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Monday, October 1, 2012

Preservationists: A Dying Breed?

I was thinking about the old octagon house over the weekend. The mansion, which stood majestically on the south end of my village until the mid-1960s, was an interesting piece of history here, both architecturally and otherwise. The web netted the following article about this beautiful home.

Sherburne, NY Octagon House, Corner of South Main and Chapel

May 16, 1965
Octagon House Doomed

An old octagon house, built by a Sherburne doctor a century and a quarter ago because he didn't like the howling of the winds around a conventional house, is about to fall before the bulldozers.

The house, now the property of the Sherburne Post of the American Legion and used by the group since 1946, has outlived it usefulness and will be replaced by a modern Legion Home more in keeping with the times.

The house was built just prior to 1840 by Dr. Devillo White, a well known "playboy" doctor of that day. Dr. White, who was disturbed always by the moaning of the wind around the cornices of other homes he had owned, determined that he would have a house built in such a manner as to do away with the wind noises that he detested. Such a house had been built somewhere in the Hudson Valley and plans were drawn, using the Hudson Valley mansion as a pattern.

The next task was to find workmen in the Sherburne area who could build an eight-sided house, and such buildings were a rarity in Central New York at that time.

The house is built of concrete, one of the first times concrete was used in wall construction in upstate New York. It has a circular staircase that ends in a "captain's Walk" in a cupola on the roof. When completed about 1841 Dr. White moved in, but history does not enlighten us in whether the architecture stopped the noise of the moaning wind.

Dr. White as a young man is depicted as being a "gay young blade" who lived life to the full in his village. His early life was spent in a hotel of questionable reputation owned by his father, Dr. Asa White, who later went west. Also, the young man had done his share in the sowing of the proverbial wild oats but he got hold of himself at the age of 23 and began to read medicine, as was the custom of the day.

He studied hard and soon outstripped his teacher, an older doctor in town. When he finally started to practice he didn't have the means, according to an old history, "wherein to buy a pair of saddlebags."

Always a "hail fellow and well met," Dr. White began to make and to spend money, and money seemed to mean little to him. The story is told of a poor minister who owed the doctor $75. The big-hearted doctor kidded the minister for awhile and then settled the whole bill for 50 cents.

All rooms on each floor of the octagon house open from the center hall and most are five-sided. The heating plant is steam, but the radiators, unlike any seen in this area, are made of copper. Some of the original wallpaper still clings to the rooms and much of the original carpeting is still in place.

Dr. White married Caroline Pratt, daughter of a leading resident of the village, about the time he began to read medicine. He was very popular and is said to have entertained lavishly.

Generous to a fault, he could not bear to see a family in need. Most of the poor and needy that he had brought back to health were not called upon to pay.

Dr. White was a staunch Whig, later embracing the Republican party. He had the knack of making money in investments and gathered together a fortune in government securities during the Civil War. It was Dr. White who presented the monument honoring Civil War veterans, which still stands in the center of the village.

The old octagon house of Dr. White is about to fall and with it goes a legend of the days before the Civil War, when people lived a more simple life, although they were building a nation.

Although I was a child when the octagon mansion came down, its unique pie-shaped rooms and spiral staircase and mahogany banisters reduced to rubble by "forward thinkers," I have heard for decades the laments of people who remember seeing it fall, and who believed that in spite of the more "modern building in keeping with the times" put in its place, the loss of the octagon house was a tragedy. Indeed, it is usually a tragedy when an historic building -- even if an impractical one -- is taken down because people do not have the vision nor the respect for history to save it. 


Faye Smith said...

Thanks for the article on the Octagon house. I remember it well and the fight to try and save it.

Kathleen Yasas said...

A fight that was, sadly, lost. Let's hope there are more brains in Sherburne now than then.

do the right thing said...

Whacking down the ancient oak tree on the school grounds a few years ago was another mistake.

joeC said...

What do you think Sherburne's brains should try to save?

Kathleen Yasas said...

One never knows what might come up to come down.

JoeC said...

The former Big M/IGA? The Sherburne Inn/Bullthistle Inn?
I'd say these are the most likely to go next. Or maybe the Cotton Mill.

ELP said...

This is one of over 1000 19th century-octagon houses
I cover in my book on the architectural phenomena.

Sherburne is one of my favorites and it is a shame it is gone.

Octagon house Book

Kathleen Yasas said...

Thanks Ellen. It is indeed a shame that the Sherburne octagon house is gone. We're doing our best to save another historic building here, not as architecturally interesting as the O House, but worthy nonetheless.

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Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum