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1856 Octagon / Round
FOND DU LAC, Wisconsin
1856 Octagon House
Originally built as an Indian Fort and Trading Post, the Octagon House of Fond du Lac was later used as a safe house for runaway slaves during the Civil War. Architecturally unique, this oddity has 12 rooms, and nine passageways! Docents report strange happenings almost every week!
At one time served as a Museum, open for summer tours and seasonal events, the Octagon House also hosted dinner tours by candlelight.
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An historic home turned life's work for one Fond du Lac woman is now closed to the public.
For decades, the eclectic Octagon House at 276 Linden St. played host to bus tours and costumed theme dinners, drawing people from as far away as Europe to view its unique architecture and colorful past.
In its heyday, Octagon House served as a station along the Underground Railroad. The structural oddities would have been effective means for hiding, and then transporting slaves by waterway along the nearby Fond du Lac River. The living room has a false fireplace with a small wooden stairway behind it and there is also a secret room adjacent to a second-story bedroom, with a cryptic message carved in the lath.
Presumably dated 1888, the message appears to give directions to a secret meeting. An underground tunnel leads from the house to a log cabin on the property.
FON 072315 octo house 2Buy Photo
Owner Marlene Hansen emerges from a secret room discovered adjacent to a second story bedroom in the Octagon House, during an open house held Sept. 1, 1975.
The story of how Marlene Hansen came to own the Octagon House dates back to the early 70s and was then steeped in controversy, as a small group battled to save the building from demolition by the state.
"At the time I thought I was purchasing the property for the 'Save the Octagon House Committee' but that proved not to be the case," she said.
Now, Hansen said, she is just too tired to carry on the work by herself.
"It will take me a long, long time to move my things out, so they will have to live around me," Hansen said. "I am 76 years old and have spent 40 years taking care of the house and I decided that I have done enough."
She has rented the home to a private party. Part of the agreement calls for Hansen leaving her collection of antiques and vintage costumes in place, for now.
“At the time I thought I was purchasing the property for the ‘Save the Octagon House Committee’ but that proved not to be the case.”
Back in 1856, when the one-and-a-half story, odd-shaped home was built by former Mayor Isaac Brown, it was located farther south than any structure in the city, on the border of marshland abutting lands occupied by Indians. Far beyond lay the unsettled, old Northwest territory.
Hansen believes the house was built as an Indian fort and trading post. Isaac Brown's son, Capt. Edwin Brown, was a Civil War officer who died at Antietam.
These days the city neighborhood that was built up around Octagon House has become run down, with some landlords not keeping up their properties, Hansen said. The area has a higher crime rate, she added, evidenced by recent drugs busts in the area led by Fond du Lac Police.
Hansen purchased the home from the state in 1975 for $25,000 and received an additional $16,000 grant under the National Historic Landmarks Act. She said it was the first time that a private citizen in Wisconsin received federal money to acquire property for historic preservation.
Because public funds were involved, Hansen was required to keep the building open to the public 12 days a year and any exterior alterations had to be approved by the State Historical Society.
Over 40 years, Hansen said she has put at least $150,000 into the house, and just can't do it anymore. She sold off an adjacent old house that she had also restored and used as a rental property.
Because of its architecture, the Octagon House was designated as an historic landmark by the City of Fond du Lac in 1991 and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. Dyann Benson, Fond du Lac's Community Development Director, said it also serves as an anchor to the Linden Street Historic District, that starts at 253 Linden Street and ends at 304 Linden Street. Houses in this district offer a unique grouping of architecture styles, from Italianate to Queen Anne.
"We view it as one of our unique historic properties in the city, and while it is privately owned, we could help any potential buyer looking at the property with applying for an owner-occupied, historic tax credit," Benson said.
Hansen said she has been trying to sell the Octagon House for quite some time, but people are hesitant because of a "mysterious kind of atmosphere surrounding this old home."
"I regard Octagon House as being possessed by the spirit world," Hansen told the newspaper in August 1976, and reported seeing eyes looming in the basement, near a point where the underground tunnel enters the house. She said she has also seen a women she believes is Ruth Brown, Edwin Brown's wife.
In 2010 she contacted the American Pickers television show with hopes she could sell them the Linden Street property. Crew members created a neighborhood stir when they arrived at the Octagon House and began filming an episode. The entourage included the stars of the show, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz.
Hansen has appeared on several television shows, including Ripley's Believe It or Not, and through the years, has worn many hats. She owned Marlene's Upholstery and Antique Shop, located on County Highway K on property she still lives on, about a mile east of Fond du Lac. She also operated a costume school and theatrical shop, a dancing school and horse stables where she gave riding lessons. She ran the Costume Closet from the parlor of the Octagon House
Hansen said she will never recover the money she has invested in Octagon House. It is currently in need of repairs, from the looks of the home and property from the outside, but Hansen said that need seems to be perpetual.
The last bus tour of 54 people came through the end of May.
"All these years I'd hope someone or some organization in Fond du Lac would step forward to help me out, but they don't seem to care for anything historic in this city. They would rather tear it down," she said.
She says renting out the property may buy her some time until she can decide the fate of the Octagon House, or maybe fate will decide for itself. She hasn't given up on possibilities and happy endings.
"I think when we are born God decides what our future would be," she said. "I have had as many successes as I've had failures in life, but I've done it my way."
Sharon Roznik, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Archived in July, 2010