Hopedale History
    July 15, 2005
    No. 42
    Long-gone Octagons

    This is for those of you living in Hopedale. The possible one or two of you who haven’t already heard
    this, that is. ABC TV is coming out with a show this fall called My Kind of Town. They looked at fifteen
    towns in Massachusetts for one episode and have narrowed it down to three: Orange, Barre and
    Hopedale. The show is supposed to be some kind of comedy/game show combination, done with
    participants who all live in the same town. They’ll bus 200 people from the town selected to NYC for
    the show taping. Auditions will be held at the fire station next Wednesday, July 21, between 4:30 and
    9 PM.  We hear that Orange will be trying to get the attention of the ABC people with some skydiving,
    so if you have any ideas to top that, call the town hall or email me and I’ll pass it on.

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                                                   Long-gone Octagons

    A big housing fad of the nineteenth century was the octagon house. The peak years for this type of
    construction were about 1846 to 1865. In 1855, the Woonsocket Patriot sent a reporter to Hopedale to
    do an article about the Community. One of the things that he noted was that, “Of dwelling-houses
    there are forty-one, including three concrete octagons.”

    Octagons didn’t have a very good survival rate and as we know, none of the three have survived. I
    knew that one of them had been on Prospect Street, but it took a while to find out where the other two
    had been located.

    I found the second on the “picture map” that had been originally printed in 1888. (Copies are for sale
    at the Bancroft Library.) That one was on Dutcher Street, just south of the apartment house across
    from the fire station. It was evidently razed a short time after the map was drawn.  It’s not on an
    undated map that was made some time before 1898, and the National Register Nomination gives
    the date for the house that’s on the site now (home of Craig and Joanne Travers) as c. 1890.

    A few weeks ago Elaine and I were asked to go to Memorial School to help identify locations in some
    of the old Hopedale pictures they have. There, in one of the pictures, was the third octagon house I
    had been wondering about for some time. The view shows the General Draper house (now the site of
    the high school) on the right, the original Unitarian Church, (on the site of the present Unitarian
    Church, built in 1898) in the middle, and the octagon house on the left. The picture was taken from
    the south and it looks at though the octagon was a bit north of where the Griffin-Dennett Apartments
    are now.

    The only surviving octagon house I know of in the area is on Fruit Street in Milford. I remember one on
    Maple Avenue in South Grafton, but that disappeared about twenty years ago. Hopedale does have a
    newer octagon building; the Father Riley Center at Sacred Heart Church.

    The big promoter of octagon houses seems to have been Orson Fowler. Here’s a bit about him and
    his houses from a website about an octagon in Michigan.

    The octagon mode may be the first pure American housing style, considering that most previous
    building forms were adopted from European architecture. Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s
    earliest advocates of octagon configurations, designing over 50 buildings with a manifested
    octagonal feature. An octagon garden schoolhouse enhances George Washington’s stately Mount
    Vernon. Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in an octagonal study patterned after a
    riverboat pilot’s cabin.

    But the leading promoter of eight-sided structures was Orson Squire Fowler. Fowler was America’s
    foremost lecturer and writer on phrenology, the pseudo-science of defining an individual’s
    characteristics by the contours of the head. In the middle of the 19th century, Fowler made his mark
    on American architecture when he touted the advantages of octagonal homes over rectangular and
    square structures in his widely publicized book, The Octagon House: A Home for All. According to
    Fowler, an octagon house was cheaper to build, allowed for additional living space, received more
    natural light, was easier to heat, and remained cooler in the summer. This last attribute was an
    important point when the ruling principles of Victorian air conditioning were, avoid direct sun and pray
    for a breeze.

    As a result of Orson Fowler’s authoritative publication, a few thousand octagonal houses were
    erected – mostly on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Nationwide, less than 500 of these very rare,
    romantic, Victorian-era homes are still standing. Even in their heyday, octagon houses never lined city
    street and neighborhood blocks. On the contrary, an eight-sided home seemed to be the choice of
    the individualists, standing defiant among four-sided neighbors.

    The site the information above comes from is at:
    http://www.octagonhouse.org/history.html  

    An extensive site listing of octagons, some still existing, others gone, is at
    http://www.octagon.bobanna.com/main_page.html   

                  
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    Dave Meade, Buzz Trembley, and Bill Wright
    perform at the annual Friends of Adin Ballou
    peace picnic at Ballou Park. August 6.