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JOHNSTON The forgotten house that's octagon



Published: Sun, November 18, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The owners haven't been able to verify rumors that their house was part of the Underground Railroad.

By REBECCA SLOAN

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

JOHNSTON -- Say the words "octagon house" and Trumbull County residents will most likely think of Clarence Darrow's boyhood home in Kinsman.

But there's another octagon house in Trumbull County.

Although this eight-sided gem is a little further off the beaten path and can't claim any famous former inhabitants, it is just as rare and charming as Kinsman's well-known octagon.

Terry and Wanda Stewart, owners of the home on Bradley-Brownlee Road in Johnston Township, say curious passersby often stop to ask questions.

"Our house is like the forgotten octagon," said Wanda. "We've lived here for 18 years and during that time many people have stopped and asked us about our house.

"They are surprised when they see it. This is a secondary road, and if you don't have a specific reason to be driving past, you most likely will never know there's an octagon house here."

Completed sometime between 1850 and 1860, the Stewart home is one of only a handful of octagon houses in the United States.

Advantages: Octagon houses were in fashion from about 1850 to 1870 after lecturer and writer Orson S. Fowler wrote a book in 1849 that praised the unusual design as a more roomy, well-ventilated and brighter alternative to a square house.

Terry says Fowler knew what he was talking about.

"Octagons are very well insulated because their walls are made of poured concrete," Terry explained, pointing to a section of exposed wall in his home that is a sturdy mixture of field stone and cement.

"These walls are thick and solid, and they keep us cool in summer and warm in winter."

The Stewarts' home is also surprisingly roomy, boasting about 2,800-square-feet of living space.

"Most people are surprised when they see the inside of an octagon house. They expect the rooms to be shaped like triangles and for everything to be crowded, but octagon houses actually make better use of space than square-shaped houses do," Terry said.

Restoration: Since purchasing the home in 1983, the Stewarts, who are avid antique collectors and history lovers, have been working to restore it to its original, pre-Civil War-era glory.

Their latest endeavor is adding a cupola to the roof.

"In his book, Orson Fowler says octagon homes were supposed to be built with cupolas," Terry said. "Our home originally had one, but it was torn down somewhere along the line."

The Stewarts have hired Ben Dawson, a carpenter from Mercer, Pa., who specializes in historical restorations, to build and install the cupola.

Dawson's work is half done and Terry says once the project is complete, he will be able to climb up into the cupola and view the surrounding countryside from the home's third floor.

"We're going to have a ladder installed so we can climb up and look out the windows of the cupola," Terry said.

Terry and Wanda also plan to restore the living space of the third floor, which features rustic, hand-hewn beams.

Terry wants to use the space to house his toy train collection.

"We've been waiting 18 years to find someone to build and install a cupola so we could completely restore the third floor. We are really excited because we've never been able to do anything with the space up here," Terry said.

Underground Railroad: The Stewarts also are looking forward to finding out once and for all if their home was or wasn't a part of the Underground Railroad. They hope that someone out there will be able to verify all the rumors.

"We have heard so many times that octagon-style houses were often stops on the Underground Railroad, that their unusual style was a sign for runaway slaves, and we've heard from different people that our house was a stop, but we have never been able to find out for sure," Terry said.

Terry said he has heard from different sources that there was once a tunnel running from his basement to nearby railroad tracks that cut across Bradley-Brownlee Road.

"This area used to be called Latimer. There was a post office and some other buildings right by the railroad tracks. They're gone now, but the tracks are still there," Terry said.

Wanda said there is a portion of the foundation that looks "different" from the rest of the foundation, but says she doesn't know if there is anything concealed behind it.

"My son's friend always says we should knock out that section of the wall and see if there's anything hiding behind there," she said.

Wanda said there's also "a little secret space between two walls on the second floor where someone could hide," but she doesn't know if it was originally intended as a hiding place for runaway slaves.

"We may never know for sure if our home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but just as long as there are no ghosts in the house, I'm happy," she said.




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