George Stoudt House - Octagon House, Mount Pleasant Pennsylvania

Date added: December 1, 2022 Categories: Pennsylvania House

This octagonal house was a local landmark and conversation piece from the day construction was completed. Local residents still marvel at this radically different way of planning a farmhouse. The original owners of the house, George and Adam Stoudt, were known to be the type of strong-minded individuals that would be willing to make a sharp break with long-standing local building traditions. "The eight sided home," writes John Maass in The Victorian Home in America, "defiant among its foursquare neighbors, was always the choice of an individualist".

The circumstances surrounding the construction of the house are also noteworthy. Under the terms which George Stoudt purchased the property in 1865, he was obligated to pay Lydia Dundor $50 per year and allow her use of the original farmhouse (an interesting log and stone building which was constructed in 1812, and enlarged in 1848) until her death. This was a Pennsylvania German custom known as a widow's dowry. George Stoudt thus has to construct a new house for his family on the property; this house became the octagon house. George soon retired to nearby Mt. Pleasant (his lot is clearly marked in the 1876 Berks County atlas), leaving the farm to his son Adam (1835-1923).

Octagon houses became a craze in American building in the mid-nineteenth century. The use of the octagon plan was a native American attempt to enhance the functional performance of traditional buildings, especially dwelling houses. The basic underlying concept was to maximize floor area, while minimizing outside wall area. The increased number of exposures also promised better ventilation, natural light, and view. Ideally, octagon builders preferred round buildings to accomplish these goals, but accepted eight-sided plans as a pragmatic approximation.

Needless to say, this approach to dwelling house architecture is extremely rare in Pennsylvania German areas due to the basic conservatism of the community and the strength of their own building traditions. The octagon concept was well known in rural areas, however, having been published extensively in agricultural periodicals, country newspapers, and builders' manuals. The Stoudt House's traditional structural system and conventional first-floor plan, moreover, indicate a vernacular adaptation on the part of the builders.

The decision to build octagonally was made by either George Stoudt or his son, Adam Stoudt. Both men were part-time cabinet makers and could easily have heard of the octagon concept through their work or associations. The design choice may have also been related to a decision to rent some of their land at this time. Although the Stoudts undoubtedly understood and appreciated the functional gains to be had in an octagonal house, a strong motivation for constructing an octagonal plan may have oeen so that they could supervise the tenants and hired hands from within the house. Later residents testify that the eight different exposures of the house provided a clear view of all the surrounding lands. Other possible sources for the octagonal plan may have been an eight-sided school house located in nearby Sinking Springs, Pa. This building was well-known locally, though it was only one story in height and not a home.

The conventional frame addition was added about 1880 by George Stoudt in order to give himself a dwelling house close to his relatives since he was by then too old to care for himself in Mt. Pleasant. Additions of this type were common in the area and were known as "in-law houses." In order to ensure privacy, the addition was actually built physically separate from the main house. The house and the addition were joined by a common veranda which went across two sides of the octagon house and across the front of the addition.

The original farmhouse on the property {which was located about 500' away) became a tenant house upon the death of Lydia Dundor.

The fabric of this building was basically unaltered at the time of demolition. Since modern plumbing and central heating were never installed, what modifications that did take place were centered on adjustments to the plan produced by the addition and removal of partitions. The entire weight of the house bore on the outside walls and a central, masonry pier; this permitted partitioning of the plan almost at will.

The approach road originally looped around the barn, with the house overlooking the road and the barn. In about 1930, the road was re-routed to a position directly behind the house, resulting in the original back of the house becoming the front. The new front entry then led into the parlor, rather than into the kitchen; the small rear porch became the front porch, and the large front porch became a private rear porch.

Later owners also removed the partition between the kitchen and the first-floor bedroom (this latter room had also been used as a dining room), and constructed a small storage room at the end of the then enlarged kitchen. Tne partition between the front parlor and the rear sitting room was removed, making one large parlor instead. Several partitions on the second floor were added, increasing the number of bedrooms from three to five.

The conventionally planned frame addition was added in about 1880 as a residence for George Stoudt in his old age. It was later converted to a summer house, and then a garage.

Each of the eight sides of the two-story house measured about 16' long. The front and rear sides had a door and window on the first floor and two windows on the second floor; all the other sides had one window at each level. Tne frame addition was a conventional two-story rectangle, measuring about 20' by 15'.

The cellar was essentially one large space divided only by the stone pier at the center supporting the floor beams and joists. The cellar was used as a work space and had wood bins used for storage of fruits and vegetables.

The first-floor plan reflected Pennsylvania German farmhouse planning traditions. The original plan was divided into four rooms: the kitchen, the double parlor, and the parents' or grandparents' bedroom (this room was also used as a dining room). The door through the smaller porch led directly into the front of the parlor. The small bedroom or dining room originally led directly off the side of the parlor, while the entry to the kitchen was through the rear parlor (the sitting room). The winding stairway was located at one end of the sitting room. The large fireplace was located at the end of the kitchen. The enlarged kitchen as modified by owners could be divided temporarily with a wooden, folding door which was located at about the midway point of the length of the kitchen. In later years, the house was divided into a two-family house: one family lived in the enlarged kitchen, while the other family lived in the enlarged parlor. The parlor was subdivided near the entry door to form a very small bedroom.

The stairway to the second floor led directly to a small landing which provided direct access to two bedrooms. Access to the other three bedrooms on the second floor was through these two bedrooms.

In the Addition, the first floor was a single undivided space with a fireplace and stairway in the end wall. The second floor was also a single undivided space.

The house faced south (toward eight Cornered House Road) and was built into a shallow embankment. The general site of the house was high land, allowing the house to overlook the surrounding fields. Eight Cornered House Road is a very lightly used road and once functioned as a private approach lane to the farm. This road leads directly into Gruber Road which would have provided the farm with access to the Union Canal, Pleasant Valley, Mt. Pleasant, and several nearby mills operating next to the Tulpehocken. In the other direction (northeast), Eight Cornered House Road leads to Perm Bern Road which leads to Bern Cnurch, a large local Pennsylvania German Reformed Lutheran Church.

This house was part of a typical ensemble of Pennsylvania German farm buildings, including a large bank barn, a large log and stone tenant house, a pig sty, a stone springhouse and carpenter shop (demolished circa 1930), and all the other smaller buildings traditionally constructed as integral parts of a working farm.