The Loren Andrus Octagon House hides in plain sight on Van Dyke Avenue, north of 26 Mile Road in Washington, Mich.
The Italianate-style house was built in 1860 as part of a contest to create the most interesting home in the area. Four landowners competed, and the Andrus house won. Originally on 365 acres, the house was built by Loren Andrus, a carpenter and surveyor who had been working on the failed Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal.
The canal was supposed to start on the Clinton River in Mount Clemens and move westward through Utica, Rochester, Pontiac, Howell and Hastings to the Kalamazoo River mouth, some 216 miles in all. The canal would have been a boon to settlers, supplies and businesses moving to the interior of the state as it connected with the growth happening at the Lake Michigan shore, but financial problems and engineering miscalculations caused the funding for the canal to disappear.
Remnants of the canal remain in Rochester Hills, Shelby Township, Utica and Clinton Township, and the route has historic markers. Sections are clearly visible in parks and along Canal Road in Clinton Township, not far from the Octagon House.
When Andrus built his 3,200 square-foot, eight-sided home, the trees cleared from the property were milled to provide solid wood floors, framework and walls. The bricks were made of clay and stone from the site and fired by Andrus himself. He used the bricks to build the basement and make the brick exterior and partial brick interior. A wide covered porch wraps around most of the house. There are no halls in this house and climbing to the third floor, you enter directly into a bedroom at the top of the stairs and work your way room by room to get around. Closets were originally built in the house, which is unusual for a home the time. Most of the woodwork is original. The very high windows were designed to provide cross ventilation to keep the house cool in summer. Also unusual for this period, the house does not have any fireplaces; occupants stayed warm with stoves.
The Civil War had not yet started when the home was built, and James Buchanan was in the White House with newcomer Abraham Lincoln winning the election presidential election in November. Pontiac native Moses Wisner was governor of Michigan. Fashion for women included very full skirts, but larger bodice buttons and more decorative accents to reflect the onset of the Victorian age. Men sported oversized coat jackets and tubular trousers. The only fashionable accessory for men consisted of a watch with chain dangling down the front of the vest. Most of the homes being built at this time were of the colonial or Georgian styles.
The Andrus family lived in the Octagon House for 34 years. By 1940, the house had been sold at least nine times. A famous French chef, Paul Weyer, purchased the house in the late 1930s with plans for an extensive renovation and rebuild into a restaurant. After Weyer died unexpectedly, the restaurant was out of business within a year.
The house has been a living classroom for Wayne State University’s agricultural training program and was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It was designated as a State of Michigan Historic Site the next year.
Today the home sits on 4.5 acres and has been lovingly restored by the Friends of the Octagon House. Tours are given on the third Sunday of the month from May until October. Quilting, knitting and crocheting enthusiasts gather there on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month from March until December. Teas and other events there are open to the public. For the event calendar, visit octagonhouse.org.
The house is closed in January and February. To arrange a special events or group tour, contact Jan Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.