Octagon House

Also known as: Richards (John) Octagon House
919 Charles St., Watertown, Wisconsin


Front Entrance

Photo taken by J.R. Manning



John Richards and the Watertown Octagon House 

Written by J.R. Manning

When John Richards left Watertown, Wisconsin for Massachusetts to see Eliza Forbes and ask her to marry him, she was reluctant to move west as a pioneer. He promised to build her the most magnificent home in the Wisconsin Territory, and build a magnificent home was exactly what he did, on a bluff overlooking the Rock River Valley. (Watertown is situated about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.)

Richards' spectacular 1854 mansion features five stories, 57 rooms, central heat, a clever cooling system, a doorbell and water taps on all floors. The cantilever spiral stairway in the center of the house is one of only a few known examples in the United States. Unencumbered by supports to the center, a clear view of 40 feet from the first floor to the cupola is possible. It has never been repaired and not one stair squeaks after more than 150 years.

A dumb waiter connects the kitchen, in the basement, to the first floor dining room. A doorbell, operated by piano wire, hangs inside the stairwell and can be heard throughout the house. Small taps in the stairwell, on each floor, gave residents easy access to “soft water” (rain water) that was captured from roof runoff into a large tank on the top floor.

Richards also designed an early air conditioning system into the home. At night, louvers were opened to collect cool night air. The air circulated inside the brick walls and during the warmer daylight hours, the louvers were closed.

The house measures a perfect 50' by 50' in any direction and is constructed on a 17 inch foundation that is subterranean. There are three courses of brick on the first floors in order to support the weight of the upper floors. The interior bricks were cast in Watertown, the exterior bricks are Cream City Brick, hauled in from Milwaukee via the Watertown Plank Road. (See the Dousman Inn for more about the Plank Road, including a photo of the reproduction of a section of the road. A barn was moved to the grounds of the Octagon House, it was the western toll house at one time.)

Much of the hardwood used in the construction came from the Richards' surrounding forest. The lumber was prepared in Richards' Watertown saw mill, which was located near the house. (The third floor was a late design add-on in order to accommodate mill workers.)

Estelle Bennett Richards was the widow of Charles Richards, the youngest son of the Richards. In 1938, she deeded the house to the Watertown Historical Society on the provision that it remain open to the public at posted times.

To this day, the Octagon House remains open, the outstanding jewel in the crown of Watertown's historical buildings.

National Register information 

Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on November 23, 1971
Reference number
Architectural style
Victorian: Octagon Mode
Area of significance
Level of significance
Evaluation criteria
C - Design/Construction
Property type
Historic function
Single dwelling
Current function
Period of significance
Significant year

Update Log 

  • October 17, 2010: New photo from J.R. Manning
  • October 10, 2010: Essay added by J.R. Manning
  • October 10, 2010: New photos from J.R. Manning

Related landmarks 



Octagon House
Posted October 17, 2010, by J.R. Manning (thekitchenguy [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)

This central staircase is one of only a few unsupported staircases in the country. Because it is unencumbered with center supports, this 40 foot view from the cupola to the first floor is possible. The stairway has never been repaired and not one stair squeaks. This photo first appeared in a magazine article I wrote several years ago.

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