Thursday, July 09, 2009

The shape of a future that never was (Part 2)

As a historical rule, utopias are rarely successful. The frontier, at whatever ill-defined patch of land it happened to occupy at the time, served not only as a jumping off point for western expansion but as a breeding ground for social reform movements, whether from religious, cultural, sociological, ideological or theosophical doctrines. Within those geological petri dishes every manner of community was founded and foundered, their remains now little more than half-remembered names on ancient maps or notations in history books, something to fill the margins and add spice. Something to prove the folly of human nature.

Brook Farm, Oneida, Harmony, Zion City, the Amana Colonies, Kaweah, Nashoba, Halcyon, the list goes on and on, but it would be a mistake to consider these and others merely the outer fringes of a society and culture in flux dating from the early-1800s to the early 1900s. A certain segment of society will forever try to set themselves apart. The communes of the Sixties and Seventies come to mind. So does Jonestown.

A betting man would lay odds not on their success but on the brevity of their lifespan.

One year or two, maybe less. The defining crucible in many such separatist communities (after personality conflicts) was winter, once the harvest was gathered and the nights grown longer, and the land hard as iron. The months of planning, plowing and producing were put to the ultimate test. Many, such as Nicodemus in western Kansas, would never have survived that first winter if not for the benevolence of Native American tribes. For Octagon City, winter was merely the final nail in the coffin. In reality, it was dead long before the first snows raked down from the north.

The city, to use the word loosely, was the brainchild of Henry Stephen Clubb. A reformer of the first magnitude, and one who ardently believed that the future of American could only be guaranteed through vegetarianism, he and his adherents eschewed meat, alcohol and social vices, preferring instead hard mattresses, cold showers, open windows and bread at least 12 hours old. Possibly from an association with Fowler—whose publishing company printed many of Clubb’s tracts—he lit upon an idea of a vegetarian community built in the shape of an octagon. The village would encompass four square miles, with room for 16 families centered around a large central tract where a village green and community center would reside. Four such villages were planned, each accenting the other, and each representing a slight lessening in doctrinal rigidity. Once land was found in eastern Kansas, two companies were formed: the Vegetarian Kansas Emigration Company and the Octagon Settlement Company.

The latter would allow the eating of meat and was the first to become occupied. Settlers who paid their dues to join were promised an Edenic Kansas countryside, fresh water, fertile soil, tools and implements for every farmer, and a central octagonal community house for all. What they found at the end of their long journey was nothing like promised or depicted in the woodcut illustrations in Fowler’s Phrenological Journal.

Miriam Davis Colt, who made the overland trip from New York in 1856, wrote in her journal that upon reaching the city her party, consisting of two or three families and several single men, were dismayed to find a single log cabin, approximately 16 feet by 16 feet square, plastered on the inside but not the outside, with neither window nor door. The roof was covered with rough-hewn shakes.

The hundred or so settlers were provided with one plow and two stoves. The promised saw- and gristmill never materialized. Residents threw up lean-tos and bark shelters, and struggled in mud and dirt while the stream went dry and Indians raided their scant vegetable crops. Malaria swept the camp, inflicting heavy mortality among children and the elderly. Among the victims were Mrs. Colt’s husband and son. The few survivors lacked enough wood for coffins for their children, and most of the remaining members left before winter set in. By the following spring Octagon City was abandoned.

Back East things weren’t much better for Octagonians. Fowler’s business was crippled in the Panic of 1857, and he was forced to rent out his palatial octagon house. Unfortunately, the cement walls were improperly sealed, and fecal matter leaked from the cesspool into the drinking water.

“The tenants of this octagonal palace,” wrote Paul Collins in The Trouble With Tom, “the healthiest building in America, died in fevered agony, killed off in a horrific plague of typhoid.”

It’s safe to say that after the spectacular failure of Fowler’s octagon dreams and Octagon City, architecture reverted back to square one, or the rectangle, at least. Fowler’s own mansion suffered through a series of owners until in 1897 it was condemned by the city of Fishkill, N.Y. Fowler’s Folly, as it was known by then, was dynamited into rubble, and carted off piecemeal.

But the octagon as structural composition never fully disappeared. Something about that shape, each wall equidistant from the other, its angles constant at 45 degrees, appealed to those who, like Leonardo da Vinci, saw in its utilization of space the ultimate geometric expression of grandeur and function.

And if its heyday was past, if it was already relegated to the dustbin of history as one more minor blip of stylistic inconformity, it had one last gasp before slipping away.

On the outskirts of St. Louis, Mo., a new type of city was being planned. It would wrap around a vast publishing conglomerate and university, and incorporate many of the finest architectural details of the time, including vast gardens along the lines of Frederick Law Olmsted, the world’s largest printing press, gargantuan temples and, at its heart, a towering five-story octagonal structure dedicated to women’s rights. It was 1902, the World’s Fair only two years away, and Edward G. Lewis, former charlatan and patent-medicine peddler, had found his niche.

(To be continued)

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