Octagon House - Allen Potter Residence

  • Location: 925 South Westnedge, Kalamazoo
  • Survey ID: R-45
  • Designation: Octagon House - Allen Potter Residence
  • Date: 1855
  • Style: Octagon

The following material is from the 1973 Initial Inventory of Historic Sites and Buildings in Kalamazoo and was made available for use here by the Historic Preservation Coordinator of the City of Kalamazoo. See Introduction to an Initial Inventory for details about how the survey was conducted.

"The Octagon House" at 925 South Westnedge remains one of Kalamazoo's better-known landmarks. Allen Potter, pioneer merchant and later Kalamazoo's first Mayor and a Congressman from the District, built it in 1855. It continues today much as it appeared when it stood almost alone at the far southern end of the village. 

Allen Potter entered into the hardware business when he came to Kalamazoo in 1845. He made friends and money quickly and soon branched into other parts of the village's business community. In 1850, for example, he joined with J. P. Woodbury to re-activate the bankrupt "Blast Furnace" just north of the village limits near what is now Riverside Cemetery. Though the furnace burned in 1851 and had to be rebuilt, Woodbury and Potter put it on a paying basis, mining ore from the banks of the river and turning it into iron for stoves which were manufactured on the site. In the mid-1850's, they sold their interest to a New England iron-master, William Burtt. Then, in 1857, Potter actively involved himself in establishing the village gas works, parts of which still stand between Portage and Pitcher streets. He also joined with Woodbury and William Wood in a successful private banking firm that became the Michigan National Bank in 1865. 

Potter was equally active in village affairs. He helped to organize the first fire company in 1846, served in the state legislature in 1857, as village president in 1859, 1863, 1870 and 1872, and later held a number of positions with the school board, the sewer commission, and the State Hospital

In 1855, he chose to build a home for his young family in what was then the edge of the countryside. He bought a lot near the old "Pioneer Cemetery," then being replaced by Mountain Home. He chose as his architectural model the "Octagon" fashion just then being broadcast in Orson Fowler's little book, A Home for All: The Octagon Mode of Building. Fowler, a popular phrenologist, believed very strongly that men's homes had major impact on their characters. The Octagon fashion was to provide Americans with the greatest possible living space for the least exterior wall. In addition, Fowler pioneered such ideas as the "family room," the "walkout basement" and the central "service core" for plumbing and heating. Though he intended that his houses be built for the "Common Man," it seems clear that people who felt somewhat "uncommon" chose the style for themselves. Though there were several "Octagon" houses in southwestern Michigan, only two seem to have been built in Kalamazoo--one by the local druggist, James Clapham [still standing at 628 S. Rose], and the other by Allen Potter. 

The house itself is a good example of smaller octagon buildings. The living room is centrally located in the single story and lighted very nicely from the cupola windows. Kitchen, dining room and bedrooms opened off this central room. A small addition thrust through the rear wall to provide additional space. Altogether a spacious floor-plan, but somewhat smaller than Potter's financial worth would seem to warrant. The Potters lived in the house from 1855 to 1870. The 1860 Census-taker listed Potter as forty, his wife, Charity, as thirty-four, and three young children. He valued Potter's estate at $15,000 in real and $40,000 in personal property. By 1870, Potter had redistributed his worth, now totaling $60,000--$50,000 of which lay in real property. In 1870, he finished building a new residence for himself on South Street [718 W. South].

The Potters went on in the next fifteen years to earn a secure spot as one of Kalamazoo's "first families." Potter continued to think of himself as a banker, but branched out to other financial enterprises, including railroading and Colorado mining. He was elected as Kalamazoo's first Mayor when the country's largest "village" became a city in 1885, and he died in the same year. His wife, Charity, lived on South Street into the twentieth century. In 1910, the family was the subject of "A Tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Allen Potter," by Joseph MacCarthy, in which more than a hundred pages went to detailing their place in the community.

Octagon House - ceiling Octagon House - fireplace Octagon House - interior Octagon House - window

Maps:

1853 - no house
1860 - margin pict. of hse.
1853 - Potter lives at cor. Lovell & John

Kalamazoo County Deeds Office:

14 September, 1853, A. Potter purchases property from Starkweather  

Kalamazoo County Tax Rolls:

1854  Land next to Ransom land and Starkweather Add.

 800

1855  Lot on S. Lovell next to Dewing, Homestead 1000
1856 Lot on SW cor. of NW1/2  being 24 rods NS by 38 EW, Homestead   3500
1857 same 3500
1858 same 2200
1859 same approximate description 2400

Kalamazoo City Directory:  

 

U. S. Population Census Rolls:

1860 Allen Potter, 40, banker, 15,000 real, 40,000 pers., b. NY.;
         Charity Potter, 34, b. NY; Mary, 10; Lilla, 6: Allen, 3; Julia
         Morrissey, 24, b. Ireland, servant

1870 June 15, still at house - Allen Potter, 51, banker, 50000,
         10000, b. NY; Charity, 44, keeping house, b. NY; May 20;
         Lillie, 16; Allen, 12

1880 74 South - Allen Potter, 62, Banker, b. NY; Charity, 54,
         wife, b. NY; Lillie Gardner, daughter, 25, visiting; Clare, 6,
         grandson, at home; Allen, 1, grandson, at home, b.
         Kansas

This report was converted from a typewritten document to a digital text document in September 2004. Other than punctuation and spelling corrections, and the addition of BOLD type site address and names, no changes were made. Minor formatting changes were made for use on this website, but the text was not altered. Original survey dated 1973.

Sources

History Room Subject File

Houses - Kalamazoo - Westnedge, S., 925

Books

Kalamazoo: Nineteenth-Century Homes in a Midwestern Village  

  • Schmitt, Peter J.
  • Kalamazoo City Historical Commission, 1976, pages 21, 72, 82-85
  • H 720.9774 S355