NY. (A second one is presently in use as a family dwelling on South Main Street in Alfred, NY.)   In 1978, the museum acquired the vacant and long-neglected (c.1870) Hyde House from it's location on Elm Street in Friendship, NY, and dismantled it piece-by-piece to be shipped to Mumford.  It was then painstakingly reconstructed on the "village green" grounds at the museum and is open to the public for viewing. 

    Below is a photo of the Hyde Octagon House followed by more information.


    View of Hyde Octagon at Genesee Country Village & Museum - Mumford,NY 

(For more information on Genesee Country Village & Museum, visit their website: .)

    In 1848, Orson Squire Fowler, a native of the Genesee Country village of Cohocton, published A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building in which he announced that the octagon house, with its eight sides, enclosed more space than a square one with equal wall space. The octagonal form had been used in public buildings in the past, but now as a concept for domestic architecture, it had a dedicated and convincing champion. Fowler's books, stressing the functional and stylistic advantages of the octagon house, found many readers and several hundred followers who sprinkled the landscape from New England to Wisconsin with eight-sided houses, barns, churches, schoolhouses, carriage houses, garden houses, smokehouses and privies.

    When Corporal Hyde returned to Friendship, N.Y., from the Civil War, he briefly resumed farming and acquired an interest in a shingle mill. Along with his wife , Julia, he moved into the new octagonal house. He and his wife shortly joined a spiritualist group. Hyde later became a homeopathic physician. Julia Hyde, an accomplished musician and an ordained Methodist minister, held seances (it was said) in her parlor. When Julia died within two days of her husband, the belief arose that their departed spirits frequented the old, oddly-shaped house.

    The mid-19th century saw an American fascination with exotic architecture, and forms from other countries -- Turkish pavilions, Swiss chalets, Chinese pagodas -- began springing up. The unique American contribution to innovative house shapes was the octagon house, a style made popular by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler.


    Fowler extolled the virtues of healthier life-style and economy of his design. Although more than a thousand octagon houses were built, American preference for four-sided dwellings won out. Most of these homes, from grand mansions to humble country Victorians, were built within a decade between roughly 1850 and 1860.

    The octagonal shape lent itself to various embellishments of style, from Greek Revival, to Georgian, and even Moorish. Rare variations of the style include the circle and hexagon.

    The eight-sided house was more than an architectural invention to Fowler -- he extolled it as the pathway to a healthier lifestyle. The former medical student described an octagon house in his 1848 book, 'A Home for All; or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building.' Such a building, he argued would be better ventilated (through a cupola) and lighted, and thus healthier.

    Some benefits were more apparent: the houses provided a greater volume of space than a square or rectangular house and rooms were easily accessible from a central stair hall. Fowler claimed that the "gravel-wall construction" (poured concrete) made the octagon house cheaper to build. Most octagons, however, were built of wood or brick, which in fact, meant higher costs to adapt these structural materials to the 135 degree contours of the octagon.

    Decades before Fowler's book was published, another architectural pioneer, Thomas Jefferson, began building Poplar Forest. The eight-sided brick structure featured such innovations as skylights and an indoor privy, and was the only octagonal house built by Jefferson. George Washington also dabbled in revolutionary architectural ideas -- building in 1792 a 16-sided threshing barn on his Mount Vernon estate.

    But it was Fowler who inspired a building boom of octagonal houses.  Many, including the author's own massive 60-room "Fowler's Folly" near Fishkill, New York, have been destroyed over the years, but a significant number of octagon houses still survive.

    Fowler also achieved fame as a phrenologist believing in the theory that mental abilities and character traits could be 'read' by studying the shape of one's head. One of the more famous skulls Fowler studied was that of Cornelius Alverson Burleigh, in 1830 the first man executed by hanging in London. The unfortunate Burleigh was the victim of a botched execution, and failed to die on the first hanging attempt. The stunned prisoner climbed back up the scaffold and was hanged a second time. This time the execution was successful.

    In keeping with 19th century norms, the body of Burleigh was then given to a group of medical students and doctors for public dissection. Among the medical students was Fowler, who claimed Burleigh's head for his phrenology studies.

    After the White House was burned down by the British in the War of 1812 President James Madison stayed in the "Octagon House" in Washington, DC.  It was here that the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed.  Later it served as the headquarters of The American Institute of Architects.


 (Plans for House credited to: