There's a house in Somerville, a suburb of Boston, that we've been smitten with ever since driving by on the way to a yard sale many years ago. It's simply referred to as the "Round House".
Tucked away on Atherton Street in a neighborhood in Somerville, the Round House, built in the 1850's, is vacant and its history and current state is a mystery to many of its admirers. We did a little digging into its past (and present!) to find out more about it.
The story is that the Round House was built in 1856 by inventor and manufacturer, Enoch Robinson. Robinson owned a Boston company that manufactured high-end decorative hardware -- window fasteners, knobs, hand-made lock mechanisms, door handles, escutcheons-- which you can still see in Boston's State House and Old City Hall. He was also an inventor who designed and built perpetual motion machines in his spare time.
We've read that Robinson had been annoyed that a previous house which he had built was copied by local builders, so he brought in a specialized team from France to build a totally unique structure. When they were finished, he immediately sent them back home. The design of his round house was based on that of the Column House in the French “folly garden” of Desert de Retz in Chambourcy.
When the Round House was built, it was a showpiece. Forty-feet in diameter, it has rooms on three floors including an oval parlor and round library on the first floor and 11 bedrooms. A glass dome in the middle of the roof added light to the inside, and a circular staircase is located in the middle. No timber was used in its construction. The walls are made of plank sawed on a circle of 40 feet (the diameter of the house), nailed together, one above the other. The windows are made of four large panes of glass, in a single sash, which slides up into the wall and out of the way. Inside, the parlor walls were a French scenic wallpaper. The doorknobs (his own) were molded glass with a white medallion at the center, sometimes with the image of flowers, and sometimes the silhouette of a United States president or other statesman.
The Robinson family lived in the Round House until Enoch died in the late 1880’s and the house went to his children. Its a little hard to follow what happened after that, but from what we gather, the house had passed out of the family by the 1960's. It was already in a pretty bad state of disrepair when a woman finally bought it and held onto it for years. Because she wasn't able to do the work on the house that it needed, it continued to deteriorate. Even when neighborhood and preservation groups offered her help with restoring the house, she turned them down (supposedly because of not wanting to yield control over the property to anyone else). The city was forced to stand by and watch it fall into worse disrepair over the years, despite offers of money to help.
In 2007 a Somerville Contractor finally purchased the home from her. He is the current owner and apparently intends to restore the house to its original architectural details and move his family into it. The Somerville Historic Commission Director has said that the owner has hinted that he will, at some point allow the public to tour the inside. If you live in Boston, you should drive by and see this amazing house, even from the outside.