Sunday, February 14, 2010

Octagon House, 57 South Main Street

The village of Alfred, New York is home to one of the estimated 2,000 remaining octagonal shaped homes in North America and Canada that were briefly popular in the 1850’s. Out of the 2,000, 68 of these are Registered Historic Places (RHPs), and six are National Historic Landmarks. The majority of octagonal homes can be traced back to the influence of one amateur architect, Orson Squire Fowler, who was also the leading scholar on phrenology (the pseudoscience of defining an individuals characteristics by the contours of their head) at the time. Fowler’s widely publicized book, The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building (1848) boasted that octagon homes were cheaper to build, allowed for additional living space, received more natural light, were easier to heat, and remained cooler in the summer. Fowler tried to “standardize” these octagon houses by outlining design principles in his book, however, Fowler was not a trained architect and the extent to which these principles were followed varied greatly.

The octagon house at 57 South Main Street in Alfred (circa 1850) is credited to Perry F. Potter. Potter graduated from Alfred Academy and purchased the land that the house was built on in the early 1850’s and lived there with his wife until 1869 when the house was passed down to his younger brother, Alonzo. Alonzo built the rectangular addition to the house that still exists today. In 1923, Mr. and Mrs. Henry C. Hunting purchased the house from the Potters and transformed the ground into a prize-winning garden featuring a pear-shaped, cement pool that was acclaimed by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the house attracted visitors from all over. In 1947, Henry passed the house down to his nephew Norman Olsen who rented the house as a two-family apartment. In 1965, Alfred University bought the house and built apartments on the grounds behind the house. The house fell into disrepair and at this time. Mary Trouslot purchased the house in 1980 and in 1985 she rebuilt the porch floor using reclaimed wood from the floor of Alumni Hall, which was also being remodeled that same year. Today, it is privately owned and rented to university students.

The octagon house at 57 South Main Street possesses many of the characteristics of the octagon house outlined in Fowler’s publication, including a flat roof, veranda, and cupola. It is unusual in its construction because the veranda wraps around seven of the eight sides, as opposed to only three, which is most common in octagon houses. Although Fowler urged that octagon houses be built with a “gravel wall” technique, this house, like many others of its kind, is constructed of horizontal, wooden clapboards. This house suffers from many of the disadvantages common to octagon houses: the arrangement of the rooms on each floor is rigidly the same, as the walls must stack on top of each other. Additionally, an unwillingness to compromise spaciousness to facilitate circulation meant that verandas and exterior staircases were often used to move from one room to the next. Fowler’s octagon houses, like phrenology, never became wildly popular and now, although few exist, cease to continue to be constructed.

Work Cited

The Alfred Historical Society and Baker’s Bridge Association. History of Alfred, New York. Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1990.

1 comment:

  1. There is construction going on in the house you could talk about the changes that are being made and what the house is going to be used for when finished?