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Dansville’s Octagon house is a landmark steeped in rumors

Diane and Marvin Swan have owned the octagon house in downtown Dansville, Mich., since the 1970s. They bought it then, they said, to save mid-Michigan's last surviving eight-sided house from being torn down. (Rachel Greco/Lansing State Journal via AP)

By RACHEL GRECO
Lansing State Journal
AP Member Exchange
DANSVILLE — The aged, sepia-toned photograph shows a large, two-story house still standing on East Mason Street in its glory.
A line of horse-drawn carriages, a woman in a white bridal gown sitting in one of them, are arranged in front of the stately home.
The photo shows mature pine trees on the lawn, standing taller than the home’s cupola, which sits in the center at its very top — a room surrounded by eight windows, one for every side of the 156-year old house that still overlooks downtown.
The home stands at the edge of the village, a perfect octagon shape.
It’s a local landmark steeped in rumors.
Was it once a stop in the Underground Railroad, a safe house with secret rooms and access to tunnels, where slaves sought refuge until they could escape to freedom? Then there are the ghost stories people tell about the eight-sided structure, about the spirits they believe are trapped inside.
Neither claim has ever been substantiated, but even without them, Dansville’s octagon house is a national rarity — one of an estimated 1,000 octagon houses built in the U.S. and Canada between 1848 and 1920. Half of them are gone today.
Dansville’s is the last octagon house still standing in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties, one of just 41 of the architectural oddities left in Michigan.
Diane and Marvin Swan bought it to save it from an uncertain future. Their goal now is to wait for a buyer who wants as badly as they did to preserve it.
It’s a one-of-a-kind home, said Diane Swan, 76.
“You just can’t replace it today.”
On a recent Friday morning the Swans stood on the sidewalk in front of the octagon house they bought in the late 1970s.
Today several of the windows are boarded up, and a stone porch that once stood just outside the front door is gone.
For years the 12-room home, with more than 3,000 square feet of space, housed apartments. It was built in 1863 by Dr. D.J. Weston before Dansville was incorporated as a village.
The Swans decided to buy it after a side wall on the home collapsed. It faced demolition back then.
Marvin Swan, 76, grew up in Dansville, but he credits Diane with the purchase.
“I knew she wanted it, and it was alright with me,” Marvin Swan said.
“It was not livable when we bought it,” Diane Swan said. “I wanted to preserve it.”
The couple invested an estimated $30,000 in repairs, paying a contractor to repair the wall and to cover the original exterior — made of eight-by-ten-inch grout blocks, each four inches thick — with stucco.
The home is one of just over 100 octagon-shaped homes built in Michigan.
Orson Squire Fowler created the design concept. The New York native believed octagon-shaped houses promoted good health, with windows that let sun and fresh air in from multiple angles. His book, “The Octagon House: A Home for All,” first published in the mid-1800s, is still in print today.
Wisconsin historian Ellen Puerzer has been cataloging the uniquely-shaped homes built in the wake of Fowler’s idea for more than 40 years. She wrote a book, “Octagon House Inventory,” and today helps maintain a website that catalogs the homes.
Fowler’s architectural trend was unique, but short lived, Puerzer said. Some of the octagon houses built were modest, while others were grand. Some were made out of wood, and others brick. Some were just one story, and others were taller.
“What intrigued me was that, although it was an eight-sided shape, there were so many different looks to them,” she said.