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Danbury's Octagon House Inspires WCSU Library Exhibit

Brian Stevens, archivist and special collections librarian and Assistant Archivist Jamie Cantoni at The Octagon House.
Brian Stevens, archivist and special collections librarian and Assistant Archivist Jamie Cantoni at The Octagon House. Photo Credit: Contributed

DANBURY, Conn. — The city of Danbury’s quest to preserve a singular architectural landmark of the city’s mid-19th century history will be celebrated when Western Connecticut State University presents a special exhibit highlighting the 160-year-old Octagon House and Orson Squire Fowler, whose 1848 book inspired its construction.

The Archives and Special Collections department at WCSU will organize a public exhibit featuring the university’s holdings of rare historical materials related to the Octagon House on Spring Street in central Danbury and to the nationwide fad during the 19th century in construction of eight-sided dwellings inspired by Fowler’s work, “The Octagon House: A Home for All.”

Brian Stevens, archivist and special collections librarian, said the display will include original editions of “The Octagon House” and “Self-Instruction in Phrenology and Physiology,” a Fowler work that reflected his international prominence in the mid-1800s as one of America’s foremost practitioners of the pseudo-science known as phrenology.

The exhibit is scheduled to open on Friday, Sept. 4, and continue through Dec. 1 during library hours on the first floor of the Ruth Haas Library on the university’s Midtown campus in Danbury. 

The announcement in early July by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton that the city plans to purchase the Octagon House at 21 Spring St. and restore it for city office use caught the attention of Stevens, who recently became aware from the work of a library volunteer preparing online access to the university’s rare books collection that the university owns several original Fowler works including the 1848 printing of “The Octagon House.”

A closer reading of the book’s prescription for what was considered a radical departure from conventional rectangular, four-sided construction of homes revealed “that the Octagon House in Danbury followed instructions very close to those set out in Fowler’s book,” Stevens said.

John T. Earle, a steamfitter and plumber by trade who also served as a fire inspector and water commissioner in Danbury, began construction of the structure in 1853 and completed the project in 1855, drawing heavily upon Fowler’s recommendations for an octagonal design suited to more efficient heating and insulation, extensive window space for natural lighting and ventilation, and cost-effective building materials.

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