I live in a split-level ranch.

This is not necessarily my dream house; for all that I have no real complaints about the Last Homely Shack East of the Manhan, it was not my first choice when Wingding (not his real name) and I were looking at houses back in 1997.  We sat down and made up a list of what we wanted, from number of bedrooms to location to age of the building, and after much thought, discussion, and consultation with our realtor, we came up with something like this:

-    Older house, preferably Victorian or 1920s.
-    Three bedrooms minimum, preferably four.
-    Garage, either for cars or storage.
-    Mature trees in the yard.
-    Quiet neighborhood.
-    Fireplace.
-    Built-in bookshelves.
-    Hardwood floors.
-    Gas appliances and heat.
-    Separate dining area.
-    Nice woodwork.
-    Large closets, preferably walk-in.

We looked at probably a dozen houses, without success; the closest we came to agreement were a Dutch Colonial with a quirky second floor layout and kerosene heat (!), a center front Colonial with a gorgeous master suite and a mirrored disco wall in the living room (?), and a huge 1950s split-level with a stone fireplace to die for, two basements, and what appeared to be the original 1950s appliances (!?).  None were quite right, and worse, the ones that he liked I didn't, and vice versa.

Finally we came to the most expensive of the houses.  Built in 1979 in a very quiet subdivision, it had smallish bedrooms, a dining room that was basically part of the kitchen (which sported astonishingly ugly grayish-bluish-greenish-tannish loop carpeting to distinguish it from the dark green shag in the rest of the public areas), very dark pine cabinets and woodwork, and a finished basement with what appeared to be built-in bookshelves that actually weren't.  The house was all electric, which meant cold spots in the bedrooms, less than precise cooking heat, and a total dependence on the local utility being up to scratch during storms.

I was dubious, and so was Wingding as we toured the bedrooms, the basement, and the garage.  It really wasn't what we wanted, and I was about to tell our realtor to keep looking when Wingding, who had wandered into the dining area and was looking out at the deck, spoke.

“Ellid,” he said in what I can only describe as tones of awe.  “Take a look at this.”

I frowned, excused myself from checking the stove, and joined him.  He was pointing out at the surprisingly large, surprisingly flat back yard.  It had a slightly rickety stockade fence, a small shed for gardening tools, a dog house for our non-existent dogs...

And a stand of huge, gorgeous, mature trees.

We'd looked at other houses with trees, most notably the house with the disco living room, but this was different.  A towering hemlock, at least fifty feet tall, occupied most of one corner, while the other was claimed by several sugar maples and a couple of pin oaks.  Two small, squat cedars, a birch, and an elderly white pine took up the space between the behemoth. Yet another pin oak stood just to the left of the deck, its graceful branches close enough to shade the area where a dining table might sit.

I do not exaggerate when I say that it was beautiful.

Wingding, who had loved the woods ever since his family had bought a small campsite near his home in Hozlett, had the look of Sir Lancelot staring at the Holy Grail. He took me by the hand, led me down the stairs from the deck to the backyard, and walked out under the sugar maples.  Neither of us spoke for several minutes.

He turned to me, his eyes as serious as I had ever seen them.  "Do we have a winner here?"

My mouth opened slightly.  I liked the yard, too, but this was not what we had agreed on, planned for, hoped to find.  Neither of us was much of a gardener, and a yard like this would need constant maintenance.  Add in the small closets, the dark bedrooms, the lack of bookshelves, the hideous carpets and dark cabinets, the sense that this house hadn't been updated in years....

Reader, I pointed out every flaw in this house, from the electric heat to the drab, narrow master bath.  I reminded me that our old yard in Springfield was a wreck because he refused to mow it and I didn't have time, and that this yard was easily four times the size.  I told him that this house met almost none of our criteria, that it would need new carpets, eventually new appliances and cabinets, that there was no storage space, the driveway was cracked....

We moved into our new home in September of 1997.  It was supposed to be a fresh start, a place of healing after marital troubles and the slow, agonizing death of my mother from Alzheimer's, a place to start a family at last and finally, finally live the life we'd always dreamed of.  

For a few brief months it was so, but soon everything that had plagued us for a decade started up again:  the fights, the deceptions, the picking away at each other's wounds.  He moved out to live with his much younger girlfriend less than three years after we moved in, and I thank God every day that he gave me the house, which had been bought and paid for with money I'd inherited, without so much as a murmur.

Over the years I've let the yard go - I still don't like yardwork or gardening, and the snowblower and lawn mower he left behind never worked properly - but I've replaced some of the carpeting, repainted the walls, fixed the roof, and put in a new stove and refrigerator.  The grayish-bluish-greenish-tannish loop carpeting in the kitchen went bye-bye in favor of cream and beige linoleum, and the kitchen cabinets are painted to match.  I've dealt with stink bugs in the screens, wasps on the deck, and mice in the soffits, and let me tell you, the sight of little Diamond dashing down the hallway, head up, eyes glowing as she followed the patter of rodent feet that she could not reach through the ceiling, is one that I will remember till the day I die. It's not the finest or the most elegant house on my block, but it's mine.

And as many bad memories as the Shack has of the shipwreck of my marriage, there are far more memories of friends gathered 'round the table, of bardic nights in the living room, tea and waffles on the deck, my beloved old cat Arrow dozing in a window, my beloved new cat Gil sprawled in the kitchen.  Somehow, some way, the house I didn't want has become my home, and when I finally sell it in a couple of years and buy something smaller (can we say "condo," boys and girls?), it will be on my terms and mine alone.

Such is the saga of the Last Homely Shack, my little piece of the 1970s in Easthampton, Massachusetts.  I'm sure many of you have similar stories to tell.  Houses have a way of taking on the personality of whoever lives there, and whether they're what we dream of when we buy them, we usually manage to shape them to what we want.  Humans are stubborn, after all, and if something doesn't fit at first, well, we'll make it work through sheer cussedness.

Or we could simply build the perfect house according to the plans of the celebrated phrenologist, sexual advice giver, and architectural theorist Orson Squire Fowler.

Orson Squire Fowler is all but unknown today, but he enjoyed a tremendous vogue in the middle of the 19th century.  Born in Cohocton, New York, Fowler was in many ways ahead of his time; he advocated equal rights for women, deplored child labor, and wrote extensively on subjects ranging from architecture to education to marriage.  He was a man of such drive that he walked the 400 miles from Cohocton to Amherst because he couldn't afford carriage fare, then worked two jobs to pay his tuition through one of the most insular of the Ivy League Colleges.

Fowler had originally planned to become a Congregational minister, like his college classmate Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe and educator Catherine Beecher).  However, while at school he encountered the teachings of one Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, after which he abandoned all thoughts of the ministry in favor of a career on the cutting edge of science.

Spurzheim, a charismatic German, was an anatomist who had made an extensive study of the human brain in collaboration with physician Franz Joseph Gall.  Together they studied the relation of human personality to the structures of the brain, and by the early 1800s had come to the conclusion that various characteristics that make us human can be placed in particular areas of the brain:  amativeness at the rear of the skull, just above what we'd call the brainstem; wit above the right ear, just toward of conscientiousness; hope at the top of the skull; and so on.  And though the human skull is tough and bony, preventing much exploration of its contents in adult (and living) subjects, the soft, growing skulls of children would inevitably be shaped by the development of one characteristic in the brain or another, leading to subtle changes in the skull that could lead to valuable clues as to the subject's personality.

Gall and Spurzheim called their new, exciting discovery "phrenology."  You may have heard of it.

Although today phrenology sounds like (and of course is) a classic example of pseudoscience, it sure didn't sound like it to the eager undergraduates of Amherst College.  The young Orson Fowler was surely not the only one who found the idea of uncovering the mysteries of the human personality by contemplating skull bums compelling, but he was probably the only one who chose becoming a professional phrenologist over the safe, respectable path of the ministry.

And so Orson graduated from Amherst College, moved to New York, and opened a phrenological office so that he could share this exciting new wisdom with the teeming multitudes of America's greatest city.  Not only that, his brother Lorenzo, who had followed him to Amherst, quickly followed him to New York.  Soon they were joined by their sister Charlotte and her husband, Samuel Wells, and in no time the Fowler clan had made quite a name for itself as experts in the study of the human mind.  And though advances in medical science began to cast doubt on certain aspects of phrenology (most notably, whether it actually worked at all), Lorenzo's marriage to pioneering female doctor Lydia Folger gave their phrenological practice a sheen of intellectual and medical respectability that outshone similar efforts.

At the same time, lightly running his fingers over people's heads in hopes of sussing out their inner selves was not enough for Orson.  He began writing in hopes of bringing phrenology, both as discovered by Gall and Spurzheim and as refined by him and his family, to the public..  His first book, Phrenology, Proved, Illustrated, and Applied,, appeared in 1836, only two years after he graduated from college.  Another two years, and he was publishing the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, a magazine about (of course) phrenology that lasted from 1838 until, no lie, 1911.  

Fowler was riding high, and little wonder; in those halcyon days of few doctors, any sort of medical practice or advice was received as manna from heaven by the average American family.  Phrenology was scarcely the only non-standard treatment to become popular in the early to mid-19th century (just think of chiropractic, hydropathy, or the fad for taking lobelia and mercury until one vomited out all of one's impurities), but Fowler was a good enough writer, and phrenology was respectable enough (especially after Lydia Folger joined the Fowler family), that his ideas soon swept the country.

A charismatic practitioner...well written, persuasive books...an actual qualified doctor to relate the outside of the head to the inside...is it any wonder that celebrities, intellectuals, and artists flocked to the Fowler consulting rooms at Clinton Hall?  Or that the client list came to includedluminaries such as Horace Greeley, James Garfield, Brigham Young, John Brown, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Henry Dana, and Horace Mann?  One client, a young writer named Walt Whitman, became such close friends with Fowler, and studied his writings so closely, that literary critics are convinced that the study of phrenology, or at least phrenological terms, is crucial to understanding precisely what Whitman meant in some of the more obscure passages of Leaves of Grass (which was published by Fowler's publishing house).

All of this should have been enough to satisfy Fowler, who was now a wealthy man.  However, the boundless curiosity and intellectual drive that had led him to wear out so much shoe leather walking to Massachusetts for an education had not deserted him.  A classic mid-19th century polymath and reformer who believed in a simple, efficient, logical life of virtue and self-improvement, his books on phrenology were soon supplemented by books on education, religion, heredity, and, surprisingly enough, architecture.  

Now, for most reformers of the time period the simple life meant the actual day to day tasks of living:  plain food, non-constricting clothes, reading good books, or long, brisk walks followed by short, brisk baths in icy spring water.  For Fowler, however, it meant building houses according to what he was convinced was the most efficient, cost-effective, easily heated/cooled, shape of all: the octagon.

That's right.  The octagon.  Never mind that octagonal houses (or their close relative, the round house) are not especially easy to build, furnish, or decorate, or that outside of a handful of churches and other public buildings, not precisely common in European architecture.  Fowler's 1848 The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building argued that since the circle was nature's perfect shape, the best and most efficient way to contain a volume of space or liquid, either it or its very close approximation, the octagon, would be the perfect design for the Great American House.

Although Fowler was no architect (he hated interior hallways and advocated an external veranda for getting about the house, which worked perfectly well in good weather but not necessarily at other times), many of his ideas, such as central heating, cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater, and speaking tubes in the walls to facilitate interior communication, were workable.  He even put his ideas into practice by building a huge octagon house known as "Fowler's Folly" outside of New York.  The house was visible from the Hudson River, and soon became a local landmark.

That Fowler had to sell the Folly during the Panic of '57 did not detract from his ideas; that he personally had to move didn't mean that the house was not an efficient and comfortable.  Soon hundreds, if not thousands, of octagon houses sprang up throughout the United States, with examples everywhere from New England to California to the Deep South.

If that wasn't enough, Fowler, who married three times and had several children, branched out still further.  By the mid-1840s he began writing on what was delicately known as "the marital act," childrearing, and suchlike, his writings on these subjects also sold well.  There was little information in print on sex, after all, and Fowler's first books about this crucial aspect of the human condition (Matrimony, or Phrenology applied to the Selection of Companions andMaternity: or the Bearing and Nursing of Children ) were safely connected to the real purpose of sex:  having healthy children and rearing them to be healthy, respectable adults.

At the same time, not every marriage is (or was) happy, and an unhappy marriage was unlikely to lead to the aforesaid healthy children (or any at all, if the wife availed herself of the numerous home remedies to "restore irregular menses" and then insisted on separate beds).  To alleviate this deplorable state of affairs, the much-married Mr. Fowler delivered himself of a tome like 1870's Creative and Sexual Science, and since he was an acknowledged medical and marital authority, its 1000+ pages were taken very seriously indeed.  After all, what else can one do when confronted with chapter titles like these:

How to promote sexual vigor, the prime duty of every man and woman.
After all, if we're supposed to be fruitful and multiply, it's best to be able to engage in the act that leads to fruitfulness and multiplication/multiplicity.
How young husbands should treat their brides; how to increase their love and avoid shocking them.
"Don't let Flossie stick her fork in the galvanic equipment" isn't enough?
How to increase the joys of wedded life, and how to increase female passion.
Why am I reminded of that scene in Top Secret! where Val Kilmer discussing the Portuguese Butt Blaster with a friend?
How to judge a man or woman's sexual condition by visible signs.
Uh...not going there.  Just not.

Needless to say, this advice was received with less delight in many quarters.  Another phrenologist claimed that Fowler gave "private lectures to ladies…of an immoral character—often grossly obscene in action and speech," although of course the sordid details were far too racy for public discussion.  If that weren't bad enough, the Chicago Tribune claimed that Fowler "disseminated the seeds of vice" under the "cloak of science" in a metaphor that has to set some sort of record for unconscious bad taste and salaciousness.

Needless to say, the firestorm over the book did not help Fowler's reputation.  Phrenology was becoming less and less credible, and a controversial book on marital satisfaction for both men and women did not help.  Add in that the book contained passages like

When you kiss and allow yourself to be kissed with an appetite, to fondle and be fondled, hug and be hugged, you are thereby perpetrating mental sexual intercourse
while simultaneously stating that one shouldn't get too carried away lest the children conceived after all the hugging, kissing, and (gasp!) fondling be depraved, stupid, sickly, weak, or (oh horrors!) "like Satan."  It almost seemed as if he was trying to have it both ways by advocating that married couples enjoy themselves, but not so much as to make a scandal.  Worse, if one truly believed that too much passion during sex led to sickly children, it could lead to the reputation of even the solidest citizens being besmirched if one of their kids had a weak chest, was less than intelligent, or had some other physical defect.

Fowler himself insisted to the end that his ideas on sex, skulls, and housing were correct, and when he died in 1887, he'd paid the price for his stubbornness; his practice had declined, what books were still in print were not selling well, and the glory (and money) were all flowing to his brother Lorenzo, who had avoided writing about the most controversial subject in America.  He's known today, if at all, as a pseudoscientist who had the good luck to influence a great poet, and though a town in Colorado is named in his honor, Fowler's actual birthplace does little to commemorate its most famous son.

So, gentle reader, if you require a monument to Orson Squire Fowler, look here, in San Francisco.  Or here, in Massachusetts.  Or here, in New York.  Or here, in Mississippi.  Orhere, about five miles from the Last Homely Shack....


And so, my friends - do you live near an octagon house?  Its distant cousin the geodesic dome?  Is there a phrenological bust stuffed in your attic?  A Victorian sex manual?  Come, rub your fingers lightly over your skull bumps, draw up a chair by the semi-circular fireplace, and share....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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