The University Record, April 22, 1998

Historical Record

Professor Alexander Winchell designed Ann Arbor’s octagon house based on Orson S. Fowler’s invention, and built the house on the site where Hill Auditorium was later erected. Photograph and illustration courtesy Bentley Historical Library


By Patricia S. Whitesell

Did you know that a house shaped like an octagon once stood on the site of Hill Auditorium?

Alexander Winchell built the octagon house as his residence after he was appointed at the University in 1853 as chair of Physics and Civil Engineering, later switching to geology, zoology and botany. He was enthralled with the new octagon form of architecture, which was the innovative design of Orson S. Fowler. Fowler's book, Home For All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient and Superior Mode of Building, was published in 1850. This début of Fowler's octagon house resulted in its immediate success, and the style kept its popularity for the next 20 years.

Fowler was a phrenologist, making a name for himself by deciphering the contours and bumps on the human head. He lectured and published widely on such topics as "Memory and Intellectual Inspiration" (1841) and "Matrimony; or Phrenology Applied to the Selection of Companions" (1842).

Fowler's creative idea for an octagon house came to him while contemplating a design for his own home. He wondered why there had been so little advancement in architectural design, particularly given the preponderance of scientific advancements. Looking for a radical change in house style, Fowler questioned why the spherical form that is predominant in nature was not employed in architecture. The constraint of right angles for the framing of houses was the obvious reason. Fowler thought "Why not have our houses six-, eight-, 12- or 20-sided? Why not build after some mathematical figure?" The solution: the octagon.

Winchell designed his octagon house based on Fowler's ideas, but he greatly improved the interior layout compared with Fowler's suggested floor plans. Winchell's house, which he built on North University Ave., had three stories, with a circular staircase running up through the middle. This design saved considerable space over Fowler's traditional treatment for stairs, as did Winchell's layout of the rooms. Ample space was provided for a parlor, sitting and dining rooms, bedrooms, nursery and basement kitchen. Triangular corner spaces were perfect for closets.

The octagon house, although popular, was rare, with fewer than 3,000 constructed, mostly in New York state, Massachusetts and the Midwest. At Fowler's alma mater, Amherst College, the institution's president was determined to have an octagonal college building. An astronomical observatory in the shape of an octagon was soon completed, and is still extant today, though no longer a functioning observatory. In Ann Arbor, Winchell's octagon house was an oddity that captured wide attention. Fowler attempted to sell the idea for the octagon house by virtue of its appeal to the intelligent, thrifty, and innovative person. No doubt, Winchell identified with this. Being a mathematician and civil engineer, he must have enjoyed the challenge of improving on Fowler's design.

At the University and nationally, Winchell is remembered for his contributions to science. Among his many accomplishments, he served as the director of the Geological Survey of Michigan, and published a geological map of the state. He also established the Marshall group of strata, and prepared the original description of over 300 new species of fossils. For a short time, he was chancellor of Syracuse University. But, locally, people remember his remarkable octagon house.

The University purchased the octagon house in 1900 following Winchell's death in 1891. The property was rented for a few years until, in 1904, the University decided to raze the Winchell house, and other adjacent properties the University had acquired, in order to make way for construction of the new Hill Memorial Auditorium. Regent Arthur Hill's bequest, and funds raised by alumni, provided for Hill Auditorium, which was designed by architect Albert Kahn.

This monthly column examines interesting aspects of University history. Send suggestions for future articles to the author at Historical_Record@umich.edu.