The Octagon showed a new dimension in the College Row. The former strict, religiously zealous reign of Heman Humphrey showed in the Federalist architecture of the buildings. With the Octagon, a new trend emerged: science buildings were built first and then renovated into humanities or arts buildings afterwards (for example, Webster Hall, Fayerweather, the Octagon). In addition, buildings were becoming more specialized. The Octagon, as the Woods Cabinet, had a unique purpose. On the other hand, the attic of South was used as both a lecture room, a laboratory, and a sermon hall.
But why an Octagon?
Hitchcock was very interested in the works of Orson Squire Fowler, an Amherst graduate of the Class of 1834. Fowler was a public intellectual, writing 108 books on a variety of topics including heredity, maternity, temperance, and the his call to fame – phrenology. Phrenology was the leading pseudo-science of the mid-19th century. It claimed that by studying the bumps on a person’s head, it was possible to deduce their mental capacity and aptitude. Hitchcock was an avid follower of Fowler, who worked alongside his brother, Lorenzo Niles Fowler, in their Phrenological Cabinet in New York City.
Among the 108 books that Orson Squire Fowler wrote lay the foundation of the Octagon – a book called “A home for all; or, The gravel wall and octagon mode of building.” In it he claimed that using an octagon shape for the base of a building instead of a square one would allow for a larger area usage with the same perimeter. Hitchcock, among other Fowler fans, gave rise to a now-bizarre trend of building octagon-shaped houses.
Hitchcock was enough of a fan of the Octagon that he added one as his study to his home on South Pleasant Street. Apparently, his personal study was located in the an octagonal addition that drew the quiet cabinet office space away from his boisterous six-children family.
The architect chosen for this project was Henry A. Sykes, a Springfield native. He agreed to Hitchcock’s polygonal bizarreness and used that to his advantage. After the Octagon’s successful reception, Sykes was called upon to design more specializes and unique academic buildings from campus that would also deviate from the Federalist, simple, rectangles of the College Row – Appleton Cabinet and Morgan Library.
(Click on the right to see images.)