Of all the historic houses I’ve seen, the Armour-Stiner Octagon House in Irvington, New York has become a new favorite. I am absolutely enamored by its bold color palette, stunning interior, and unique structure. Its preservation story is also quite heartwarming.
Amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler launched the trend for octagonal houses when he published A Home for All on the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, outlining why this form of architecture was superior to traditionally-shaped houses. First printed in 1848, an 1854 edition can be found on archive.org. Fowler believed that octagonal houses were superior to traditional dwellings because they were cheaper to build, allowed for maximum square footage, received more natural light, and were easier to heat and cool, among other benefits. Hundreds of octagonal houses still stand, though one article I read estimates that the number is closer to 2,077.
For all its benefits, one quirky consequence of octagonal houses is triangular-shaped rooms, seen in the solarium of the Armour-Stiner House:
The other triangular-shaped rooms on the first floor are the library, tea room, and pantry. The triangular-shaped rooms on the upper stories are either closets or bathrooms. The house is five stories tall with twenty-five rooms. The fourth floor is one large ballroom and the fifth floor is the cupola. These top two floors are not included on the tour, but you can get a glimpse through the House’s Instagram page:
The Armour-Stiner house stands out from other octagonal houses because of its domed roof. In fact, “it is the only known, fully domed octagonal residence and the only house which replicates Donato Bramante’s 1502 Tempietto in Rome.”* The original house was built around 1860 by financier Paul J. Armour and was much simpler in design. In 1872, New York City tea merchant Joseph Stiner purchased the property as a summer residence and altered it to create the present structure, which included adding the dome and veranda. Some interesting residents have inhabited the house over the years, including Finnish writer and explorer Aleko Lilius in the 1930s, and from 1940 to 1976, the author, poet, and historian Carl Carmer. The National Trust acquired the property in 1978 and sold it to preservation architect Joseph Pell Lombardi who, with his son Michael, carefully researched and restored the property to its 1872 appearance. I commend them on their effort, for the outcome is incredible! This house is truly a labor of love and the world could certainly use more people like Mr. Lombardi and son to care about saving historic buildings.
I was so moved hearing about his painstaking efforts to save the house and restore it to its former glory. An integral part of the restoration was fixing the dome, which was starting to collapse! Lombardi put a cable with a turnbuckle put around the exterior walls of this top floor, which is the ballroom. Everyday he tightened the cable half an inch and after two years the walls were back to their original position. Cables were also installed in the third floor ceiling, enabling the building to retain its original shape. This restoration phase took nine years. After forty years of restoration work, the house just opened for tours a few months ago in April!
Mr. Lombardi is so committed to maintaining the house’s historical integrity that the kitchen appliances retain their antique exterior. The ice box is now a refrigerator and this stove is now electric:
Another part of the restoration process involved careful analysis of the paint to determine the original colors (one of the previous owners had whitewashed nearly everything!). It’s also fortunate that the house miraculously has nearly all of its original furnishings! One of the owners had tried selling the furniture in the 1930s when Victorian style had long gone out of fashion.
In keeping with the classically-influenced architecture, neoclassical themes predominate the interior. Take, for example, the furnishings of the parlor:
Phrenology heads appear throughout the house in homage to Orson Fowler who was also a phrenologist, in addition to being an amateur architect.
References to the Eastern Elk, which was unfortunately hunted to extinction in the Victorian era, also appear throughout the house:
On the third floor is a collections room, beautifully embodying the Victorian love of the natural world…a world they just loved to death. This collections room features mounted butterfly specimens and a table inlaid with butterfly wings.
Also breathtaking was the Egyptian Revival room, which was intended as a room for exercising the mind, body, and spirit, complete with a painting easel and piano. And take a look at that ceiling!
This beautiful house comes with a ghost story. Apparently the house is haunted by a white lady (of course) who favors the third floor. This young lady lived in the house one summer and fell in love with the boy next-door. Their parents did not approve, so they decided to run away and elope. Unfortunately, they died in a steamboat accident on their way to New York City, and the lady’s spirit returned to haunt the octagon house. During the tour she did not grace us with her presence, but is said to be a friendly ghost.
As far as I can see, the only thing haunting the Armour-Stiner Octagon House is great design and a faithful interpretation of Orson Fowler’s principles. This stunning house left a lasting impression in my mind and one day I will definitely be back.
More information can be found and tour tickets purchased on the Armour-Stiner House website.