Neenah's Octagon House

Octagon HouseNeenah's Octagon House is not only our "Home for History" but it has long been a landmark in the city. It dates back to the 1850s, less than a decade after the first settlers arrived in the area. It was built with eight sides instead of the conventional four, and must have been an object of wonder and speculation to local residents. The house was topped with an octagonal cupola and set on a prime location, with its wide front veranda overlooking a lawn that led to the beautiful tree-lined shore of Little Lake Butte des Morts.

Octagon houses were the inspiration of Orson Squire Fowler, who wrote a book extolling their merits. He pointed out that windows on eight sides of the house not only brought in more sunshine, light and fresh air, but eliminated the dark corners found in conventional houses. Over a thousand of these innovative houses were built in America between 1850 and 1860, forty of them in Wisconsin and most of the rest in New England and New York state.
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The first owner of our Octagon House was Edward Smith, a prosperous flour mill owner. Later it was owned by his brother Hiram who was a merchant, a paper mill owner, and a stove manufacturer. He was also a founder of the Manufacturers' National Bank, now known as Bank One. The Smith family occupied the house for nearly seventy years. Hiram's widow, Vesta Olmstead Smith, lived in it until her death in 1919. The house then passed through another owner to the Quinn Family in 1923, and remained in their hands until the Society bought it in 1993.

Many changes have occurred in the Octagon House over the years. The original thirty-foot octagon was enlarged three times: twice early in its existence with brick that matches the original construction, and a third time much later, with wood siding. The cupola came down some time in the 1930s, and the Quinns converted the house into three apartment units.

The Society assumed the daunting and expensive task of restoring it to its original historic appearance. The lack of many photographs of the original building made research difficult, but thanks to a dedicated and hard-working corps of volunteers as well as to hired professionals, our goal has largely been met. The house has been added to the state and national Registers of Historic Places, and is one of only four ante bellum (pre Civil War) houses still standing in Neenah.