You may have noticed in your town a strange, older octagonal house sitting in your neighborhood. In Boulder, there is one on Lincoln up on the Hill. These are not the one-off strange concoctions that they may appear to be, but rather the result of an intriguing housing fad from the 1850s.
The proponent of such odd designs was amateur architect and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler. In 1848 Fowler published The Octagon House: A Home for All and in its wake thousands of these curious houses were built all over the country. Emphasizing their utility and efficiency of construction, the book included few examples but rather outlined some general principles along with some practical alternatives such as rainwater-collecting flat roofs and central heating. His own house, dubbed Fowler’s Folly, was built out of a kind of concrete using lime instead of the usual Portland cement and without reinforcing limiting the material to walls only.
In making the book more general than the typical pattern books of the time resulted in a wide variety of execution with some 2,000 or so homes still existing from Key West to San Francisco.
The example here in Boulder has seen a front porch come and go over the years and is predominantly brick with typical low-pitched roof common to most of these houses. Built in 1907, it must have been an arresting sight sitting amongst its smaller cottage and Victorian neighbors. It does not have the audacious majesty of the three-story, full veranda Watertown house in Watertown, Wisconsin, but it is a fine, if not quirky, contributor to the architectural variety and history of Boulder.
What I find interesting in these buildings is both their form – heavy, massive objects rooted to the earth – and their origins in the “science” of advanced living – how a general building form has been proposed to improve the lives of its inhabitants and the evangelical zeal of its supporters. Over the last one hundred years or so we have seen plenty of these “inventions” in housing that were intended to liberate the homeowners. Even such luminaries as Wright, with his Usonian ideas, and Bucky Fuller, with his domes, believed that a study into building form could improve the lives of people that they never met. This of course is also akin to all the great advertisements of generic builder-home suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s.
There certainly are plenty of things that buildings can provide. They can bring light and hygiene, eliminating the dreadful tenements of the late 19th century. They can, and usually do, reflect changes, positive or not, in the working lives of families – to dual working couples and the increasingly central role of the kitchen in the life of the house. But these are forms that reflect only generic families, the reductivist quest for a “solution” to modern living. They do not speak much about who we are as individuals or how we relate to each other, our neighbors, the larger world. These ambitions are not a part of the project – to bring attractive, affordable housing to as many people as possible. To do something else, to synthesize the specific world of real people, real individuals and families, not their prescriptive models, is the quest of those of us architects that work in residential design. The octagon is probably not the ideal building form for all families.
(photo from DenMod)
For a prime example of singularly unique homes that reflect the character of their owners you can look to the work of Wright or Aalto or any other of the masters of twentieth century architecture. But, here in Boulder, is not only a excellent set of such houses, but I believe work that stands along and even above, the very best houses of the known architectural heroes. The work of Boulder’s own Charles Haertling. I have a number of upcoming posts on his work and his career and I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the work of this local master. No two buildings alike, no two homeowners alike, no two sites identical. And no octagons, “the most heinous shape in all of architecture” (J. Verlinden, Director of Design at Crate and Barrel).