Note: The hexagon-shaped Milton House was the inspiration for architect Orson Squire Fowler’s book: “The Octagon House: A Home for All,” which sparked a building fad using the octagon shape in the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Whitewater’s Octagon House, preserved for its historical value by the city’s Landmarks Commission, has new owners.
Nicole Holder and her boyfriend, Josh Lunetta, looked at real estate for several months before finding the 1862-built home in June.
First time homebuyers, the couple planned on spending about $200,000 to purchase a home in move-in condition, but, Nicole said, it was a seller’s market and finding the right fit in Walworth County had become a challenge.
When Nicole saw the Octagon House on Newcomb Street, she said, she fell in love.
“It was so cute, and very well kept,” she said.
Nicole, a UW-Whitewater student pursuing her master’s degree in psychology, a residential care specialist at Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc, and a working artist, said the home’s odd shape made it intriguing.
Josh is a cable technician employed by Charter. The couple has been together for eight years.
Renters in Lake Geneva and Delavan for several years, Nicole said they were eager to embrace home ownership.
In September, Nicole said, she, Josh and her mother, Chris, along with “Nihlus,” a 6-year-old Swiss shepherd and beagle mix, moved into the two-story, eight-sided home. Nicole said the first challenge was organizing her furniture, including a five-foot-in-diameter circular chair and sectional couch, within the 1,300-square-foot home. Working with the building’s unique angles proved easier than she imagined, she said.
“The home has a great flow,” Nicole said, adding that the floor plan and rooms, even with their unusual angles, easily accommodated the family.
When she saw the home and its shape listed online, Nicole said, she was very curious about the layout. She noticed the kitchen was split into three pieces. Photos posted with the listing gave her the idea, she said, “it would be an unconventional space.”
But, she said, she, too, is unconventional. “Everyone who knows me said: ‘yeah, that house is perfect for you.’”
Referencing a fictional time machine and space craft from the British TV series “Doctor Who,” of the interior layout, Nicole said: “It’s a TARDIS; It’s bigger on the inside.
“It has all the traditional rooms: three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining and living rooms, and upstairs there is a walk-in closet, but it’s not attached to any room.”
Among unordinary spaces is an angular nook which Nicole has turned into a library.
Shaped by history
According to a post submitted in 2015 to “Recollection Wisconsin,” a “digital cultural heritage” resource made available through the Digital Public Library of America, in collaboration with UW-Madison student Emily Nelson, the octagon, as an architectural structure, was made popular by New York “amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler,” whom, Nelson wrote, promoted the design as one that created a healthier lifestyle, writing in his book: “The Octagon House: A Home for All,” published in 1848, that the eight sides offered better lighting and buildings were better ventilated through a ceiling cupola.
Although built in the shape of a hexagon, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society website: “The Milton House was the source and the inspiration for Orson Squire Fowler’s ‘The Octagon House: A Home for All,’ which sparked the octagon fad of the mid-nineteenth century.”
The Milton House, 18 S. Janesville Street, was completed in 1849 by Milton founder Joseph Goodrich, who arrived from New York in 1838. The poured concrete structure was built as a stagecoach inn and was later used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The building today is maintained as a museum by the Milton Historical Society.
According to information on the Wisconsin Historical Society website, “after researching transportation routes, Goodrich filed a claim, speculating that his land would become a transportation hub.”
Goodrich moved an 1837-built log cabin from the town of Lima to his land. He expanded the cabin to create the original Milton Inn, and began constructing the six-sided tower in 1844.
Between 1850 and 1870, Nelson wrote, approximately 1,000 octagon-shaped structures were build across America, and “fewer than 100” were built in Wisconsin.
While many of those structures have since been razed, Nelson highlighted several that were, as of 2015, still standing, among them is The Octagon House, 919 Charles Street, Watertown, which today serves as a museum and houses the Watertown Historical Society.
Built in 1853 by Jefferson County’s first lawyer, John Richards, the house, according to Nelson, “is one of the largest single-family residences of the pre-Civil War period.”
According to the Watertown Historical Society website, Richards, a Massachusetts native, arrived by foot in 1837, and, after marrying Eliza Forbes in 1849, sought to fulfill his promise to her that he would build “the finest home in the Wisconsin Territory.”
The eight-sided, three-story building has 57 rooms.
According to what appears to be a newspaper clipping of unknown origin shared with Nicole by the former homeowner, The Lyman Wight Octagon House, as the house on Newcomb Street has come to be known, was built to serve as home to members of the Wight family. The clipping shows a photograph of the home, taken, its caption states, in 1963. The home looks nearly the same as it does today with one notable difference: a covered porch spanning the front portion of the home is no longer attached.
The clipping does not include a date, but notes that the home is one of 16 octagon-shaped houses “left in Wisconsin.” Information on the reverse side of the clipping, including comments made by former Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Dr. John Negley, help date the clipping: Negley served as district administrator between 1983 and 2002, according to the school district’s website.
Information on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website also offers some details about the home. According to the site, the Lyman Wight House or Leonard Sitzler House was built in 1862, and was: “an architectural innovation promoted as an economical and functional home.”
“The house was built for Lyman Wight, an inventor who worked at the Esterly Reaper Works. Octagon houses are quite rare, and this example is of special note because of its small size,” according to the society’s website.
Living in a landmark
Nicole said she became aware of the home’s historical landmark status when she received a letter from the city’s Landmarks Commission in September, defining the home as a “Local Landmark in the Whitewater community.”
As such, the letter stated, the home has “protected status,” under the “City of Whitewater Landmarks Ordinance (Title 17).”
“I was surprised,” Nicole said.
When she and Josh were looking for a home, she said, they were not looking for a historical home, but now that they have one, she is intrigued by the history and has an interest in visiting other octagon-shaped buildings, she said.
“It’s cool that we are in a historical home that’s known by the public, that part is fun,” she added.
Despite the additional responsibilities of maintaining a historical home, Nicole said: “I still would have bought it. I really do like this house.”
She hopes to call the Octagon House in Whitewater home for the next five to 10 years, she said.
Nicole holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology earned in 2014 at UW-Whitewater. She plans to graduate with her masters degree in 2022.
Part of the appeal of finding a home in Whitewater, she said, was her familiarity with the community.
Said Nicole: “I have fond memories of Whitewater and I love walking around on campus, and I think I’ll enjoy that even after I’m not a student. It’s a very charming little town.”
For more information about the Milton House: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/NationalRegister/NR1773 and https://miltonhouse.org.
More information about the museum is found at the Watertown Historical Society’s website: http://www.watertownhistory.org/Articles/Octagon_House_MainPage.htm.
Nelson’s full post about octagon-shaped buildings in Wisconsin is found at https://recollectionwisconsin.org/octagon-houses.