The Armour-Stiner House (45 West Clinton Avenue), a National Historic Landmark, is located in the village of Irvington, Westchester County NY. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original National Register of Historic Places nomination document, submitted to the National Park Service, 1976. Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS NY-5620], 1978; Jack Boucher, photographer. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
Surveyed by the Historic American Buildings Survey in February, 1975, the Amour-Stiner Octagon is situated on a three-acre wooded lot at the south-west corner of W. Clinton Avenue and the Croton Aqueduct. The house stands on the original foundations, located about 1650 feet east of the river at the crest of a ridge about 145 feet above the river.
The Armour-Stiner House is the only fully domed Octagon Style residence in the United States. Its concept, plan, mechanical systems and siting reflect the contemporary mid-nineteenth century architectural philosophies of Orson Squire Fowler, noted phrenologist, sexologist, amateur architect-builder and author of the popular Octagon House: A Home for All. This interesting and important architectural folly exhibits a unique combination of elements resulting from the mid-century reforms championed by Fowler and the architectural forms and decorative motifs from the 1870s. Standing on the crest of the river's bluff, south of Irvington, this house, known today as the Carmer Octagon, has been a major symbol of the Hudson River. In addition, since 1946 the house has been the residence of Mr. and Mis. Carl Carmer. A nationally prominent author, poet and historian, Mr. Carmer is an authority on American folklore and served as general editor of the Rivers of America series, for which he wrote several of the volumes.
Orson S. Fowler (1809-1887), originally accompanied by Henry Ward Beecher, set himself up as authority on the reading of heads. According to Carl Carmer in an essay for Town and Country (April, 1939),"he had the unerring taste of a born writer of nonfiction best sellers." In addition to his initial work, Phrenology Proved, Illustrated and Applied, he turned out books on sex, temperance, tight lacing and matrimony. At the height of this strange career, he published in 1848, by his own firm of Fowler and Wells, A House for All or a New, Cheap, Convenient and Superior Mode of Building, and commenced to personally build a giant concrete octagon in Fishkill, New York. Although it was the only building he designed, Walter Greese in Fowler and the Domestic Octagon, (The Art Bulletin, 1946), stated:
Yet it does seem permissible to call Fowler a significant architect. His extraordinary importance for his own age was the result of his faculty for accurately estimating and capitalizing upon the bubbling intellectual currents that surrounded him. A House for All is still easily accessible. This little volume had at least seven printings between 1848 and 1857 [A reprint of the second edition, 1853, was issued by Dover Publications, Inc. in 1973] and was the main instrument of propagation for octagonal house plans throughout the United States. These same years saw scores of octagons appear. But the best testimony to Fowler's importance for the times remains in the pages of contemporary carpenters' and builders' books. The authors paid him the supreme compliment quotation and illustration, and often included polygonal schemes of their own.
It was through the combination of a rationalized plan and unique modes of construction that Fowler sought "To Cheapen Human Homes and especially to bring comfortable dwellings within the reach of the poorer classes..." A Home for All explained how an octagonal plan residence was cheaper to erect, more convenient for the housewife, easier to heat, admitted more light, and, by being more accessible for greater numbers of people, would result in an improvement of society. To complement his unique plan, Fowler championed the installation of various home improvements like the furnace, cooking stove, dumb waiter, speaking tubes, gravity water system, hot water heater, and indoor toilets. While Fowler's concepts did not envision the octagon house as "a machine for living," he did seek the universal adoption of his "pseudo-scientific octagon" as an answer to the housing and hone ownership problems of the middle and lower classes.
The Armour-Stiner octagon is an ornate and most striking architectural composition. The extraordinary dome and veranda of 1876 have caused some to refer to the house as the "Taj Mahal of the Hudson Valley," an "arrested carousel," a "pastry chef's nightmare' and,according to Tuopin C. Bannister, "that marvel of the jig-saw." Considered by John Zukcwsky "the most visually unique house in the country, "the picturesque quality of the structure is symbolic of the enchanted character and lore of the region so visibly depicted in the stories of Washington Irving, a neighbor to the north."
Since 1937, Carl Carmer has written numerous essays on Orson S. Fowler and the Armour-Stiner house. Born in Cortland, NY (1893), Carl Carmer taught at Syracuse University, University of Rochester, Hamilton College, and the University of Alabama before becoming a columnist for the Orleans Morning Tribune, assistant editor for Vanity Fair, and finally associate editor for Theatre Arts Monthly. The success of his first book, Stars Fell on Alabama (1933) permitted him to devote himself to writing. This work was followed by Listen for a Lonesome Drum (1936), The Hudson (1939), Dark Trees to the Wind (1949), Windfall Fiddle (1950), and The Susquehanna (1955). He also edited The Rivers of America Series and The Regions of America Series. A member, officer and director of numerous societies and organizations, Carl Carmer's concern for the Hudson River Valley and preservation of its architecture resulted in his serving as president of Boscobel Restorations, Inc. He purchased the Armour-Stiner octagon in 1946. Although he has always referred to the structure as the "Octagon House," his residency, care and the life he wrote about in the house has caused it to be known today as the "Carmer Octagon." In order to assure the future maintenance and preservation of this most significant example of mid-19th century architecture which, according to Walter Cruse was the "result of an uninhibited individualism," the National Trust for Historic Preservation has entered into negotiations to purchase the house.
Research conducted by HABS indicates that when erected in 1859-60 by Paul J. Armour, a New York City financier, the house stood two stories in height. It is believed to have been covered by a mansard roof and was probably encircled by a veranda. An 1870 map indicates that the entrance drive from W. Clinton Avenue approached a turn around circle that repeated the form of the house from the east.
Joseph Stiner, an importer of tea, purchased the house May 31, 1872, for a country retreat. Stiner commissioned an unidentified architect to remodel and enlarge the house. It was at this time, c. 1876, that the present veranda and living roan bay window were added and the structure's height was increased to ninety-five feet by the addition of the present dome and cupola. According to Mr. Carmer, "the porch alone cost about $26,000 for 56 pillars, cast iron grillwork with dog-head medallions, each labeled 'Prince', and ornate cornice carvings." A late 19th century photograph of the house (New York Historical Society negative no. 533861 depicts several features which are no longer extant: decorative iron filigree work atop the capped chimney, cupola occuli, dome dormers and occuli; elaborate sawn brackets flanking each of the dormers and surrounding the dome occuli; urns centered on the veranda railings; exterior shutters on the second floor windows; symmetrically placed coachman's lanterns at the base of both surviving porch stairs; and a very pronounced color scheme showing greater contrast between lightly and darkly painted areas.
The vertical emphasis of the dare and cupola are tempered by the strong horizontal line established by the veranda that projects from the mass of the building. This effect is aided by the darkly painted cornice and frieze with brackets that serves visually as a base for the dome which contains the third and fourth floors. The dome and roof of the cupola are sheathed with gray slate. A decorative pattern which resembles a necklace with drops composed of red, yellow and black slates cascades from the cupola that crowns the whole ensemble of the eight facets of the dome. The single brick chimney south of the cupola is the only architectural feature which breaks the symmetry of the dome's composition.
The first floor rooms within the house are arranged on a cross axis which is blocked on the south by the staircase that extends from the basement to the fourth floor. In addition to the first floor bathroom installed by the Carmers for the writer Sam Adam, the first floor contains the reception, music, dining and elongated living rooms, pantry and kitchen. An office, five bedrooms and two bathrooms are distributed around the central hall and staircase on the second level. The third floor contains two studios, a library and an upstairs reception room. The south wail of this reception room is composed of glazed panels and double doors with decorative designs incorporating Stiner's initials in the etched glass. Traces of stenciled designs on the woodwork and walls are similar in style to the Eastlake inspired motifs found on the painted porcelain sink recessed in the east wail of the reception roan. Primary spaces such as the kitchen, living and dining rooms rectangular, while subsidiary ones such as pantry, sitting rooms and closets are triangular. This spatial arrangement is repeated on the second and third floors of the house. The fourth floor is a single large octagonal game room with octagonal occuli in each wall.
The frame structure with brick wing is sheathed within by lath and plaster on the first three floors and by wainscotting on the fourth and in the cupola. Door enframements throughout the dwelling are for the most part composed of moldings in the Gothic Revival Style. Other notable features of the interior include elaborate plaster ceiling medallions, metal and etched glass newel-post lamps on the first and second stories, original hardware from the remodeling on the doors, gas wall fixtures on the third floor, and etched glass in some doors on the first three floors.
Most of the plumbing system and fixtures appear to date from early in the 20th century. The hot air heating system may be original. Decorative heating grills remain in many of the rooms and there is a brick encased Boynton's Square Pot Crusader Furnace in the cellar.
Stiner's alterations to the house were extensive. Almost all the decorative features and visible surfaces on the interior and exterior appear to date from the remodeling executed in the mid-1870s. In contrast to the increased dimensions and elaboration, Armour's original house would seem to have adhered to the Fowleresque principles of solidity, economy and practicality.
The exotic flavor of the property is also seen in the unusual varieties of trees and shrubs that have been planted through the years. A small octagonal frame gazebo stands east of the house adjacent to the entrance driveway. The rectangular carriage house which appears on an 1881 map of Irvington along the east boundary adjacent to the Croton Aqueduct was destroyed sometime after 1933.