By Peter Rae
Phrenology and architecture wouldn’t appear to have much to do with one another, but Orson Squire Fowler, a Fishkill resident from 1846 to 1854, was a pioneer in both.
Phrenology is a discipline based on the concept that specific brain areas govern specific functions, and that understanding the physical qualities or “bumps” of a person’s skull as determined by touching and measuring can lead to an understanding of that individual’s psychological makeup.
Today, phrenology is discarded as a “pseudoscience,” but in the 1800s they didn’t append the prefix “pseudo” to the discipline. Fowler was a leading proponent of phrenology, and his clients included many prominent Americans: a President (Garfield), a Chief Justice (Holmes), an author (Twain), a couple of poets (Whitman and Emerson) and a nurse and Red Cross founder (Barton).
Architecture, of course, has been with us ever since the first prehistoric builder thought about putting a roof over his head.
Born in the western New York State town of Cohocton in 1809, Fowler graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1834 and began a career as a lecturer and author on issues of health, popular education and social reform. One such issue was phrenology. With his brother, Lorenzo, he opened an office for phrenological studies in New York City. Orson, Lorenzo and Lorenzo’s wife, Lydia, lectured frequently on the subject. Indeed, one historian gives them credit "in large measure" for the mid-19th century popularity of phrenology.
The First Octagon House
Fowler and his wife apparently liked Fishkill, so they decided to build their dream home there. A self-styled architect, Fowler believed that a circular home used space more efficiently than a traditional four-sided home, and would be cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and sunnier all year round. But since round walls are hard to build, he determined that eight straight walls formed in an octagon was a practical compromise. In 1848 he even wrote and published a book on the subject called The Octagon House: A Home for All. The book sold well and the concept of the octagon house concept became, in at least a small way, a national fad.
According to Anthony Musso, who wrote about Fowler and his octagon house in the Poughkeepsie Journal in 2012, the site Fowler chose is currently the location of the Adams Fairacres Farm market on Route 9 in what is now the Town of Wappinger. (At the time, Wappinger had not been created yet; the site chosen was in Fishkill.) Construction began in 1848 and took five years. It’s said that Fowler, his brother and sister-in-law toured the country lecturing on phrenology, and that Orson used his share of the earnings to build the house.
When it came to construction, Fowler didn’t skimp. His octagon house consisted of three main floors, a full above-ground basement, and a glass-enclosed cupola atop a flat roof. Overall, it was at least 60 feet high and commanded a view of the Hudson River. Each of its eight sides was 32 feet long, so the floor space, per floor, was over 3000 square feet. A central staircase led to the second and third floors, each with eight bedrooms plus dressing rooms and triangular-shaped closets, and ultimately to the cupola. The exterior walls were a kind of poured concrete, a new technology quickly embraced by Fowler. Outside the walls, verandahs connected by their own staircases ringed each of the three floors.
Overall the house contained some 60 rooms, but in those days, closets, dressing rooms and “indoor water closets” (i.e., bathrooms), a major innovation for the time, were all included in the room count. The first floor had four main rooms serving a variety of purposes. Folding doors separated them, and when the doors were all open the complete first floor could accommodate parties for up to 200 people.
So why was Fowler’s Octagon House thought of as a “folly”? It probably began when, soon after the Fowlers moved in, they moved out, heading back to New York City. For the next decade or so they found renters for the house, and during the Civil War it housed a military school. Later a series of owners ran it as a boarding house. Several residents reportedly caught and died of a contagious disease, which didn’t help future rentals. The house was abandoned by the mid-1870s, condemned as a health hazard in the late 1880s, and demolished in 1897.
Nonetheless, as a consequence primarily of Fowler’s book, some 5,000 octagon houses were built throughout the United States and Canada, and about 400 of these exist today. One is the Armour-Stiner House in Irvington, New York. Built in 1860 by financier Paul J. Armour, himself a follower of phrenology, this house probably had a standard mansard-style roof at first. But in 1872, tea merchant Joseph Stiner acquired the house and added a renaissance-style domed roof and cupola, probably the only octagon house anywhere to be so equipped. Stiner also added so many other detailed enhancements that one expert on Hudson River villas compared being in the cupola to “being in a Jules Verne spaceship”. The house is privately preserved to this day.
Another nearby example, at 21 Spring Street in Danbury, Connecticut, had a less auspicious beginning. Built in 1852-53, it’s much smaller than Fowler’s original, with ten rooms in all on three finished levels, plus an octagonal cupola on a flat roof. (The room count is probably determined using a more modern convention.) It was built by Daniel Starr, a plumber, along with his brother, a building contractor, and it’s believed that the two men were inspired after attending a lecture given by the Fowlers in Danbury.
Over the next 150 years, the building saw many ownership changes, but it has been vacant for the fifteen years. It was last purchased in 2006, with the new owner planning to restore it, but nothing was done. Uninhabited, the building gradually deteriorated and neighbors complained that it was causing blight to the neighborhood. Faced with a dilemma, the City of Danbury purchased the property in 2015 and announced plans to restore it for use as a city office.
Life after the Fad
Orson Fowler continued his career as an author, lecturer, and all-around Renaissance man long after leaving Fishkill. In addition to phrenology and architecture, his interests included women’s rights, children’s rights, temperance, hydropathy, mesmerism, the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and sex. His magnum opus, Creative and Sexual Science, was intended to deal with all subjects on which sex had influence, and certainly appears to, as it contains no less than 695 chapters!
By the 1870s all of Fowler’s pursuits had languished, so he did what many 19th century Americans did: he went west. In 1887 he founded a colony of fruit growers in a small town in southeastern Colorado. The townspeople were so impressed that they changed the name of their town to Fowler, Colorado, which it remains today. Soon afterward, Fowler fell ill and returned to New York, where he died.
So while Orson Fowler’s legacy may not be as enduring as he had hoped, he is still remembered. Many of his books, including Creative and Sexual Science, can be reviewed electronically, and a 1973 reprint of The Octagon House: A House for All can be purchased new through Amazon. Was it really a folly? Order your copy now and find out.