It looks like things are improving for one of Somerville's most unusual - and most neglected - houses. The Round House on Atherton Street in Somerville, Massachusetts has a new owner who's working on its restoration.
I hadn't realized the Round House had sold until I went to a brokers' open house on the corner of Harvard Street. That house, also suffering from years of neglect, had been owned by the woman who owned the Round House for some forty years, prompting me to take a closer look at the landmark around the corner at 36 Atherton Street across the street from the Carr Schoolhouse condos
. Sure enough there were signs that someone was working on the house and a quick call to the city of Somerville confirmed that the house had changed hands
. The new owner is a contractor and previous recipient of preservation awards from the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission. The Harvard Street house renovation is now well under way but things seem to be proceeding more slowly at the Round House - which may be a good thing considering the scope of the needed restoration.
Interior of the Round House. Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.
The Round House was built in 1856 by inventor and manufacturer, Enoch Robinson. Robinson's company
manufactured high quality hardware still in use in many significant buildings including the Old State House and Old City Hall in Boston, and the United States Treasury Building in Washington, DC. A showpiece at the time it was built, the 40 foot diameter Round House had rooms on three floors including an oval parlor and round library on the first floor. A glass dome at the center of the building's roof added light to the interior and the many windows took advantage of the views from Spring Hill. Before opening his own business, Robinson worked with pressed glass at his family's company, the New England Glass Company and not surprisingly his house was well equipped with beautiful hardware including decorative glass knobs on all the doors. The French scenic wallpaper in the house can be seen in the vintage lantern slide image at right.
At the time the Round House was built, octagon houses
were all the rage. Octagon houses were popularized by amateur architect, Orson Fowler, author of the 1848 book A Home For All: The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building
. Fowler believed that the round form was ideal but the octagon style the most practical to construct. Many octagon houses were built in the United States between 1850 and 1860, a number in Massachusetts, but round buildings were relatively rare.
The Round House was offered for purchase to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in 1920. The Society chose not to purchase the house and reported in its April 1921 Bulletin, Old-Time New England
, that "In many ways this would make an ideal period house for the display of mid-Victorian black walnut, but the present is probably fifty years too early for anything of the kind, since to most people that period represents the very quintessence of the ugly." During its consideration of a purchase, the Society had the floor plans of the Round House drawn that are shown at right and below.
The Round House lay vacant for years and its owner was deaf to the pleas of the City and of preservationists who were alarmed at its deteriorating condition. In 1997 Historic Massachusetts included it on that year's Ten Most Endangered Historic Resources List. Sadly, another architectural favorite of mine included on that year's list, the largely unchanged buildings built to house prison workers at the Concord Reformatory, were subsequently demolished. It is heartening that the Round House seems destined to meet a better fate. I wish the new owner all the best. His is a daunting, but very important, endeavor. We're all looking forward to a tour!
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