Thursday, July 02, 2009

The shape of a future that never was (Part 1)

Time is linear but memory is not. And yet in the case of octagons there was clearly an initial, if scant, revelation, a mere four pages in Paul Collins’ The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, followed in short succeeding steps of interest, discovery, research and desire, only to incrementally erode as old interests succumbed to new. Which might have been the end of the matter—would have been the end—if not for a narrow gravel road twisting through dense woods on the far side of the Missouri River, and a grassy incline leading from the road’s shoulder where the trees thinned and broke on open fields imprisoned by a rusty barbed wire fence. Dominating the patchwork clearing was a blocky rectangular church, and past it, half-visible in the woods, the old Watkins schoolhouse. The low sun slanted through the trees, warming the red bricks and pooling in the tall windows so that they smoldered with an interior fire. There was no mistaking the octagonal shape. Unexpected, serendipitous, here in this forgotten forest stood the incarnate vision of Orson Squire Fowler.

Phrenologist, reformer, champion of women’s and children’s rights, marriage counselor, advocate of healthy living and cleanliness, author of books on phrenology, gardening, vegetarianism—even a steamy Victorian sex manual—failed minister and visionary, Fowler was a man of the times, and the times called for grand schemes and noble ideals.

And if not for a lecture on the new science of phrenology, Fowler might have disappeared into history as just another unknown preacher. Such was his calling, having left his home at the age of 17 for private tutoring from two Congregational ministers in Massachusetts. With four dollars in his pocket and all his worldly possessions on his back, he walked the 400 miles there from his home in western New York, and afterward entered Amherst College in 1929. He graduated five years later, but his ministry plans steered awry after attending a lecture with a classmate, Henry Ward Beecher.

It was mostly poppycock to Beecher, but Fowler saw revelations of another, more secular, kind. Phrenology held that one’s character could be ascertained through the topographical features of the skull. Its creases, gullies, hillocks and knolls were indicative of certain characteristics that, when known, could lead to a more fulfilled life. The movement swept the nation (though it had its detractors), but among Fowler’s clients were such luminaries as Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Brigham Young, President James Garfield, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Brown the abolitionist. Walt Whitman’s noggin was examined, leading to a partnership where Whitman became an editor for Fowler’s writings and Fowler a publisher of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Mark Twain wrote scathingly, but with his usual dry wit, of visiting Lorenzo Fowler’s office where he was diagnosed as possessing an utter lack of humor. Lorenzo was Fowler’s brother and himself an established phrenologist, and, at the time, Twain a visitor under an assumed name. Twain returned three months later under his own guise and was found to have so much humor it was positively Himalayan.

“These experiences have given me a prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now,” Twain wrote. “I am aware that the prejudice should have been against Fowler, instead of against the art—but, I am human, and that is not the way prejudices act.”

But if phrenology was rapidly becoming known as a pseudo-science, more lunatic fringe than medical fact, Fowler’s next foray into better living struck a nerve that send shockwaves across the country. In 1848 his book, The Octagon House: A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, rolled off the press to an eager audience.

Octagonal structures were nothing new. An “elegant and safe” octagonal magazine for gun powder was built in 1715 in Williamsburg, Va., a shape adopted by George Washington for his threshing barn and garden house at Mount Vernon. In 1812, Thomas Jefferson got in on the act with a house he called “Poplar Forest,” replete with eight-sided rooms. Even the Russians used the form for block houses in Sitka, Alaska, in 1804.

What possibly set Fowler apart was that his blueprint could be adapted to any size, for rich or poor, using inexpensive materials of lime, gravel and sand to create concrete that could be poured into molds. An octagon house was more energy efficient, provided better air circulation and allowed more light, thus making it a healthier building. Indoor plumbing—almost unthinkable at the time—rounded out his vision for better living through form and function.

There was something about the shape, too, that appealed to people. One minister wryly said he preferred the shape because the devil couldn’t corner him, and another because he could see the Lord coming from any angle. Beecher built an octagon house; so did P.T. Barnum. Clarence Darrow was raised in one.

Fowler’s own octagonal home was the pinnacle of the art, containing 60 main rooms and 40 lesser rooms and closets, with indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, central heating, natural gas lighting and a central spiral staircase rising 70 feet to a glass-enclosed octagonal cupola.

All of which, as far as I was concerned, would have been merely a side note to history, one more interesting tidbit gleaned from Collins’ fascinating literary search for old Tom Paine’s bones, a journey that begins in a gay bar, spans two continents, includes Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron and William Cobbett, and ends on a lonely country road outside New Rochelle, N.Y. But within those pages was a mention of a utopian community based on Fowler’s octagonal concepts, a city of purity without slavery, alcohol or meat, with octagon houses on octagon plots surrounding a central octagon center, located near the Neosho River 10 miles south of present-day Humboldt, Kansas.

It was called Octagon City, and it was anything but.

(To be continued)


Carol said...

Looking forward to Part 2, Tom. Enjoyed the piece and the photo. Now...I want to see this place myself. Did you know there is supposed to be some sort of "castle" in or near Yates Center? I saw a photo in the newspaper once. I asked about it on the town square, but no one could tell me more. They suggested the local Chamber of Commerce, but I haven't found it open when I stop.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Yes, it was named something with a K. We found it just south and a little east of Yates Center, an old house with a huge root cellar or something shaped like a castle. Very interesting. I'd love to return sometime. I might have a photo around here somewhere, if so I'll post it.

ds said...

I'm here because Linda at The Task at Hand has recommended you (and yes, i've lurked around your blog before).I like this piece for several reasons, but I also wonder, do you know that in the Chinese system of feng shui, the octagon is the perfect shape? It allows the best chi or life force.
Anyway, this is most interesting; I'll come back for Part 2...thanks!

shoreacres said...

Very interesting about the feng shui that ds mentioned. I didn't know that, but I do know that I find the shape deeply appealing.
There were octagonal barns in the Iowa Amish country - do you have them?

I couldn't help but think of Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome when you spoke of the way the octagonal houses came into fashion. The beaches in Texas still have many of the domes. They were purported to be more hurricane resistant, and the point may have been proven simply because so many still stand. They certainly do no worse than other shapes.