After spending a day of history jamming, I’m left with more questions than answers, but this seems to be the norm for me anytime I delve into London’s past. My goal was to investigate the unique octagon home that once stood at 368 Dundas street on the north side mid-way between Waterloo and Colborne streets and the many connections of people and ideas.
Octagon buildings became popular about 1848 when Orson Squire Fowler wrote the book ‘The Octagon House: A Home for All or a New Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building’. O.S. Fowler believed the octagon home was a more efficient use of space and was easier on heating resourses. He also explained that the room shapes prohibited too much clutter and if there is one thing Victorian’s loved, it was to pack their homes with many, many things.
Dr. Joseph J. Lancaster is seen at the bottom of the front steps of his magnificent octagon home and office. Various other members of his family are seen at the top of the steps and on the baloney of the second floor. In the left background is the spire of First St Andrews Church located on the northeast corner of Queens and Waterloo. It is believed that Dr. Lancaster’s octagon home was built about 1866. In the book ‘Building with Wood’, John Rempel tells us that the home contained several bathrooms that fascinated those that came to church socials held at the home. The upper three domestic levels were connected by a circular stairway. The home was built of brick with 4 inch air space between the inner and outer walls. The lower level contained Dr. Lancaster’s office and waiting room, a store room, and a furnace room which boasted a coal furnace. Apparently a coal furnace was something to boast about in 1866.
Dr. Lancaster, himself, is a fascinating historical subject. He first trained as a traditional Victorian doctor but when he realized the inadequacy of medicine of the time he enquired into Homeopathy and quickly became one of its strongest supporters. Dr. Lancaster was the first practising Homeopath in Ontario and endeavoured to have Homeopathy regulated and served on the Board for many years. He lived in his wonderful octagon home until his passing in August 1884.
After Lancaster’s passing the home quickly was sold and for many years was known as Gustin House Hotel. Sometime before 1888 a large 3 storey addition was put on the front of the home as can be seen on the 1888 Fire Insurance Plan Holding Map. By 1915 the building is listed as an apartment house. Sometime between 1915 and 1922 the octagon building was demolished and the large front addition remained as commercial and residential building.
Pictured above is the three storey addition that once fronted the octagon home of Dr. Lancaster and housed Waugh & MacKewn in October 1948. Built in 1888 it would have been the streetscape view of the Gustin House Hotel. Once the octagon home was demolished, this building was divided into 3 store front businesses with residential units above. The property where the octagon home once stood is now the location of Holiday Inn Express & Suites.
One of the questions I was not able to answer is: ‘Why did Dr. Lancaster build an octagon home.’ Could it be that he was influenced by the Crystal Palace that was built here in 1861 near present day Wellington and Central Ave. This is less likely since research indicates that his home on Dundas Street was the second octagon that he built, the first being in 1848 in Lambeth. Our Crystal Palace was an impressive and very large octagon building which stood from 1861 until it’s demolition in 1888 when the old garrison property was being subdivided for building lots.
So maybe Dr. Lancaster was influenced by Orson Squire Fowler’s book ‘The Octagon House...’ It is possible since Lancaster built his first octagon in 1848 which is the same year Fowler published his book on octagon buildings.
But Fowler also had earlier connections to London and was more famous for his writings and lectures on Phrenology, the pseudo science of determining a person’s characteristics by physically examining the bumps and valleys of the skull. If you have ever uttered the phrase: ‘They need to have their head examined’, you are repeating a phrase that has its origins in phrenology.
It is believed that Fowler travelled to London in August 1830 at the time of the first public hanging in this city. Cornelius Burley was sentenced to death for his role in the murder of Constable Timothy Pomeroy. It was a common practice at the time to allow surgeons to dissect or examine the corpse of the recently departed condemned person as this was often the only legal source of bodies. Fowler is believed to have taken the skull at this time and for the next 50 years the skull was a prop used during Fowler’s lectures. Fowler returned to London in January 1882 to give a series of lectures and it may be at this time the skull was returned and eventually was put on display at Eldon house. In 2001 living descendants of Burley were able to give his last mortal remains a proper internment in a family plot in Michigan.
So many questions left to answer or at least to ponder. I wonder if Orson Squire Fowler visited the octagon home during his lecture stop here in 1882. I wonder if he also visited the glorious octagon Chrystal Palace. I wonder if Dr. Lancaster attended the phrenological lectures given by Fowler at the old Opera House on Richmond Street or would he have thought phrenology was quackery. I wonder how many Londoners attended the lectures and what they thought of Fowler’s ideas and theories. I wonder if Fowler used Cornelius Burley’s skull as example during his London lecture.
I think I will need another day of ‘History Jamming’ to see if I can find any answers to these questions.