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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; it is partly overgrown with roses or ivy. The front door is arched with a fanlight. It is the Warren Clark House in Mendota, Illinois.]

Historic American Buildings Survey

Warren Clark House, Mendota, Built 1850's.

 p180  The Octagon Mode

In the Burnham Library of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago may be found a small, rare, time-stained volume that was responsible for an exotic, but short-lived, architectural style throughout northeastern America in the years just before the Civil War. This book is A Home for All; or, the Gravel Wall, and Octagon Mode of Building, by O. S. Fowler of New York, who is identified on the title page as an "author of various works on phrenology." First published in 1849, this book was widely read in successive editions and resulted in the construction of octagon-shaped houses in many villages, towns, and cities from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

Some of these eight-sided houses, with their curious V‑shaped rooms, are still in existence. A number of them survive in Illinois, and one of the best of these, although not one of the most impressive, is the old Warren Clark house at Mendota. It is located on U. S. 34, at the west end of town, and is a unique residential landmark in that part of the state. Several generations of farmers, bringing their corn to Mendota, have wondered about the odd style of construction of this house.

Whether the builder of this dwelling, Warren Clark, was a follower of the phrenological writings of Professor O. S. Fowler has not been determined, but he must have known of Fowler when he built his abode in 1853. For at that time Professor Fowler was one of the most popular phrenologists in the United States, and his Phrenological Almanac was read by thousands. "Fowler's interests," says the Dictionary of American Biography, "were universal and he supposed himself able to solve the problems of every department of knowledge by means of 'phrenology and physiology' alone."

Discussing octagon houses in Country Life in America magazine (March, 1913), Fanny Hale Gardiner wrote: "Whether those who followed Fowler's teachings had the idea that there was any metaphysical connection between his diagram of our 'dome of thought' and his plan for a dwelling for our mortal body is not certain. There is no evidence that he intended a symbolical purpose in selecting a figure of eight sides rather than one of any other number."

Some clue as to what Professor Fowler had in mind when he designed the octagon-style house might be found in the introduction to his book where he wrote: "I kept asking myself, Why so little progress in architecture when there is so much in other matters? We continue to build in the same square form adopted by all past ages. Cannot some  p181 radical change for the better be adopted, both as to the external form of houses and their interior arrangements? Why not take our pattern from Nature? Her forms are mostly spherical."​a

A comparison of the Warren Clark house with an etching of the residence built by Professor Fowler himself at Fishkill, New York (which no longer exists) shows the similarity of the two dwellings. The professor's eight-sided house is, of course, more pretentious than the Mendota abode. When Warren Clark built his house he was a man of some means in the community. An early settler of La Salle County, he acquired land and helped to develop the region.

Set back on a landscaped lawn at the intersection of Washington Street and Iowa Avenue, the Warren Clark house is a two‑story frame dwelling with a bay window on the south side and a small porch on the southeast wall. It has an almost flat roof of tin, with a chimney protruding from the center. The rooms of the house, some of them V‑shaped, are plain, with pine trim. A walnut stairway leads to second-floor bedrooms.

Thayer's Note:

a A more recent version of this idea led to an equally brief craze for houses in the shape of geodesic domes, the originator of which was another Illinois resident, Buckminster Fuller.

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Page updated: 11 Dec 07