498 The Octagon House
Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars, and I’m in the Octagon House in San Francisco, California, with Avery Trufelman!
Avery Trufelman: So I used to work for 99% Invisible. And I used to live in the Bay Area. And I recently came back for a visit and I wanted Roman to see this octagon shaped house in San Francisco.
Avery Trufelman: I mean, had you encountered an octagon house before?
Roman Mars: No. I mean, I must have passed this one at some point. I lived in San Francisco for eight years.
Avery Trufelman: I once thought this house was some sort of standalone bit of quirky architecture. But when I left the Bay Area, I realized this was not the only Octagon House. Octagon-shaped houses are absolutely everywhere. There’s a whole bevy of octagon houses out in Long Island. There are at least a dozen octagon houses in upstate New York. And if you zoom out, there’s one in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in Connecticut, in Kansas, in Alabama. And honestly, if you search Octagon House Plus State, you will probably find one. This Octagon House, the one out in Cow Hollow, isn’t even the only Octagon House in San Francisco. There are two others, but it is the only one that’s open to the public every other Sunday.
Roman Mars: It’s lovely. It’s the first thing.
Avery Trufelman: Yeah. Can you do your magic? Can you describe it?
Roman Mars: It’s powder blue. It is an octagon. It has these things that are, I think, that kind of adjoins where the east side joins. It looks like a hinge. So it looks like like a giant toddler could unfold it.
Avery Trufelman: Yes, it’s very Fisher-Price. It’s like the vibe. This Octagon House was part of a bona fide trend, an 1850s architectural fad. People believed that octagonal houses would lead to better, healthier, happier lives that were more in touch with the natural world. And so I was like, I’ve got to see if there’s anything to this. I wanted to get into one of these utopian octagon houses to see what it was all about.
Woman 1: All right. Well, welcome to the Octagon House.
Avery Trufelman: The technical name for this Octagon House is the McElroy House because a family named McElroy built the house when they moved out west.
Woman 1: And then they decide they’re going to build this new fad of a home, an octagon home. And you find out more about that when you go in there.
Avery Trufelman: But here’s what I learned about the Octagon House fad once I went in there. Very little.
Avery Trufelman: Do you know anything more about the Octagon House fad?
Woman 1: The museum contents are colonial and federalist. Yeah, the exterior is 1861.
Avery Trufelman: And so nothing in this was originally part of the Octagon. Is there any one artifacts?
Woman 1: No. No, absolutely not. It was…
Avery Trufelman: It turns out that the McElroy Octagon House is run by a group called the Colonial Dames of America. And the purpose of the group is to preserve colonial and federalist history.
Woman 1: So now you’re in colonial times here up through 1787.
Avery Trufelman: And the colonial dames just so happened to buy this octagon-shaped house when it was condemned in 1952. It cost them $1. They thought it was cool. And so they just filled it with their own historical archive, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Octagon House or the era it was built in.
Woman 1: In here is a lot of china from when Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States from 1824 to 1825.
Avery Trufelman: And so I’m sorry not to sound dense, but like, is the Octagon House considered federalist or colonialist? Like, what is the style?
Woman 1: Well, it’s neither. The House is neither.
Avery Trufelman: The colonial dames were so nice and sweet and I was a jerk on a single-minded quest. So this visit was very frustrating to me because every time I asked about octagons, I was shown an oil painting of George Washington or a collection of old grocery lists and letters that were written by the members of the Continental Congress.
Woman 1: We have 55 of the original signatures, 55 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. We can talk about…
Avery Trufelman: But they’re among the teacups and the calligraphic signatures and the colonial era bric a brac, the dames did have a copy of this book called The Octagon House: A Home for All. Because just like foregoing carbohydrates or vampire erotica or throwing out whatever doesn’t spark joy, t his fad also started with a book written by a man named Orson S Fowler.
Woman 1: This is the book he wrote that popularized Octagon Houses nationwide.
Avery Trufelman: But was he like part of a movement or is he just sort of some random…?
Woman 1: I think he’s part somewhat of a movement. I’m not knowledgeable enough. But, you know, we have interesting things here, too, like we have this fire bucket. We do it… When we have the kids here, we do a bucket brigade.
Avery Trufelman: Okay. So the dames were clearly not going to be the ones to explain why there were Octagon Houses all over the United States or what Orson Fowler’s deal was. And honestly, there wasn’t a lot out there to explain it.
Irene Cheng: Yeah, it’s not often that I get asked to talk about octagon houses, so I was excited to get your request.
Avery Trufelman: Irene Cheng is an architectural historian and a professor at California College of the Arts. She wrote her dissertation on the Octagon House fad.
Irene Cheng: But I also think, you know, we can’t just write it off as a fad because what I find really fascinating is that, again, hundreds, if not thousands of people took up his idea and actually tried it out and built Octagon Houses.
Avery Trufelman: And the other reason the American octagonal house fad is hard to write off is because it became the physical embodiment of all sorts of new ideas and new values that were really radical for their time. And many of them were inspired by Orson Fowler’s very specific ideology. Orson Fowler was not a builder or an architect. He was able to publish a book on Octagon Houses because he was a publisher. Fowler’s publishing house, Fowler and Wells actually published Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Irene Cheng: They had a kind of publishing empire, and they published books on things like how to write, how to do business, how to behave.
Avery Trufelman: These were functionally early self-help books.
Irene Cheng: There was this obsession starting in the sort of 1840s and really expanding in the fifties with self cultivation, self understanding.
Avery Trufelman: To give you an idea of how new and how huge this was, in 1841, Noah Webster added 67 new words to his dictionary that began with the prefix “self.”
Irene Cheng: And that’s what Fowler really does an amazing job of is is capitalizing on this obsession with self improvement, self cultivation.
Avery Trufelman: This was connected to a wave of social movements in the 1840s, like temperance and abstinence and abolition and abolition of child labor and women’s suffrage. There was this desire to remedy the plight of the common man to improve society by improving individuals, which Fowler was extremely invested in, not only as a publisher, but by his primary trade, the thing he was most well-known for. Because Orson Fowler was perhaps America’s most famous phrenologist.
Irene Cheng: You know, phrenology, that’s this kind of, you know, comical pseudo-science of being able to read a person’s characteristics or personality based on the shape of their head.
Avery Trufelman: Phrenologists like Fowler believed that certain lumps on your head corresponded to certain personality traits, like certain bumps could tell you how cautious or secretive or mirthful you were. And phrenology, which has been completely and entirely disproven, it is important to note, was applied in all kinds of very racist ways.
Irene Cheng: You know, most American phrenologists that you reared, including Fowler, say incredibly racist things about the capacity of African-Americans and other nonwhite groups, about their capacity for improvement in their instinctive and innate traits.
Avery Trufelman: Phrenology was used as a pseudoscientific way to explain why women were stupid and people of color were inferior and Jews were evil. And Orson Fowler was actually considered pretty progressive in his time as a feminist and an abolitionist, although it was all from this very paternalistic perspective, like, “Oh, these poor people and their misshapen heads.” So this is all to say what little I knew about phrenology, I thought it was exclusively the purview of ghoulish race scientists with head-measuring calipers. And that is true. The racist history is very much there. What I was surprised to learn about phrenology was that it was part of this burgeoning world of self-improvement. In its time, it was almost treated like astrology or enneagram tests.
Irene Cheng: Phrenology was pretty popular.
Avery Trufelman: Orson Fowler and his brother had an office in Manhattan, and it was really much more of a showroom / museum called the Phrenological Cabinet. And it became one of the most popular attractions in New York City. It showcased hundreds of phrenological portraits of famous people so you could giggle and gawk at how unusually large the lumps for secretiveness and destructiveness were on Aaron Burr’s skull. And lots of people went there to get their own heads read.
Irene Cheng: You know, you encounter all kinds of writers referring to going to New York, getting a phrenological reading, or ordinary people in their diaries, mentioning that they went to a phrenological lecture and got a reading.
Avery Trufelman: Employers sought out employees with particular phrenological profiles. Some even requested readings from the Fowlers’ as a reference. Women came up with hairstyles that would show off their more flattering phrenological features. And Fowler and Wells published the American Phrenological Journal.
Irene Cheng: So I think it’s really telling, for example, that on the cover of their journal, the American Phrenological Journal, the motto is “Know Thyself.”
Avery Trufelman: And there were not a lot of tools for doing that. This was before the invention of talk therapy. This is before Freud. So people were aching to know more about themselves and improve themselves. And at the time, phrenology fit right in with all of Fowler’s proto self-help literature.
Irene Cheng: In the hands of Fowler and his family, you know, what they were really selling is this kind of method of knowing yourself, knowing your own capacities and proclivities, and then using that self-knowledge to strategically improve yourself.
Avery Trufelman: Strangely, it was phrenology that led Fowler to architecture. In all of his phrenological observations, there were two particular head lumps that interested him. There was supposedly a lump for “inhabitiveness,” which is basically the desire to nest and a lump for “constructiveness” which was related to the desire to build a house. Fowler essentially came to the conclusion that all men should discover the pleasure of building their own home to meet their own particular unique needs. And Fowler decided that the best, most beautiful, most healthy, most cost efficient way for everyone to build their own home would be to build a house in the shape of an octagon. And according to his book, here’s why. Most fundamentally, if you have a house with a lot of sides, you can add more windows to all the sides and get more light. You can look out of all those windows and feel more of a connection with nature.
Fowler voiceover: “Give me a beautiful landscape and an elevated site. This also guarantees a fresh, dry atmosphere.”
Avery Trufelman: And because the house approximated a circle, air was supposed to circulate well through it.
Irene Cheng: He’s also obsessed, like many 19th century domestic reformers, with ventilation.
Fowler voiceover: “For every human being requires a copious and constant supply of this commodity, so indispensable not merely to human comfort, but even existence.”
Avery Trufelman: The Octagon was supposed to be practical, more affordable to the common man. It was supposed to look very humble without much fancy adornment or decor.
Irene Cheng: Fowler says ornament is very expensive and shouldn’t be the primary concern. Instead, you should focus on function, health, efficiency.
Avery Trufelman: This sounds like the rationale of 20th century modernism, but this is the mid 1800s. Le Corbusier wouldn’t even be born for a few more decades at the time that Fowler was developing his ideas. And the biggest one was like, design for all. The Octagon was supposed to be economical and efficient.
Fowler voiceover: “Now, since a given length of an octagon wall will enclose one-fifth more space than the same length of wall and a square shape, of course, you can have the same sized wall for one-fifth less money.”
Avery Trufelman: I don’t quite get it, but that’s perhaps my tiny little woman’s skull.
Irene Cheng: It’s filled with all these diagrams, like quasi mathematical diagrams. Then he compares the numbers and shows that the Octagon is far more efficient.
Avery Trufelman: “Fowler claimed his house would save energy in terms of, like, physical exertion. Like, you wouldn’t have to walk as much.”
Fowler voiceover: What a vast number of steps will the Octagon save a large and stirring family annually over the square.
Avery Trufelman: This was, as he notes, especially important for the women of the house.
Irene Cheng: She can save her steps and save her strength so that she can bear stronger children, essentially.
Fowler voiceover: “How much fretfulness and ill temper, as well as exhaustion and sickness an unhandy house occasions. Nor does the evil end here. It often, generally, by perpetually irritating mothers sours the tempers of their children even before birth, thus rendering the whole family bad-dispositioned by nature.”
Avery Trufelman: So this is where we start to get into the more wild claims about the Octagon because Fowler is basically like, this house will be the great reformer. It will liberate women from chores. It will put everyone in a better mood. It will have this big main parlor to hang out in so that you can keep the family unit intact so no one has to go out and socialize in bars.
Irene Cheng: You know, these spaces in the city that are emerging where men can behave in unseemly ways with other men.
Avery Trufelman: So that’s ostensibly about temperance and men getting drunk and rowdy in bars. But it’s also about behavior and propriety, because Fowler was really obsessed with this idea of “proper sexuality,” which is to say the old-fashioned notion of courtship, which Fowler imagined would play out well in the beautiful parlor of the Octagon.
Irene Cheng: So he writes about the parlor as a space for the cultivation of this proper sexuality.
Avery Trufelman: And then, seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the Octagon book, Fowler starts going on this long tangent about fruit. Different kinds of fruit, the best kinds of fruit.
Irene Cheng: And you come across these passages where he goes on and on about apples. You’re like, Why are you so obsessed with apples?
Avery Trufelman: Okay, this argument I really love. Fowler claims that living in an octagon shape would be more conducive to what was then the radical fringy movement known as vegetarianism.
Irene Cheng: You know, for farmers, apples were a fruit that could be stored for a long time. So you could have like fresh fruit in the winter and into the spring.
Avery Trufelman: In Fowler’s vision, the ideal Octagon House would be made entirely out of concrete, and you’d mix your own gravel yourself, of course, to know the pleasure of building. And it would mean you’d have this big, thick cement cellar.
Fowler voiceover: “How incomparably superior in every respect, this basement to our present pit hall cellars.”
Avery Trufelman: This gravel cellar had the capacity to get and stay very, very cold. And this is in the days before refrigeration. So the cold storage might help you, in the words of Fowler:
Fowler voiceover: “Substitute berries and their juice in place of milk and butter.”
Irene Cheng: And so the house becomes a prosthetic that helps support these systems and processes by which, you know, you can feed the body healthy food that will make it stronger, just as the layout of the house helps facilitate kind of efficient movement.
Avery Trufelman: And so Orson Fowler’s vision was that all of his philosophies would coalesce in the shape of an octagon, and the octagon home would become the ultimate self-improvement machine. Fowler published his book, The Octagon House: A Home for All in 1853, and it became a sensation. Hundreds of octagon houses started popping up all over the country. It could have even been thousands of octagon houses. There was never an official count of how many got built. There was even a vegetarian abolitionist commune made entirely of octagon houses in Kansas. It was called Octagon City. That utopian experiment ultimately only lasted a few months. But the point is, Fowler’s ideas caught on and spread with the Octagon House, which is hilarious because at the time that Fowler was writing this book, all of his assertions were more or less guesses. He was building his very first Octagon House at the same time that he was writing this book about why they were so great and why they worked so well. And Fowler’s own Octagon House wasn’t a simple, modest house like the ones he ostensibly advocated for. Fowler constructed a massive, 60-room, octagon-shaped mansion in Fishkill, New York, and he actually devoted himself so thoroughly to building this Octagon House that Walt Whitman had to take over the publishing house. Fowler thought his octagon house would be his showpiece, his proof that his theories for optimal living were right.
Irene Cheng: It was widely mocked as Fowler’s folly.
Avery Trufelman: For a few years. Fowler was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He lived in his octagon house and invited friends over for vegetarian meals and lectured about phrenology and wrote for the phrenological journal. But in the economic depression of 1857, the octagon fad started to slow down, and Fowler himself fell on hard times. He rented out his octagon mansion and it was converted into a boarding house where it became the scene of a massive typhoid outbreak, partially because of a cesspool seepage through Fowler’s supposedly superior gravel walls. Fowler’s Folly was abandoned by 1880, and Fowler died in 1887. And the house was torn down ten years later.
Fowler voiceover: “That such a house, what earthly habitation could be more beautiful, more imposing, more convenient, or more comfortable?”
Avery Trufelman: Okay, so Fowler’s Folly was a bust, but so many octagons are still around, presumably made by people who could mix their concrete better than Orson Fowler could. And so Fowler’s ideas were so obviously bunk, then why did octagon houses spread so widely in the way they did? I reasoned there had to be something to living in an octagon.
Michael Lombardi: And I’ve grown up in the house. Very much a part of my life throughout my entire life.
Avery Trufelman: Michael Lombardi is a caretaker of the Armour-Steiner House in Irvington, New York. It’s massive, impressive, perhaps the most famous octagon house in America and not far from where Fowler’s Folly would be if it were still standing.
Michael Lombardi: The physical proximity to where Orson Squire Fowler built his home in Fishkill, New York. It’s true that we’re relatively close to where that was.
Avery Trufelman: So the Armour-Steiner House, I thought, would be my genuine look into what an octagon house is all about. Especially because Michael had such a personal connection with the house.
Michael Lombardi: My father’s Joseph Lombardi. He’s the owner of the Armour-Steiner Octagon House. I have worked on the house on and off for the past 43 years.
Avery Trufelman: So I was like, great. Maybe Michael felt some of the benefits that Fowler was touting? Like the light and the air and the beauty and the vitality. Maybe this house could really speak to what Fowler was getting at, and it turned out. Once again. Absolutely not.
Michael Lombardi: It’s funny because it is taking Fowler’s original idea and kind of turning it on end. In every way. It was almost like xxing out his concept that it’s not about less is more. It’s not about reductive simplicity, it’s not about efficiency. It’s about lavish fulfillment.
Avery Trufelman: The Armour-Steiner House is almost the opposite of a Fowler home. Basically, the house started out as a simple, traditional Fowler house. But then in 1872, Joseph Steiner, a very successful tea merchant who had 76 coffee and tea houses in Manhattan, moved into this house and totally redid it. Joseph Steiner painted the whole thing pink. He added a floor. He topped it with a gigantic dome with portal windows all around it. And most notably, Joseph Steiner just mixed it up with all different forms of ornamentation from across all different eras.
Michael Lombardi: You know, Victorian era is a lavish incorporation of different designs from different periods.
Avery Trufelman: In fact, there is an entire Egyptian room.
Michael Lombardi: Here we are in the Egyptian revival room. Decorated in the Egyptian revival style, as fully realized as it could be.
Avery Trufelman: It has a piano that’s custom decorated with sphinxes on it. The walls are covered in hieroglyphs. The ceiling is painted with 2000 stars, which Michael painstakingly repainted himself.
Michael Lombardi: To the best of our ability, we’ve tried in every room to restore everything to exactly the way it was in 1872.
Avery Trufelman: It is admittedly so cool, but it means there’s really no way of knowing how this Octagon House looked when it was originally constructed. If it followed Orson Fowler’s floor plan and did all the things that Fowler said it would do. Once again, not unlike the McElroy House and the Colonial Dames, the Armour-Steiner House just so happens to be an octagon-shaped vessel for another time period. So maybe Fowler’s Octagons didn’t do much of anything he said they would.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, I think he was kind of overselling both of these things. Or using a kind of a salesman platform for both the idea of phrenology and of octagonal houses.
Irene Cheng: I mean, I think there’s definitely, you know, a kind of legitimate case to be made that Fowler’s Octagon House idea was a kind of snake oil type product.
Avery Trufelman: But the thing about snake oil is that Chinese watersnake oil just so happens to be an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s real. Look it up. And it turns out that modern octagon houses – because there are modern octagon houses! – have a benefit that Fowler couldn’t fully anticipate.
Steve Linton: We believe we are the world leader in these structures. We ship them all over the globe. We got Deltec Homes in all 50 states and I think almost 30 countries.
Avery Trufelman: Steve Linton is the president of Deltec Homes Inc. They make prefabricated homes that they ship all over the country and the world, and they are all iterations of an octagon shape.
Steve Linton: You know, an octagon house is true in some sense, but a circular or a round home or a panoramic home is often how we describe it.
Avery Trufelman: Deltec was not inspired by the theories of Orson Fowler. In fact, Steve had not heard of Orson Fowler until I told him about him. Deltec started out in 1968 and they were inspired by the geodesic dome craze that was happening all around them because they’re not far from where Black Mountain College used to be, which is where Buckminster Fuller used to teach and build domes.
Steve Linton: And you’ve got people like Buckminster Fuller and you’ve sort of got this hotbed of round home construction here in western North Carolina specifically.
Avery Trufelman: These homes were supposed to increase air circulation and be more cost efficient to build with more windows and light. It was all sounding very Fowler-esque.
Steve Linton: It almost feels like you’re living outside because of the way the the windows gently wrap around you.
Avery Trufelman: And they might have just stayed quirky and Fowler-esque, if Deltec hadn’t accidentally discovered a huge benefit of their panoramic houses.
Steve Linton: I wish I could say there was this grand plan back at the beginning to create a hurricane-resistant home, to create a home that they can make a difference with climate change. But it was much more of an evolution. You know, people built a Deltec home originally because of the amazing view and how it made them feel. It was as simple as that. And over time, we saw again and again, storm after storm, Deltecs were the ones that were left standing.
News clip: Houses torn apart. Roofs blown away like paper. What could survive? 140 miles per hour winds. This house can. It was actually designed to remain intact during a hurricane…
Avery Trufelman: Put very simply, high winds whip around a rounded house. They don’t press on the big flat sides. And Deltec began to make climate resilience their specialty.
Steve Linton: Right. One of the big things we’re looking at is how can we design a home to withstand 225 mile an hour wind speeds?
Avery Trufelman: Of course, Orson Fowler was not anticipating the climate crisis. He wasn’t thinking about hurricanes. But before Fowler introduces his Octagon plan, he writes:
Fowler voiceover: “And what if it is exposed to winter’s bleak winds? Are they not bracing and healthy? Yet a plan will soon be proposed which will enable you to defy them, yet enjoy summer’s balmy breezes.”
Avery Trufelman: It turns out a broken clock is indeed right twice.
Larry: When I walk out the front door I can’t tell which way the wind is blowing unless I walk away from the house.
Avery Trufelman: I knew that I had to find a way to see a genuine Fowler home, and then it had to be some small private house, not one that had been turned into a house museum devoted to another era. And so when a friend told me he drove by an octagon house on the side of the highway in upstate New York, I figured I would just go knock on the door and try to talk to them. To see if their octagon house really made them live better and more efficiently. And I cannot believe how lucky I was that the people living in the house just so happened to be Bob and Larry.
Bob: It’s a great house, as you’ll see from the inside. And I was always the kind of person that would live in a loft or like a converted White Castle or something like that. You know, normal looking houses kind of bored me.
Avery Trufelman: Bob and Larry have lived in their Octagon House for ten years. It’s buttery yellow and a modest two stories.
Bob: The moldings and everything are very simple and…
Avery Trufelman: Add to my extreme delight. Bob and Larry knew all about Orson Fowler’s octagon theory of modern living. They had done nothing to change the structure of the house. It’s actually intact from its original building, which they can date because they found an inscription on the wall of their kitchen.
Bob: And if you look at it, it says Stockport, Columbia County, November 9th day 1860. A clear, cool day. Lincoln Abraham elected. Someone… And this was written on what was the original faux finish on the windows. So we know the house predates 1860.
Avery Trufelman: Wow.
Bob: That’s.. that’s pretty cool.
Avery Trufelman: That’s that’s really cool
Bob: That’s really cool.
Avery Trufelman: Bob and Larry’s living room slash dining room is functionally one massive, undivided parlor. And you can see the light streaming from all eight corners of the house across the course of the day. Their parlor is lush, full of thriving plants and even some bonsai trees that Bob cultivates.
Bob: Maybe it’s barometric pressure, maybe it’s light, but we could, we could take a broomstick and stick it in dirt and it’ll sprout. I mean, everything grows in here. I don’t know what it is, but we rarely lose a plant.
Avery Trufelman: Granted, a downside of living in the Octagon is that a lot of Bob and Larry’s closets are weirdly shaped and small.
Bob: You can see that the closets are triangular.
Avery Trufelman: Yeah. Here’s a supply closet. You’ve made great use of this, though. It’s a very strange space.
Bob: Yeah, but, you know, we’re strange people.
Avery Trufelman: Ultimately, the benefits outweigh the costs for Bob and Larry. It’s like by accident or by fluke or by luck. The Octagon House, as a technology, more or less worked for them. Architecturally, Bob and Larry are living Fowler’s eight-sided vision.
Larry: The thought that light was beneficial. We know that’s true. Air circulation being beneficial.
Avery Trufelman: Bob says if they leave the door open on a summer day, a breeze runs through the house and it circulates very well. And since living in the house, Bob and Larry themselves began planting fruit trees.
Larry: Peaches and apples and cherries. Over the last couple of years because of health issues, I’ve been less active. But before that, I would pretty regularly can preserves.
Avery Trufelman: Were you saying you got the idea for the fruit trees from reading Fowler’s book?
Bob: Well, that’s the history of the property. From the house. From the house!
Avery Trufelman: I love that. They didn’t learn it from the book. They learned it from the house.
Bob: It’s nice having the amount of space and the amount of light. And it clears, you know, clears my mind. It’s, it’s great. You know, sometimes we just sit here, and Larry is in very poor health, but we still tell each other, you know, how lucky we are to be able to put up with each other all of this time. You know, we like to say, you know, we’ve been together for 25 years, but it’s really 47 in straight life because, you know, we’re not staying together for the sake of the kids or, you know, to show face or anything like that. You know, we’re with each other because we want to. We’re having a good time. And the house is good for us.
Avery Trufelman: Although, you know, Bob and Larry could learn to live in a converted White Castle.
Irene Cheng: Yeah. I mean, I would never, you know, say that the Octagon House is an idea that we should revive today because it’s a great way of building. But I think they’re really interesting to think about just because they are so eccentric. I’m really interested in what compelled people to actually adopt the idea for a time.
Avery Trufelman: What I’ve realized is that over and over again, when culture is shifting and values are changing and people are looking for new ways of living, that’s when vernacular design reaches beyond the square. All those domes and yurts and octagons were all full of promise and new ideas. And sure, you could call them fads. But that’s sort of writing them off.
Irene Cheng: I think the thing about fads is they’re short lived, but they also point to the possibility of sudden shifts in culture and rapid changes in attitude.
Avery Trufelman: The hallmark of a fad is that it goes away quickly, that it didn’t last, that it failed. But Professor Cheng says what’s really interesting about a fad is how it starts. Its capacity to take off so quickly. There’s power in understanding what gets so many people on board with something new and radical.
Irene Cheng: And you know, for somebody who’s interested in the possibility of meaningful change, it’s interesting sometimes to study the techniques of dissemination and like, what were the techniques of persuasion that compelled people to try something different and try something new?
Avery Trufelman: Because homes, by their very nature of being homey, are supposed to be familiar. They’re supposed to be what we already know. And something about the octagon shape, something about breaking out of the literal box, seemed to liberate the people who interacted with them. The Octagon seemed to provide the space for inhabitants to break their own molds, to try on new lifestyles by canning their own peaches or restoring a sphinx piano ,or hell, taking this radical structure and filling it up with collections of colonial tea sets.
Roman Mars: The Colonial Dame… museum inside of an Octagon House is the biggest manifestation of the square peg in a round hole that I’ve ever seen, architecturally.
Avery Trufelman: A square peg in an octagonal hole.
Roman Mars: I just… And I love it.
Avery Trufelman: So thank you so much for coming with me.
Roman Mars: Coming up after the break. Octagon houses don’t just have a lot of fresh air and sunlight. They also have a lot of ghosts. Avery tries to convince me after this.
Avery Trufelman: So. Hi, Roman.
Roman Mars: Hey, Avery.
Avery Trufelman: Are you sold on the idea of living in an octagon house?
Roman Mars: I mean, not even remotely, actually.
Avery Trufelman: Oh, really? I mean, the light… the air…
Roman Mars: I think the light and the air and stuff would all be very beautiful. And you met lots of really fun people. And I wish to be included amongst the fun people who would live in an octagon house. And so, yes, I guess I’m actually more sold than my cynical first take would tell you. But being inside the one with you in San Francisco was actually quite lovely. I enjoyed it.
Avery Trufelman: Yeah, and that’s the thing. That was like a museum renovated octagon house. Like, going into an actual home, it is kind of incredible. I mean, there’s all this space and it’s got all this light. And honestly, after going to all these octagon houses, I was like, I’m pretty sold. Especially after seeing Bob and Larry, I was like, I’m pretty sold. This looks pretty nice. But if you are considering moving into an octagon-shaped house, you should be warned that it is probably haunted.
Roman Mars: Okay.
Avery Trufelman: Do you feel like there are notable differences living in an octagon house?
Larry: Well the light for one.
Bob: And the ghosts.
Larry: And the ghosts.
Avery Trufelman: Wait, wait, wait. First the light, then the ghost. What about the light…
Avery Trufelman: So I shouldn’t say that all octagon houses are haunted. I can’t speak for all octagon houses. But I have to say, when I was beginning to research this story, I was like, surely other people must have made podcasts about octagon houses. And I looked around and they were all like ghost hunting podcasts. At first I was like, Oh, you know, whatever. Anyone thinks anything’s haunted. But Bob and Larry specifically are not normally the ghost hunting types.
Avery Trufelman: Are you ghost people?
Avery Trufelman: I wish I could capture your face, Bob.
Bob: And neither is Michael Lombardi at the Armour-Steiner House. Is it haunted?
Michael Lombardi: It is. There is a ghost. Yeah. And I’m not a big ghost proponent or, you know, I’m not running around talking about ghosts. But there is absolutely a ghost here at the Octagon House.
Avery Trufelman: Like you felt it?
Michael Lombardi: I have felt it. I have smelled it. She comes in the form of floral scent. Of lilacs. Yeah.
Avery Trufelman: So Orson Fowler had nothing about, like, guaranteed ghosts or anything, but octagon do seem to attract a certain kind of, like, genre of ghost, which is to say playful with bizarre, but generally okay, vibes.
Michael Lombardi: She’s mischievous. She’s done things that I can’t explain. My father has a couple of ones. Early on he was trying to open up a window that was painted shut and he couldn’t get the window open and he kept, you know, rattling and moving it. And so he went to go to the kitchen to get a knife or a screwdriver or something. And when he came back, the window was wide open.
Avery Trufelman: Ah, Wait. Well, there’s more.
Michael Lombardi: I was giving a tour with about 20 people, and I was telling the ghost story, that she comes in the form of a lilac scent and she’s kind of mischievous. And somebody said, I smell lilac. And there is some chuckling. And then another person said, I smell lilac. And then another person said, I smell lilac. And then everyone got really quiet and it was like the tour was over and everybody just walked carefully out of the house and that was it.
Roman Mars: I love it.
Avery Trufelman: And then Bob and Larry really have a definitive handle on who their ghost is. They’ve kept articles from local papers about the haunted Octagon House, and they think their ghost is a member of the original family that built the house.
Roman Mars: Yeah, that makes sense.
Larry: The Smith family, it seems we’re still living with.
Bob: The fourth child. The daughter that we know of is Aunt Rachel. And she. She shows up every once in a while.
Avery Trufelman: How does she appear?
Bob: Tell her about the…
Larry: Oh, the cocktail party. Yeah, that’s probably the best story because we had many witnesses, like six people here and were sitting, we’re drinking. And one of our friends, Luis, who is Colombian, with a very deep voice. And in Colombia, there’re spirits everywhere, evidently. He says, “Larry, have you heard from your ghost lately?” On cue. Footsteps, loud as day, across the ceiling from one side to the other.
Bob: Everyone else looked up, snapped.
Larry: Followed the footsteps across the ceiling. And then everyone looked at me and I said, Does that answer your question?
Avery Trufelman: Bob and Larry hear footsteps a lot. And they said in the night, sometimes they feel like a weight on the bed, like the cat has jumped in bed with them and the cat’s not near the bed. And you might be like, Oh, well, you know, they’re old, they’re old, creaky buildings. And like, the wind comes through in funky ways. But – Larry used to keep a shelf with glassware in his office. And one day when Larry was in the kitchen and Bob was out in the front room.
Bob: We hear, bang, and a martini glass exploded.
Avery Trufelman: Exploded.
Bob: It didn’t fall off. It had been there. It wasn’t like newly cleaned or it was just sitting there like every other glass was sitting there.
Avery Trufelman: Doesn’t this scare you?
Larry: Not at all.
Bob: You know what, we kind of reached détante with Rachel. And, you know, people that come here always say the house has such a good vibe to it. And I think that’s Rachel.
Roman Mars: Hm.That’s sweet. I think it’s Bob and Larry who make the good vibe.
Avery Trufelman: Wait, why?
Roman Mars: Well, they just seem humble and of good spirits and very kind and make a warm place. And that includes a warm welcome to Rachel as well.
Avery Trufelman: But… Do you buy it? Do you think the ghosts are real?
Roman Mars: Well, okay, so I don’t think they’re real, but I enjoy people enjoying their homes and enjoying stories and enjoying laughing and having dinner parties with baritone Colombians who conjure ghosts. I love all that. And so, it doesn’t matter what I really believe. I like it as a story.
Avery Trufelman: Fair enough. It was just funny, like thinking about the Octagon House, I was like, Oh, I feel like the apartment I live in is probably very old and presumably lots of people have lived in here.
Roman Mars: Of course.
And the Octagon just sort of, by very nature of its different-ness, points out the things that are actually quite normal about houses where like, oh like late air, aren’t they great? Like the history, it’s so cool that this house has had many lives and was constructed by someone who had dreams and goals and a way they wanted to live. But in a weird way, just the shape of it announces itself. Like you can see the hand of intention. Exactly. And I feel like that lends itself better to ghosts.
Roman Mars: I think you put your finger on it, which is it is a shape and an intentionality that concentrates energy and attention. And you could say, well, then therefore it concentrates spectral activity. Or you could say it concentrates stories and thinking about the past. But this is a place that screams for that kind of attention, and it is a place where you kind of know you’re part of history when you’re in it. Even when it was just being built, they knew.
Avery Trufelman: Totally.
Roman Mars: And it carries forward to today. And so everything becomes a story. Everything gets wrapped up in the story. And a ghost story wraps up a ton of things. You know, it really is a nice basket to hold history. And that’s why I like ghost stories a lot, even though I’m not really a believer in ghosts. Well, thanks so much for telling us stories and coming back on 99% Invisible. It was a real pleasure to have you.
Avery Trufelman: Oh, yeah. Of course. I’m. I’m just your friendly ghost haunting your workplace.
Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman! It was edited by Delaney Hall. Fact checking by Sona Avakian. Mix and Tech Production by Martín Gonzalez. Production Assistants by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina and Sarah Baik. Music by our Director of Sound, Swan Real.
Special thanks to Allison C Meier and Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who were so helpful with research for this story. Also thanks to Meredith Hoddinott, Drew Houpt, Joy Yuson and most of all to Zach Fischman.
99% Invisible’s Executive Producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is our Digital Director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.
99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and Sirius XM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building – in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @RomanMars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.