Buildings were more visually appealing when they were round, like fruit, Mr. Fowler maintained. In his 1848 book, “The Octagon House: A Home for All,” he wrote: “The more acute the angle, the less beautiful; but the more the angle approaches the circle, the more beautiful.”
Because round houses were expensive to build, Mr. Fowler settled on the octagon as the next best thing. With windows on all sides, octagonal homes had more light and better airflow, so they were healthier to live in, he claimed, and they made better use of space. “All the rooms are united, so that you could go from one to another, without being obliged to pass through a cold and cheerless entry,” he wrote.
That sort of floor plan, he explained, would make housework easier — “especially for the weakly woman” — because there would be a shorter distance to traverse from the kitchen to the laundry. As he saw it, there was almost no domestic endeavor that could not be done better in an octagon.
Over the years, many of Mr. Fowler’s claims have been dismissed, but a few have held up.
Joseph Pell Lombardi, an architect who owns and restored the magnificent Armour-Stiner House, in Irvington, N.Y., agrees that the many windows provide prodigious light. “In a square or rectangular house, there are times of day when the sun’s hitting the corner, and there’s less light coming in the house,” Mr. Lombardi, 82, said. “In an octagonal house, as the sun goes around, the different rooms stay in sunshine. That’s just terrific.”
Because many octagonal homes have central staircases that open to the roof, they tend to enjoy good ventilation, making them easier to cool. But that can also be true of more conventionally shaped houses with roof access, Mr. Lombardi noted.
And he is skeptical about Mr. Fowler’s claim that eight-sided houses make better use of space. These houses typically have some square rooms, he said, but because of the exterior shape, many of the leftover spaces are inevitably triangular. In smaller houses, those rooms are often used as pantries and closets; in bigger houses, they become something of a design problem.
“A triangular room is kind of a funny room,” he said. “When you look at it from the door, it looks like a big room. But when you walk into it, you immediately fill it up. So they’re just curious kinds of rooms.”