There is not another home like it in Columbus. In fact, there is not another home like it in the United States.
That, friends, makes it unique.
And this month, it changed ownership for the first time since 1967.
We’re talking about “The Folly,” a single-family home in the 500 block of First Avenue in the city’s downtown Historic District. Columbus author and preservationist Clason Kyle acquired the home five decades ago when houses in the recently designated Historic District were falling down or being demolished either by intent or neglect. There was a preservation movement afoot and people like Kyle, Janice Biggers and Weezie Butler were leading the way.
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Recently, Kyle sold “The Folly” to Jim Crane, who has purchased multiple homes in the Historic District over the past eight years and lovingly and carefully restored them. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed.
What makes this house unusual?
First – and foremost – it’s the only known double-octagon structure in the United States. It is also the only residential structure in Columbus that is a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of historic designation that can be achieved. The only other National Historic Landmarks in Columbus are the Springer Opera House and the riverfront mills from the Iron Works to the Bibb City.
And it has been a National Landmark since 1973 because of the unique, whimsical, some would say crazy, architecture.
Victorian reformer, social critic, and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler extolled the virtues of octagon houses in his 1848 book “A Home for All,” according to Historic Columbus Foundation Executive Director Elizabeth Barker.
Fowler started what today we would call a fad. And he appealed to many of the same people today’s fads appeal to – the eccentrics.
“Octagons tended to appeal to individualists and free-thinkers who, like Fowler, believed they could improve their lives with better design,” according to Barker.
Octagons were built during the time of the Civil War, but the architectural style did not last long. And no other octagon house was quite like the one in Columbus, which actually started as a small, nondescript, four-room home owned by Alfred Iverson, a Columbus attorney who would become a U.S. senator, and his wife Julia Forsyth, the daughter of one-time Georgia Gov. John Forsyth.
The Iversons sold the home in 1857 and it was sold again in 1862 to Leander May, a man history describes as a skilled cabinet maker and contractor.
It was May who began to turn a mid-19th century cottage into the most distinctive home in Columbus.
He proceeded to add an octagonal front onto the Iverson cottage, according to Barker. He also altered the original rectangular structure to an octagon in order to complement the larger front home. The second octagon was a bedroom.
And you know what? People laughed.
“There are stories that Leander May’s neighbors would ride by in their buggies as it was being built and laugh at it,” Barker noted in an extensive 2014 presentation she prepared on the home for a local garden club. “They then dubbed it May’s Folly. This was something not seen in Columbus – and obviously not appreciated, yet.”
Now, it is just “The Folly.”
The unique design is exactly what Crane appreciated and wanted when he bought the home from Kyle.
“Since my earliest interest in the Columbus Historic District, I have held great admiration for the historical and architectural significance of ‘The Folly,’ ” Crane said. “The architectural details are unique, and it draws on the imagination. What attracted Leander May, a Columbus cabinet maker, to craft a double octagonal home during the Civil War?”
That is a heck of a question.
“He was likely regarded as the most eccentric of his neighbors and someone who took O.S. Fowler’s book about the merits of octagonal living extremely seriously,” Crane said.
If you look at the Historic District now, Leander May was not only ahead of his time, he would be welcomed with open arms by many and invited to every dinner party.
Kyle deserves great credit for restoring the back part of the home to the octagon shape that May created.
“Clason deserves a lot of praise,” Barker said.
When Kyle purchased the home, the back section was not an octagon, but a rectangle, Barker noted. A small 1968 fire proved to be the blessing that allowed May’s handiwork to be discovered.
“What the fire did was reveal that the back section was formerly octagonal in shape,” Barker noted. “Clason was also friends with the Keeper of the National Register, Bill Murtaugh, and invited him down to see the house. Bill was the one to discover that the back room was also an octagon at some point.”
Kyle then fully restored the house back to its double octagonal shape, Barker said.
Since that time, Kyle has rented the home to a tenant, and that’s what Crane intends to do when he completes the restoration process in a few months.
As Crane has restored downtown Columbus homes, he has had a number of trusted advisers and contractors, that include Sia Etemadi, Robert Brent, Fred Greene, Shane Harrison and Toby Fuller.
“They are attentive to detail and committed to protecting and preserving the historical character of the home,” Crane said.
And no home has more historical character than “The Folly.”
The sale of “The Folly” was a not a transaction that happened over night, Crane said.
“It was a no-pressure transaction,” Crane said. “Clason has been an extraordinary friend and mentor to me for many years. He approached me with his interest of selling the Folly. We both see ourselves as long-term stewards of the historic structure.”