This file portion of www.watertownhistory.org website
Watertown’s Octagon House
Phone (920) 261-2796
To many area residents the title "Watertown Historical Society" and "The Octagon House" are one and the same. In fact, they are at best interrelated, with one depending on the other.
House open to Visitors Daily
from May through October
We do not accept credit or debit cards
Hours of operation are 10:00 to 4:00 daily (11:00 to 3:00 after Labor Day to October 31--then closed for the season; Opens May 1--hours are 11:00 to 3:00 from May 1st to Memorial Day)
Tours are fully guided every hour on the hour in an air-
The Octagon House, five floors of solid brick construction completed in 1854, was designed and built by John Richards, a pioneer Watertown settler. The House is one of the largest single family residences of the pre-Civil War period in Wisconsin
Richards arrived in Watertown, on foot, in the spring of 1837. Once here he became the first lawyer in Jefferson County, as well as the owner of several mills. In 1849 he married his sweetheart, the former Eliza Forbes. He promised to build her the finest home in the Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him.
Its construction includes central heating, running water and ventilating systems. In addition to those "modern conveniences," the house features a central spiral staircase which rises from the first floor to the tower room.
The Richards family and their descendants resided in the home until 1937, when grandson William Thomas passed away. At that time the remaining family members were faced with what to do with the family home, which had become one of Watertown's' most recognizable landmarks.
The Richards family offered to sell it to the city for $ 1, but opposition from the city council and several citizens prevented that from happening. The fledgling Watertown Historical Society then came forward and arranged to purchase the home from the Richards family on condition that it always be used as a public museum.
Since 1938 the Octagon House has been open to the public.
The Octagon House
John Richards, born in Hinsdale, Mass., in 1806, son of Revolutionary War forebears, graduated from Williams College and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. He taught in a well known school “Egremont” near where he lived, and later joined the trek across Midwestern states for adventure and homesteading in Wisconsin. The whole Northwest Territory was wide open for government land grants in the 1840's and 1850's and many young men from New England joined in the “go west, young man” [*] movement. Richards, while in college, had been influenced by a new concept in building that swept across America a few years later - the octagon shaped house.
[* a favorite saying of the nineteenth-century journalist Horace Greeley, referring to opportunities on the frontier]
Arrival in Area
Richards and two companions came to Wisconsin in 1837, partly as the result of the financial panic of 1837 in the east. Watertown's first white man, Timothy Johnson, arrived shortly before that time. Richards walked and studied the areas in this part of the state and found exactly what he wanted in the navigable Rock River in Watertown. Good land was plentiful, there were hills and forests, but much work needed to clear trees and stumps. He bought farm land on the east side of the river and built a small log house. Some years later, in 1846, he completed the purchase of 140 acres of wooded land west of the river [*], including the high bluff which he had visualized as the site for the home he had in mind. This home would give him a commanding view of the Rock River valley.
[* First owner of the 140 acre parcel was Silas W. Newcomb who acquired the land in 1838 from the United States government [cross reference]. In 1846 he sold the land to John Richards, builder of the Octagon House. The land was surveyed for individual lots in 1870]
In 1840 Richards returned east to marry Miss Eliza Forbes of Great Barrington. Her father, Moses Forbes, was the owner of the Old Post Road stage coach line which ran between Hartford and Albany. To allay the fears of his bride for life as a pioneer in a new land Richards promised she would have the finest home in the area.
There were friendly Indians around when Richards lived in Watertown - and timber wolves. In the Octagon House today is a rug made from the skins of four timber wolves and baskets and other artifacts given later to Mrs. Richards in exchange for loaves of her fresh bread.
Richards and his bride began planning the fine home in the octagon shape. During this time Richards built a dam across the river and established a grist mill on the east bank. This flour mill burned in 1886. It was not rebuilt. Today the electric company power plant stands on the site of the former mill. This was a time of prosperity for Watertown; its population grew from 1,500 in 1850 to 8,500 in 1855, making it the second sized city in Wisconsin. Richards milling operations made Richards increasingly wealthy and he decided it was time to build the large home for his family and build it of a size that would also take care of housing and feeding some of the mill hands or lumbermen he employed.
The original Richards cabin was in an almost primeval forest but land was cleared and some rented out to others. The Octagon House on the west side of the river was some years in the planning and three years under construction. In 1854 this beautiful home was completed and the family moved in. The original sketches and diagrams for the house made by John Richards are on display in the Octagon House today.
Richards ran the mill, supervised the farm and did some law work. This pioneer lawyer did not actively set up a law office in Watertown, but did certain amounts of legal work when asked, He was the first district attorney in Jefferson County, helped set up a county system, was a member of the Watertown school board, was elected mayor in 1869-70, was also a one-time member of the Wisconsin legislature.
He also engineered the construction of his dream home.
The Octagon House, the beautiful home built on Richards Hill in 1854, was owned and lived in by Mr. and Mrs. John Richards and their descendants until 1938 when the family presented this generous gift to the Watertown Historical Society. For the past 38 years the society has owned and maintained the home open to the public from May 1 to Nov. 1 each year. This Watertown landmark has lured thousands of visitors to what is probably the largest pre-Civil War single family dwelling in Wisconsin, a home with a unique place in Watertown history.
"The Octagon House, a Home for All" by Orson S. Fowler, was published in 1848, although he had written individual articles on the subject earlier. Fowler, a phrenologist and publisher, had long been a writer on fresh attitudes toward living. “Nature's forms are mostly spherical," Fowler wrote, "Then why not apply this form to houses?" After publication of his Octagon House book many barns, houses, churches and schools in octagon shape sprang up, mostly in eastern United States.
There are a number of octagon shaped barns in this area in Ozaukee (WI) County. By 1857 at least 1,000 such houses had been built throughout the country. Fowler believed the octagon shape, which approximates a circle, provided the greatest utilization of space. John Richards, a typical down east Yankee and a man of many talents, was also a visionary and agreed with this principle of a home in octagon shape.
The house was the talk of the town when it was built, and Richards took great pride in the house and the many innovative features he had installed. The perfect octagon measures 50x50 feet in any direction and sets on a 17- inch foundation entirely beneath the ground.
Octagons put edge in houses: Renewed interest in style based upon utopian ideals
New York Times News Service, 03 11 2005
While most housing designs are based on rectangular shapes, there are some homes with an unusual eight-sided floor plan. These octagonal houses have been turning heads for more than 150 years.
The concept of the octagonal house was idealized by Orson Squire Fowler in his 1853 book "A Home for All: Or a New, Cheap, Convenient and Superior Mode of Building."
Fowler, a phrenologist who deciphered the contours and bumps on the human skull, advocated octagonal-shaped buildings because the walls of an octagon enclose more area than a square or rectangle with equal wall space. Fowler reasoned octagon houses were cheaper to build, eliminated dark corners, were easier to heat and remained cooler in summer.
About 3,000 octagon structures were built in the mid-1800s, most of them in New York and Massachusetts. Octagon structures built as a result of Fowler's book and other octagon-construction books of the day included houses, churches, schools, barns, carriage houses and outbuildings. [And Watertown’s Octagon House]
Three courses or rounds of brick form the 13-inch walls; the inner two rounds are Watertown brick from the local and newly established brick yards which began work in Watertown in 1847. The outside brick layer was Cream City brick hauled from Milwaukee by ox and horse teams over the new plank road. Most of the lumber, basswood, cherry and oak came from the Richards woods. Some pine was used. This had been floated down the river and was prepared in the Richards mill.
The large three-story home, plus basement and windowed cupola, has 57 rooms counting halls and closets. The main rooms are square, the corner rooms used for children's or sewing rooms. The original house had narrow verandas which encircled the house on the first and second levels. When they became unsafe they were removed. A good sized replica of the Octagon House, with the porches, is on the grounds to show visitors the original design.
The first floor rooms, a music room, living room, dining room, butlery and conservatory are 10 feet, 10 inches in height. A dumb waiter functions between the dining room and kitchen in the basement level, and a large chest of drawers was built into the south wall of the dining room for linens and storage. Large family bedrooms with accompanying small corner rooms for the small children are on the second floor. The ceilings at this level are 9 feet, 9 inches. The third floor had been added to Richards' original design in order to accommodate the young men who worked in his mill.
Above the third floor is the sizeable cupola with chimneys extending from the corners. The third floor ceiling slopes toward the center to follow the pitch of the roof line. This slope is necessary to take care of one of one of the most unusual features of the house - a system for running water.
An over 12x6 foot size wooden water tank made of basswood and lined with zinc is suspended above the floor. The tank held rain water which flowed in from the funnel-shaped roof. This water was then diverted to faucets on both the second and third floor stair landings, to the kitchen, to a basement cistern and the run-off drained to the bottom of the hill toward the river.
Light which comes through the cupola windows falls on the spiral cantilevered hanging staircase, with its hand molded cherry rail, the work of skilled artisans of well over a century ago. The stair, known to be one of the few of its kind in the country, is unsupported on one side but securely anchored into the brick walls in the stairwell so that there is not a creak after the many years since its construction.
Richards built a form of air conditioning into his home with louvers that opened at night to trap the cool air, circulated it throughout the walls, and the louvers closed during the heat of the day. Much of the work and time of the household centered in the basement level, where there was the kitchen, a cider room, vegetable room, cistern, pantry, wood storage and furnace room. A large Dutch oven in which 24 loaves of bread were baked at a time helped feed both the family and the mill hands. A furnace capable of heating all these stories in the house burned as much as a cord of wood a day. Exit from the basement level is on the ground level in back; the lower hall is paved with bricks.
Authentic furnishings and artifacts of the Richards' era are in the Octagon House. Much of the furniture was family furniture presented to the Historical Society with the home. The first piano brought to Wisconsin, a Gilbert square, was purchased by Richards for the music room. The dining room furniture belonged to the Richards family and some fine pieces were donated by the John W. Cole family. Certain rugs, curtains and other pieces had to be replaced throughout the years but were carefully selected from the same period. The dining room windows have always had wide white window shades trimmed by hand. Original kerosene chandeliers hang in the downstairs room and in the Richards bedroom on the second floor. Second floor rooms were bedrooms and contained a replica of the Lincoln bed, the same as used in Lincoln's home in Springfield, IL, and in the Richards' bedroom one can view the cannonball bed, so called because of its interesting construction. There is also the child's cradle made by Richards.
Bunks like those used by the millhands are along the wall of a third floor bedroom. Also in the room is an old fashioned zinc lined bathtub and articles used by the millhands for entertainment in their off hours. These men, in addition to working in the mill, frequently floated logs down the Rock River. Kitchen cupboards hold many cooking utensils used by Mrs. Richards. The old fashioned wood range is located near the Dutch oven. In short, the home shows authentic articles of daily living used or typical of being used during the over 80 years the family occupied the home.
Both John Richards and Mrs. Richards were hospitable people. Many old letters in the film attest to this hospitality. Richards was big hearted and generous and never denied his family anything. His bookkeeping system, however, left something to be desired. He kept no accounts, marked sales and money due him on a handy shingle or forgot the transaction entirely. Mrs. Richards found this difficult after he died when she took over management of the farm and found no record of back debts listed for her to collect, though she knew there were many.
The couple had eight children, five of whom lived to adulthood in the Octagon Home; Anna Richards Thomas, Alice Richards Green, Moses Richards, Willie Richards and Charles Richards.
John Richards died in 1874. Mrs. Richards in 1902. Their daughter, Mrs. Thomas, lived in the big home until 1936 when she died at the age of 94. Her son, Willie, died the next year. He was the last family occupant of the Octagon House.
In 1938 Estelle Bennett Richards, widow of Charles Richards, the youngest Richards son, signed the deed which turned over ownership of the home to the Watertown Historical Society with the condition that in the future the house be open to the public at stated times.
There had been desire on the part of Mrs. John Richards that the family do something for Watertown with the house, and this plan was followed through by her family. Harvey Richards, a son of Estelle Bennett Richards and Charles Richards, and grandson of the original builder, John Richards, worked with G. H. Lehrkind, Historical Society president in 1938, and Attorney Wallace Thauer to transfer title of the property. Hans Gaebler, a real historian and most interested in the preservation of historic sites, was in many ways responsible for organization of the Watertown Historical Society.
The Articles of Incorporation for the Watertown Historical Society were signed in 1933 by John D. Clifford and Jane Lord, two of the charter members. Other charter members were Mrs. G. C. Lewis, Tom Lewis, William Thomas, Claire Herrman and Gladys Mollart. Persons who greatly helped put the new society on its feet and helped with much of the original planning were, in addition to the above, Mrs. Lydia Wiggenhorn, Mrs. Dan Thauer, Mrs. Eli Fischer, Sidney Northrop, Prof. E. C. Kiessling, Dr. A. C. Hahn, James Anderson, Marcella Killian and Miss Ella Wilder.
As of 1976 five men had served as president of the Historical Society: Hans Gaebler, G. H. Lehrkind, Dr. Oscar Meyer, Byron Wackett, Lee Block and Fred Kehl. There had been two curators to that date: Mrs. G. C. Lewis, 1939 to 1945 and Gladys Mollart, who served since 1945.
Three Buildings Added
Three buildings have been added on the Octagon House grounds since the Historical Society was presented with the house. The first American kindergarten, founded by Mrs. Carl Schurz in 1856, was moved from its former location at 2nd & Jones streets.
A pioneer barn was moved from the east side of Watertown, where it stood at one end of the Plank Road as the toll house, to the Octagon grounds, and a new building, the Gladys Mollart tour center, was completed in 1969 and dedicated to Miss Mollart.
In addition to the buildings much help has been received in landscaping the grounds and many symbols of Watertown's past have been donated to the Society for preservation of some of Watertown's early history. During many years the Octagon Garden club has planted and tended an old fashioned herb garden just outside the kitchen door.
To name just a few of Watertown's firsts which are located on the grounds:
The bronze bell from Watertown’s first city hall, dated 1869.
The fountain statue Phillis, originally given to the city by Mrs. Carrie Mowder Hill but presented to the Historical Society when the new city hall was built.
The anvil used by the A. Kramp Company for 115 years for pounding out horse shoes or steel tires or rims for the wagon wheels for the army quartermasters corps, presented to the Society in 1972 by Leonard Kramp.
The historic old green trunk marked for Margarethe Meyer Schurz “via Frankfurt, M. Bremen Nach New York America" ended its travels in the room in which she taught, presented by Mrs. Gerald Fahl, through her child's kindergarten class in Oconomowoc, after she found it at a farm auction.
A cobbler's bench from the first shoe factory Fridolin Ruesch began in the 1850’s and operated by that family for several generations, presented by Mrs. Dean Lawrence.
The Indian which adorned Watertown's West Main Street in the late 1880's.
A large heavy "Buhrstone" mill wheel ordered from France in 1878 and used by the Empire, later the Globe Milling Co., presented by the Floyd Burnetts, last owners of the property on which the mill wheel had been mounted.
An early beehive and slatted wooded crate manufactured by G. B. Lewis Co., the bread box made to ship food to American troops in World War I, thousands of miles from home base.
Painting of Octagon House
Mathilde Schley painting of the House is preserved in the museum.
09 12 National Geographical Society: A photographer from the National Geographical Society was in Watertown Monday, 9/9/35 and in company with Mayor W. F. Reichardt, he took several pictures of the first kindergarten. He also took a picture of the Richards home which is now occupied by Mrs. Anna Thomas. Watertown Tribune:
03 22 Schurz Memorial proposed for Madison; consideration of Octagon House dropped.
-- -- The Harvey Richards family and Mrs. Charles D. Richards had an interesting week-end when they motored down from Phelps, Wis., where they are vacationing, to be present at the ceremonies held in Watertown, Wis., in which the old Richards homestead was presented to the Watertown Historical Society by Mrs. Charles Richards, in memory of her husband, the late Charles Daniel Richards. "The Octagon House," as the place is called, was built over 100 years ago, on a high hill overlooking the Rock River, by the Honorable John Richards, and has been occupied by his descendants ever since. Long an object of interest to the passers-by for its unique architecture, it will now be open to the public as a museum, containing the relics of early days of the pioneer Wisconsin settlers. William Douglas Richards, a great-grandson of the pioneer builder and first mayor of Watertown, unveiled the bronze tablet, mounted on a large native boulder, and the presentation speech was given by Harvey Richards, in memory of whose father the place was dedicated. Several hundred friends and members of the Historical Society were present, and the affair ended with a tea, after which everyone was invited to make a tour of the house and grounds. The Lake Forester, Lake Forest, IL, 07 20 1936
1940 "The Board of Directors was often plagued with the question of what constituted good repairs. Were the porches a part of that pressing need? As early as June 1940, Architect George Fred Keck offered to draw plans for the porch restoration project. A year later a five hundred dollar donation accompanied blueprints for the restoration of the verandas. These funds were made available from the Honorable Joe. E. Davies, Ambassador to Belgium and Russia." - John Richards: The Hill and The Mill, page 99.
08 07 The number of visitors to the two Watertown historical shrines, the Octagon House and the First Kindergarten, may break the record set last season when well over 8,000 persons registered there. The attendance so far this year has been unusually heavy. Many of the visitors compare the house favorable with other Wisconsin sites such as the Villa Louis and Wade House as well as the Cotton House in Green Bay. In fact many feel it has more early Wisconsin charm than the others. WDT
09 10 Watertown's Octagon House last evening relived a page from its heyday when it was a center of the social life of the community. The occasion was a candlelight musicale which was presented under auspices of the Watertown Euterpe Music Club. The Watertown Historical Society, which owns and maintains the old 57 room mansion, threw open its doors to make the musical event possible. It was a fine gesture, for the musicale brought together a large group of people for both concerts, one at 5:30 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m., to enjoy music in a setting that is authentic of Watertown's past. Lighted by candles for the first concert, the setting was further enhanced at the 8 p.m. performance by the addition of old kerosene lamps which cast their light rays and caused shadows to dance on the walls and flicker on the ceilings, just as they did in the era when John Richards and his wife entertained guests. WDT
1970 Harvey B. Richards Dies in Florida
Was Last Grandson of the Builder of Octagon House
Watertown Daily Times, 1970
The last grandson of John Richards, builder of the Octagon House, passed away during last week.
Harvey Bennett Richards, age 78, died June 10, in Ft. Myers, Fla., where he had lived for the past 20 years.
He is survived by his wife, Eliza Patch Richards, a son, William D. Richards, of Winter Haven, Fla., and one daughter, Elizabeth, Mrs. George Beemer of Fort Myers, and six grandchildren. A sister, Eliza Richards Prahman, preceded him in death.
Harvey Richards' father, Charles of Chicago, the youngest son of John Richards, was the last owner of the Octagon House. After his death his widow, Estelle Bennett Richards generously deeded the house to the Watertown Historical Society at the instigation of her son, Harvey, who had been an interested and beneficent sponsor since that time. His deep concern during the years since 1939 for the success of the society, had been a great boon to the preservation and maintenance of Watertown's famous historic site.
His interest and enthusiasm never failed. He was planning to come to the opening of the new tour center dedication in August, a project he heartily favored.
The society has lost a devoted friend and benefactor.
2004 150th Anniversary of Octagon House, 2004
Watertown Daily Times article
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article
Octagon House porches to be restored: With rotting boards and posts, a recent anonymous donation to the Watertown Historical Society, will allow for the refurbishing of the characteristic porches.
05 20 Original Watertown bricks that lined former front walk of Octagon House replaced by stamped concrete; bricks offered for sale