October 1988

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Orson Fowler and Octagon Houses


Marion Sauerbier

Orson Fowler was a product of a new settlement on a wild frontier. He grew up at a time and place where hard work and resourcefulness were about the only way to prosper.

His parents, Horace Fowler and Martha Howe, had come to western New York as single persons, undoubtedly looking for opportunity. They found each other and they raised their children to be hard working and resourceful.

Orson Fowler inherited and learned these qualities. All of his life he worked long hours studying and writing; all his life he enjoyed manual work.

He must have come from a happy home, because he believed that people had deep instincts to build and live in a home. When he could let up from the grind of lecturing and publishing, he planned a house for his family on property near Fishkill, New York, where his wife had lived.

And, ever confident and practical, Fowler would design his house to be as efficient for living and for construction as he could devise. Orson Fowler could think in unrestrained ways, not only in adopting a revolutionary theory about the mind, and in accepting radical ideas about health that included eating a vegetarian diet, and later in his life fearlessly promoting sex education; but also he could let his mind go free to discover a house form that would enclose more space with less material.

He concluded that a sphere was the most compact space, and an eight-walled house would be the nearest practical shape. He found that within this symmetric form rooms could be arranged for convenience as well as for light and ventilation.

Working out his ideas for his own house and seeing the wide application for such a plan he had to write a book! Enthusiasm and practicality usually melded in Orson Fowler. A book would be another publication for the family company to sell.

In 1848 he wrote A Home For All, or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building. His book went through reprintings every year until 1853 when it came out in a new edition. More reprintings and editions followed. Octagon houses began to appear all over New York state and the whole country. Many were finished before he finally completed his own in 1858. Fowler promoted the octagon design as an economical form for people to build, but not surprisingly, knowing his flamboyant character, he got carried away in the size of his own house.

Conventional builders made the objection that framing was more difficult for an octagon-shaped house than for a square-cornered house. Fowler recognized this criticism and devised alternate ways of construction. One was to lay up boards in crib fashion and plaster on each side or just on the inside and clapboard the outside. Forty-five degree corners don't work well in bricklaying either. Fortunately, at this time Fowler met Mr. Goodrich who was building a hexagonal house in Wisconsin and using a crude lime-bonded concrete (although one report does say that Goodrich imported an early Portland-type cement from the east) of sand and stones. It could be piled up between simple board forms that were reusable and could be moved as the wall went up.

This was the answer to Fowler's need for a cheap wall and he used it then for his own house. In his book he gave complete instructions for mixing the grout, setting forms and raising scaffolds. His directions for mixing and raising the concrete to the wall level by shovelling the mix to higher and higher trays shows his ready practicality. Pitching the aggregate mix shovelful by shovelful not only lifted it up but mixed it every time it was handled and reduced the amount of initial mixing at ground level. He also directed that the lime and water should be mixed into a slurry and then the sand and stones added. This is easier and achieves a better coating of each particle. Orson didn't mind hard work when necessary, but he didn't care to waste his energy. The many calculations in his book reveal his cost consciousness. He liked to point out that gravel was available in many places and could be obtained cheaply from natural bank deposits or from excavations made for foundations or cellars. Some walls might have lower strength or be more erodable if made from clayey gravel or soil with organic matter. He recommended thick walls and plastering. Fowler really came close in his wall construction to the rammed earth method that had been used by the ancients and later was used in this country. He would have come out with a new addition had he known that with the right mixture of aggregates and water and careful tamping, he could have left out the lime.

In his book on the octagon house and its construction Fowler's advice is as detailed as Vitruvius's was in describing Roman planning and construction practices. Like Vitruvius, he began his book with the principles of construction and what constitutes an ideal house, then he went into the specific instructions about building. He did relate his own first-hand experiences.

Like Thomas Jefferson, too, Fowler located the kitchen in the basement with a dumb waiter to the dining room. He installed speaking tubes to communicate floor to floor, and a furnace in the basement for central heating. There was a wood-storage room; a lumber room, too, for wood projects— already a hobbyist.

And again, like Jefferson, always the farmer: he included a milk room in his house, recommended a green house and a flower pit, and gave advice about propagating fruiting trees and plants. Both men had far-ranging, practical ideas for the good of their ideal man, but enjoyed expansive execution of their ideas in their own homes.

© 1988, Marion Sauerbier
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