Years ago when Julie Allen’s son was in a stroller, she’d take him for walks on South Westnedge Avenue. That’s when a building set well back from the road caught her attention.
“I probably walked by it four or five times before I actually noticed the house,” she says.
It’s brick, one story with big windows. But it’s the shape that sets it apart. At a glance the house looks almost round. Look closely and you can see the house has eight sides, like a stop sign.
Julie found the house fascinating. “Just would make up little stories for my son as to different people that may have lived here and just tried to be creative about it,” she says.
She wondered: what would such a house look like inside?
“I thought that it was probably real open, and or the rooms would be very small and oddly shaped and that type of thing,” she says.
As Western Michigan University archivist Lynn Houghton explains, octagon houses are not just a Kalamazoo thing. Houghton says you’ll find them throughout the east and Midwestern states – thanks to a man named Orson Fowler.
“Fowler was an interesting individual. He was known primarily as being a phrenologist which is somebody that would feel the bumps on your skull and would be able to tell you what your life was like or what you needed to do or whatever,” Houghton says.
But if Fowler was most famous in his time for not-so-scientific feeling of head bumps, he’s better known today for his side interest in architecture. In 1848 Fowler published a book called “A Home For All,” which touted the octagon as the ideal shape for a house. Houghton explains the rationale.
“For number one it was practical. Because he thought that you would get maybe 20 percent more room in your house, with an octagon as opposed to a square, cubic size home, so it was economical.
He felt that it was more aesthetic, that it related more to nature,” she says.
In “A Home For All,” Fowler insisted that round forms please the eye more than angles.
“Look at a dome,” he writes, “and then at a cottage roof, full of sharp peaks, sticking out in various directions, and say if the undulating regularity of the former does not strike the eye far more agreeably than the sharp projections of the latter.”
Of course, most Americans persisted in building houses with “sharp peaks” - perhaps because, as Houghton points out, the octagon style has its challenges.
“There’s some very interesting, very unique spaces when you thinking about how do you divide up an octagon,” she says.
But at least a couple of thousand people gave Fowler’s ideas a try.
In Kalamazoo Allen Potter, who would become the city’s first mayor, built his octagon house on what’s now Westnedge Avenue in the 1850s. Kalamazoo has a second octagon house – also still standing – on South Rose Street.
Toni Gross and her husband Frank bought the Potter octagon house 20 years ago. She agreed to show it to me and Julie, who had wondered about it for years. Gross, who points out that the house has no hallways, says new visitors can get disoriented.
“People wander around – when they first come into the house they wander around before they can find their way out again,” she says.
But the floor plan is really not so complicated. The house has rectangular rooms around the edges, which leaves little triangle rooms in the corners. They lend themselves to the main entry, a bright room with a couch, and bathrooms.
The ceilings run way overhead even where you wouldn’t expect it. Gross shows us a shower tiled “all the way, so twelve feet up.”
The house doesn’t skimp on basement, where outside walls are also octagonal. But the Potter home’s most striking feature is the big room on the ground floor – right in the middle of the house. This room takes the place of a hallway.
Because it’s in the middle, the walls have no windows. That doesn’t mean it’s dark. The room is flooded with light from a cupola more than 20 feet overhead. Gross says this is the space that made her want the house.
“We came in here on a very grey day in February, no lights were on and you could sit down and read a newspaper by the light and I thought, I have to have the light,” she says.
Julie Allen says it’s nice to know what the house looks like inside.
“I’m thrilled to see the center of the house is the octagon too and the beautiful lighting from there, it’s everything I thought it would be and nothing like I thought it would be.”