Eight sides to every story

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Edwin Scherzer | August 20, 2013

ELKHORN — Living within a home's four walls and roof can provide a sense of comfort. So doubling that number should add an extra sense of well-being, right? Occupants and historical preservationists of octagonal homes certainly think so.

Born more than two centuries ago, octagonal design was pursued by Orson Fowler, who published “The Octagon House, A Home for All,” in 1848. Fowler's suggestions gave birth to thousands of homes, up and down the East Coast, the Midwest and Canada. The homes never took off in rows or subdivisions, but rather cropped up next to their four-sided neighbors.

Walworth County is home to seven such structures, eight if you count the Wiswell Center on the Walworth County Fairgrounds property. Strictly speaking of the homes, Elkhorn, Fontana, Lake Geneva, Sharon and Whitewater play host to the houses, with Elkhorn having the distinction of placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Eight-sided expert

So the homes are neat to look at, possibly even live in, but who would keep records of such things? Ellen Puerzer, 54, has and continues to do so from her Milwaukee dwelling, which has only four sides, if you're curious.

Octagon homes are unique for several reasons, Puerzer said.

 “The historical significance of these houses is evident when one considers that the majority were built before the Civil War,” she said. “A couple were even involved in Civil War battles.”

An octagon expert of sorts, Puerzer has been studying the homes for more than 30 years. A visit to one of the more famous octagons, the home (and museum) in Watertown, piqued her interest.

 “The tour building had a wall showing photos of other octagon houses and I was hooked,” Puerzer said. “For a time I really wanted to live in an octagon house.”

Visiting, photographing, cataloging and even writing a book of her own, “The Octagon House Inventory,” Puerzer said the homes were meant for anyone and everyone.

 “An octagon home could suit any size family or salary; there were modest one-story houses as well as five-story mansions and many in-between,” she said.

According to Puerzer, some of the more historical occupants of the eight-sided dwellings included George Gallup, the famed pollster, who was born in an octagon, as well as Clarence Darrow. Samuel Morse added an octagon portion onto his home, and the creator of Yale locks built one for his daughter.

Puerzer isn't the only one with a penchant for octagonal history. Dale J. Travis of Decatur, Ill., keeps up with the homes as well, but leans toward the agricultural structures.

Each year, the number of octagonal homes and barns continues to decline, Travis said.

“My interest is I love the unique shape and they are disappearing from the landscape,” he said. “My hope is that by putting up the photographs, they will draw interest to the structures and hopefully that will cause a few of the structures to be restored and kept for future generations to enjoy.”

A unique residence

Over a century ago, Edward Elderkin, a lawyer from New York, finished building his octagon house in Elkhorn. The 1856 brick structure features a main floor wraparound porch, central fireplace and cupola along Lincoln Street.

The Elderkin home's current resident, Bob Schuren, said living in the structure has its advantages and challenges.

For one thing, it requires energy, the 10-year resident said.

“It's a vertical house, with three stories, and everyone's used to ranch homes, so here you go up and down the steps a lot,” Schuren said.

Other features of the home include five fireplaces, a walk-out basement with moat and unique “S” shaped spindles surrounding the porch. Additionally, the bricks are inscribed by former owners and guests, including Elderkin's signature.

The home also was an antique shop for 10 years and was featured in Elkhorn's Christmas card painting “Winter Dreams,” in 1999, by Jan Castle Reed, Schuren said.

Standing the test of time

Each octagon home is a little different, through its porches, stories, construction and features.

The Whitewater Lyman Wight home consists of only one story, with Italianate arches. The May Bird home in Sharon, built the same year as the Wight house (1855), has an elongated side and has undergone an extensive renovation.

Other octagon houses include the 20th-century versions in Fontana and Lake Geneva with more traditional materials and modern features. There's even an octo restaurant, Fitzgerald's, in Genoa City.

Other than octagons just being different, the homes are a dying breed. Puerzer estimated that about 400 of the homes remain in the country, with 53 of those in Wisconsin.

Preservation is key, she said.

 “Our country must come to appreciate these and other historic buildings as a value to future generations,” Puerzer said. “Can we allow these buildings that have remained standing through 150 years of this country's history to disappear now?”

Meanwhile, Puerzer and Travis keep up-to-date on their web-based inventories. While you can always enjoy images from the digital age, consider a drive around the county and see a piece of history for yourself.



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