"The Octagon House" ~ Bernie Rosage Jr. ~ ART-111-103-Art Appreciation ~ Sara Gant, Instructor ~ Final Art Project ~ Spring Semester 2011


My Personal Connection to the Octagon House.

Bernie Rosage Jr.
at the Octagon House
in Cedar Point, NC
April 2011
I have lived in Kellum Community of Onslow County almost all of my life. As an avid surfer in the 1970's I passed the Octagon House countless times on Highway 24 through Cedar Point on my way to Bogue and some tasty waves! I had heard stories that it was the oldest standing structure in Carteret County and that it was even haunted...probably a story to keep people from trespassing. As long as I can remember the structure stood abandoned with strict orders of "no trespassing". I had never set foot on the property until October of last year when the plein air painting group I belong to organized the location as one of our monthly "paint outs". I was amazed to see this jewel renovated to its full beauty and the grounds perfect fodder for a landscape plein air painter like myself. Since then I have revisited the old house to paint, walk, and simply take in the beauty of the house and location! When it came to a topic (work of art) for my final project for Sara Gant's Art Appreciation class... the Octagon House was an easy choice for me!

Bernie Rosage Jr.

The view of the Octagon House from Highway 24 in Cedar Point.
This was the view I saw for 30 plus years as I drove by!
This was the condition of the Octagon House as I remembered it most of my life.

Me plein air painting at the Octagon House in October of 2010.

The OOPS (Onslow Outdoor Painters Society) gathered at the
Octagon House for a monthly "paint out".

A perfect location for plein air painting!

The Octagon House: The Video.

The Shape: Description and Style.

An Octagon House
The mid-19th century saw an American fascination with exotic architecture, and forms from other countries -- Turkish pavilions, Swiss chalets, Chinese pagodas -- began springing up. The unique American contribution to innovative house shapes was the octagon house, a style made popular by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler.
The Octagon house is easily recognized by the eight-sided shape of the exterior walls. Occasional examples show six-, ten-, twelve-, or sixteen-sided forms; a few are round. The octagonal shape lent itself to various embellishments of style, from Greek Revival to Georgian, and even Moorish.
Fowler's book...
"The Octagon House,
A Home for All"
that helped launch
the fad of building
Octagon houses.
This rare style flourished for a brief period in the mid-19th century, when author, lecturer and amateur architect Orson S. Fowler published a book extolling the virtues of the eight-sided dwelling: "The Octagon House, A Home for All."
The octagonal form had been used in public buildings in the past [e.g., the Roman Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece]; but now as a concept for domestic architecture it had a dedicated and convincing champion. Fowler's books, stressing the functional and stylistic advantages of the octagon house, found many readers and several hundred followers who sprinkled the landscape from New England to Wisconsin with eight-sided houses, barns, churches, schoolhouses, carriage houses, greenhouses, smokehouses, and privies.
The Gothic Revival and the Italianate expressions had not been lost upon Orson Fowler. From the Italianate he borrowed the cupolas which lighted his stairwells, the bracketed roofs, and the verandas. A grand central staircase crowned by a cupola was a favorite feature of eight-sided houses. Many of the two-story structures also boasted wraparound porches and hipped roofs with wide eaves and decorative brackets. From the Gothic came the pointed arch windows and other embellishments in the octagon house he built for himself on a rise overlooking the Hudson River.
Typical floor plan.
A few thousand octagon homes and structures were built, but they never lined neighborhoods like more traditional styles. Today, most of the several hundred surviving examples can be found in the Midwest, New York and Massachusetts. They range from humble, unadorned country dwellings to elaborate mansions.
Unfortunately, Fowler's own 60-room estate, "Fowler's Folly" near Fishkill, N.Y., is no longer standing.

Fowler stressed that an octagon encloses more floor space per linear foot
of exterior wall than does the usual square or rectangle, thereby "reducing
both building costs and heat loss through the walls."

Biography: Orson Fowler the Architect by Theory

Orson S. Fowler
Orson Squire Fowler (October 11, 1809 - August 18, 1887) was a phrenologist who popularized the octagon house in the middle of the nineteenth century. A native of the Genesee Country village of Cohocton, New York, he left his father's farm to study ministry at Amherst College. While at Amherst his interest switched to phrenology - that science which maintains that character and mental capacity can be analyzed by examination of the conformation of a subject's skull. With his brother and sister, Fowler published tracts extolling phrenology and clairvoyance and a diet of vegetables while warning against coffee, tea, spirits, and tightly laced dresses.

In his early life, Fowler was part of a society that was starved for entertainment, and prone to fads. In and around 1848 the US saw an Egyptian fad. Many old cemeteries in New England and the Midwest still show grave markers with a little obelisk on the top. The outstanding expression of this is the Washington Monument, started in 1848, and finished after the US Civil War.

It's hard to know exactly what motivated Fowler. Popularizing octagon houses as he roamed New England and the Midwest was just one of his activities. He was a practicing phrenologist, but one senses he was as interested in the potential profits as the science and rigor of the subject. He often traveled to Europe speaking on phrenology. Medicine was primitive in general in the 1840s, and the public lightly educated and gullible. So his pitch during his travels included just about anything that would appeal to his audiences, and one was the health benefits of an octagon house.

American Phrenological Journal
O. S. Fowler
Fowler had no training in architecture, and it's unclear just what drew his attention to the octagon shape. It could possibly have came from the detailed mapping and noting the shape of people’s heads prevalent in his field of phrenology.

Octagon houses existed before Fowler's time. A number are included in the inventory from the early 1840s. But they were not common. There were examples in the late 18th century, but they tended to be the abodes of the rich and well connected, and quite large. There were many octagon schoolhouses in the Pennsylvania area, built in the period 1790 to about 1840. Some were converted to use as houses. It could be that the octagon was just one moderately convenient shape that would allow the wind to enter the house from essentially all directions.

Fowler wrote a book in 1848 entitled "The Octagon House, a Home for All." In it he makes his case for the octagon shape, and well as stating his objections to more conventional architecture, and gives some construction tips to keep costs low. His vision was that the octagon home would be an inexpensive house for every man. In fact, the houses built during the "Fowler period," which I take to be 1848 to 1865, used the finest hardwoods of the time, and were very large houses in general. They would cost a fortune to build using the same materials today. They do provide a view in all directions, and for that reason are reasonable choices where one does own property with a view.

Fowler, an articulate and passionate enthusiast of the style, argued that this unconventional form made more sense than a traditional four-sided house because it enclosed about 20 percent more floor space. A glass-enclosed cupola and central staircase brought additional light and ventilation into the home, making it healthier and more inviting, he said. Plus, rooms were easily accessed through a central stair hall. Though Fowler claimed to be the sole proponent of octagon houses, there are earlier examples of the style, including Thomas Jefferson's sumptuous summer residence, Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, Va. This grand octagonal mansion, completed in 1812, boasts 15 fireplaces, skylights and an indoor privy.

Fowler used the motive of cutting edge to promote his Octagon House rejecting the traditional square or rectangular floor plan. Fowler also advocated other "modern" amenities, such as dumbwaiters, speaking tubes, central heating and water closets -- also known as indoor toilets.

The moment of "Fowler period" was brief, although the novelty of the eight-sided building has never lost its appeal to those individuals looking for something out of the ordinary.

The Theory... Fowler's promotion of the Octagon House style and the fad that ensued at the exact time period the Hill-Jones Octagon House was built leaves little room for doubt that Orson Fowler can be credited as the architect of the Octagon House in Cedar Point, NC. For that matter... Could Edward Hill, original builder of the Hill-Jones Octagon House, have been interested in cutting edge fads of the times? Food for thought!

Various Octagon Houses: A Comparison.

Fowler's book
that started the
Octagon House craze.
In 1848, Orson S. Fowler, a Yankee individualist and progressive social thinker, published a book entitled The Octagon House: A Home For All. 
In it, he argued the advantages of an eight-sided house over the standard four-sided variety.  Windows on all sides offer more light and better air circulation which, in turn, lowers heating and cooling expenses. An octagon also cost less to construct, requiring shorter spans of lumber than conventional buildings. 
Fowler's architectural ideas were popular in the East, where most octagonal structures and homes were built.  However, the popularity of this architectural style almost completely died out by the time of the Civil War. During their popularity, a few thousand octagon homes and structures were built in the United States, but they never lined neighborhoods like more traditional styles. Today, most of the several hundred surviving examples can be found in the Midwest, New York and Massachusetts. They range from humble, unadorned country dwellings to elaborate mansions.
Unfortunately, Fowler's own 60-room estate, "Fowler's Folly" near Fishkill, N.Y., is no longer standing.

Inventory of Older Octagon, Hexagon, and Round Houses is the most comprehensive source on octagon houses compiled. According to their records the number of standing old houses in the inventory in year 2010 stands at 404 and the number of structures in the inventory in year 2010 stands at 998.
Features to look for:
  • Eight-sided shape of exterior walls. (A few are six-, ten-, twelve-, sixteen-sided or round.)
  • Two stories (Some have raised basements and a few have up to four stories.)
  • Low-pitched, hipped roofs with wide overhanging eaves.
  • Eave brackets, when Italianate.
  • Eight-sided belvederes (cupolas), often placed above a central stairway and covered with glass or shutters.
  • Encircling veranda or porch, sometimes balconies on the second floor.
  • Many show Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, or Italianate decorative details; others lack detailing
  • Minimal ornamental detailing

The Hill-Jones Octagon House
Cedar Point, NC

Pictured above is the Hill-Jones Octagon House as it stands today in Cedar Point, NC. Below are images of several other examples of Octagon Houses to compare their likenesses and subtle differences... note the common features listed above.

The Hill-Jones Octagon House
Cedar Point, NC

The Hill-Jones Family: Lineage of Ownership.

The Octagon House today.
The 155-year-old "Octagon House" sits on property that was originally granted by King George III to Thomas Lee in 1713. This land was once an Indian camping ground - evidenced by shell beds and pottery found along the banks of the sound. In 1765, William Hill, from Lunenberg County, Virginia, purchased what had become known as the Cedar Point Plantation – hundreds and hundreds of acres on the White Oak River near Swansboro, then part of Carteret County.
In 1778, William's son Isaac Hill (ca.1750-1814) married Elizabeth Hatch (ca.1758-1819) daughter of Revolutionary War Lt. Col. Lemuel Hatch and Mary Fonville. Besides being a mariner, Captain Hill also operated a sawmill and salt works.
Family Cemetery on the grounds.
One of Isaac and Elizabeth's sons, John Hatch Hill, born in 1778, grew up on the plantation. On April 17, 1806, he married Hannah Fuller. Hannah died in April of 1823. John then married Hannah’s sister, Catherine Dudly, in August of the same year. Catherine died in October, making Hill a widower twice in the same year. In January of 1825, John married his third wife, Abigail Ward.
John Hatch Hill became a colonel while serving in the Carteret Militia. Col. Hill was a member of the  General Assembly (1814-1815) and served as sheriff, coroner and clerk of court of Carteret County. In 1837, Col. Hill purchased, at public auction, for only $500, the 1828 James Noe House on Orange Street in Beaufort. Col. Hill died the same year and was buried in the Old Burial Ground in Beaufort. His last will and testament lists children Catherine, Gaston, Edward and Cicero Ward Hill.
Col. Hill’s son Edward returned to Cedar Point in 1855 and built the octagonal house on the old family property.
Edward died sometime in the 1870's and left the house and property to his daughter, Mary E. Hill who was married to Robert H. Jones. The couple had seven children and unfortunately, Robert died December 25, 1884, six months before the birth of his eight child. The widow Mary married Mr. K. M. Bell who was the foreman of the plantation.
The house remained in the Jones family, and at the death of Mary, it was passed down to John Sherwood Jones... the only one of Robert and Mary Jone's eight children to outlive their mother.
John Sherwood Jones passed ownership of the property to his only son, John Robert Jones, who married Lois Anne Baily.
John and Lois Jones gifted the house and 60 acres of property to the Masons of North Carolina in 1999. The idea was that the property would be used for a children's camp, a Masonic Convention Center, and a retirement community.

The Octagon House: Past

The Octagon House.
circa 1860's
 The 155-year-old "Octagon House" sits on property that was originally granted by King George III to Thomas Lee in 1713. This land was once an Indian camping ground - evidenced by shell beds and pottery found along the banks of the sound. In 1765, William Hill, from Lunenberg County, Virginia, purchased what had become known as the Cedar Point Plantation – hundreds and hundreds of acres on the White Oak River near Swansboro, then part of Carteret County. William Hill was the Great-great grandfather of Edward Hill, the builder of the Octagon House in Cedar Point.

The Octagon House was completed around 1856. Originally built by the plantation owner, Edward Hill, the house stands on the same site as an earlier, smaller house that was torn down to make way for the Octagon House. There are no definite answers to why the design was chosen; to resist storms and high winds common to the area or a current fad that flourished for a brief period in the mid-19th century, when author, lecturer and amateur architect Orson S. Fowler published a book extolling the virtues of the eight-sided dwelling: "The Octagon House, A Home for All." Maybe it was a combination of reasons.
Shipwrights at work in the 1800s.
The physical builder of the house is also not clear although it is believed that shipwrights built the house. This would be logical as nearby Swansboro had a thriving ship building business in the mid 19th century. In winter months, when ship building was difficult, many shipwrights turned to traditional carpentry to provide for their families. This assessment is further realized when several years ago, when visiting the house and inspecting builder workmanship, Bill Kay was delighted to find a unique “shipwright” touch on one of the large stair rails. He discovered a device known as a "stop water”--one of the workers had put into place something essential for a keel or stem underwater, but not needed for dry land woodwork. Whomever built the house did so with great care and skill. 10"x10" and larger sills are put together with tight dovetail joints... even those that met at 45 degree angles are fitted together with exact precision. In the mid 1800's, it was one of the largest houses in the area at about 5000 square feet.
The house differs from many of that time period in that it was built in the southern plantation style and was never very ornate. It was more of a working farm style house.

The Civil War and the Octagon House.

Fort Macon
In mid-March 1862, following his capture of Roanoke Island and New Berne, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was ready to accomplish the third objective of his North Carolina coastal campaign: the seizure of Fort Macon, on the eastern tip of Bogue Banks Island, just below Beaufort. This was accomplished by siege and the fort finally fell into Union hands on April 26, 1862.

Union soldiers advance from
Morehead City toward Swansboro.

After the fall of Fort Macon Union troops advanced from Morehead City and controlled most of Carteret County all the way up to the White Oak River between Cedar Point and Swansboro.

The Octagon House.
circa 1860's

The Octagon House was abandoned during the Civil War. The house and plantation were occupied by Union soldiers during the advance toward Swansboro. Occupation by the Northern troops was unkind to the whole plantation. All the furniture in the house, even the rugs on the floor, were taken out and burned or otherwise destroyed. All the livestock on the farm was slaughtered. The occupation lasted a couple weeks until Southern troops advanced back across the White Oak River causing the Federals to fall back to Morehead City. It was amazing that the house was not burned down as was their custom.

Confederate troops advance back across
the White Oak River causing the Yankees
to retreat back to Morehead City.
Fortunately, the Octagon House survived the Civil War.

Fountain at Octagon House today.

Renovations: Before and After Photos.

 The Octagon House stood as originally built from 1856 to 1900.  The house was continually occupied from 1856 until 1973 as a private residence. From 1973 until now it has not been occupied, however, as of recently the house used for office space and as a main gathering area for the retirement community planned for the area.
The Octagon House
circa 1860s
 The Octagon House at Cedar Point received three major renovations. The first around 1900, the second in 1940s to 1950, and the third began in 2001 and took two and one half years.

Renovation #1... Major renovations done in 1900 were:
  • Porch on back replaced
  • Eaves that are currently on house were added 
  • 11 of the 12 fireplaces were converted from wood to coal by reducing the size of the fireboxes and adding metal fronts
  • Painting
  • Adding wallpaper to several rooms

The Octagon House
circa 1970s

Renovation #2... 1940 to 1950 include:
  • 1940 - Electricity added by way of a standard ceramic light fixture in each room and sparse receptacles throughout.
  • 1950 - Plumbing was added
  • Kitchen brought in to the main house
  • Kitchen added upstairs
  • Two indoor bathrooms added, one on each floor 
The Octagon House
 Renovation #3... 2001-2004 bring the structure up to date and as we see it today. All work was completed in the style of the original building. Renovations were done by professionals and volunteers and include:
  • Replacing exterior siding
  • Replacing roof and ceiling of cupola
  • Removal and replacement of all original ceilings, interior walls, and exterior walls.
  • Replacing of all rotted sills
  • Removal of kitchen and baths from 1950 renovations
  • Installation of new kitchen and bathrooms
  • Rewiring
  • Installation of telephones, computers, and media devices throughout the house
  • Re-plumbing
  • Installation of insulation under the floor, in the walls and attic
  • Installation of geothermal heating and air conditioning system
  • Refinishing of floors on first level
  • Removal and replacing of interior bannister's
  • Installation of electronic security system and fire protection system
  • Replacement of all windows in cupola
  • Addition of doors on second floor
  • Relocation of doors on first floor for hallway across to all rooms on west side
  • Installation of custom cabinetry
  • Repair or replacement of all windows on first and second floors
  • Repair and re-hanging of all exterior doors
  • Repair of 56 woodpecker holes in exterior of house
  • Replacement of chimney above roof-line
  • Restoration of the fireplaces to their original depth
  • Replacement of floor in southwest room
  • Installation of 10 foot wide wrap-around porch
Before and after photos for comparison...