Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - 30
This 1858 octagonal home near Marion, Virginia is in the process of being stabilized.
Octagonal House: An Eighth Life?
The once-avant-garde structure has, since its 1858 construction, undergone
many challenges and changes. A new effort may save it for all.
by Su Clauson-Wicker
Abijah Thomas was an early progressive
thinker, textile plant founder and
ironworks tycoon in Southwest Virginia. When he built his mansion
near Marion, Virginia in 1858, he
chose the most avant-garde design
of the day-octagonal.
In a short-lived trend sweeping
the country then, eight-sided houses were touted as less expensive to
build as well as easier to heat and
light. Plus they were just plain cool,
according to octagonal architecture
promoter Orson Fowler in his 1848
book, "The Octagon House: A Home
Thomas' two-story, 6,000-squarefoot mansion is one of the nation's
largest remaining octagonal houses
from that period. Overlooking the
South Fork of the Holston River, it
features a grand staircase and faux
marble woodwork. Slaves fired and
molded the bricks onsite, including special angled bricks for the
corners. The fingerprint of an enslaved builder survives in a foundation brick.
Rumors still circulate about the
windowless central "dark room"
splashed with crimson stains. Was
it used for torturing slaves or storing food? Historians say storage and
suggest exploding beet jars, but no
one really knows.
The Thomas family lost its fortune during the Civil War. After
they sold the mansion, it was used
as apartments, storage, and then sat
neglected for decades. By 2000, the
building listed on the National Register of Historic Places was nearly
ready to collapse. Preservation Virginia listed it as one of Virginia's
most endangered historic places.
In 2003, Smyth County native
Derek Orr made a snap decision to
buy the house at auction.
"When I heard bidders talking
about tearing it down and selling it
as salvage, I had to buy it. I've always
loved this house. My grandparents
lived there for a while," he says.
Orr yearned to restore the house,
but soon realized it was a daunting
project. So he formed a nonprofit
for its restoration and donated the
house. He wants to see it restored as
a cultural center and tourist attraction.
"We're stabilizing it, but it isn't
safe to enter right now. When it's
finished, the house will be open to
the public for tours and events, a
piece of living history," he says.
Orr invites anyone interested to
join the effort. Check the Octagon
House Foundation facebook page
for upcoming events and ways to