An Eight-Sided Obsession
The Man Behind The Octagon House
By Jacqueline Coleman-Fried
Joseph Pell Lombardi, a prominent 64-year-old preservation architect, has an unusual hobby: He acquires run-down, old but magnificent homes, then lives in and restores them to their former grandeur—even though it may take him decades. After 26 years of painstaking work, Lombardi has nearly completed the work on one of his many magnificent homes, the extraordinary 134-year-old Armour-Stiner Octagon House in Irvington.
You can see the red-and-pink painted structure walking along the Croton Aqueduct; the house resembles nothing you’ve seen before. Above its eight-sided base sits a tall dome with a cupola tipped by a spire. Its ornate exterior—a curved pair of stairs, a wraparound veranda, a lacy, cast-iron railing, 56 columns with carved, floral capitals and a geometric-patterned, slate roof broken up by curlicued dormers—is almost more than the eye can take in. Sitting on the broad porch on a sunny day can bring you back to a vanished era of wealth, imagination and innocence.
Most people won’t have the opportunity to experience the 8,400-square-foot, 20-room house that intimately; Lombardi, who uses it on weekends, rarely opens it to the public. “It’s very fragile,” he says. “You can’t have too many people in it.” Or in some of its rooms. The house’s eight outer walls result in several triangle-shaped rooms and closets that are, well, tiny. The tea room on the first floor, for example. “You get three people in the tea room, and it fills up pretty quickly,” says Lombardi.
But those tiny rooms and the larger ones next to them are enchanting nonetheless, thanks to the talented ministrations of the rangy, patrician-looking Lombardi. “He’s one of the go-to architects for people who have restoration projects in New York City,” says Manhattan architect Richard Gluckman. “He sees potential in things the rest of the world has given up for lost, and just keeps at it forever, and ultimately succeeds,” says former real estate developer and landscape architect Peter Rothschild, also of New York City.
When Lombardi bought the Octagon House from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1978—he paid $75,000—it was falling apart, literally. The dome was caving in, threatening the entire structure. No more. “If it hadn’t been for him, the building probably wouldn’t be standing today,” says Andrew Dolkart, adjunct associate professor of Historic Preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
New York City banker paul J. Armour in 1860 built an eight-sided house on several acres of farmland overlooking the Hudson River. Why? No one knows. However, Lombardi believes the house’s odd shape was probably inspired by a popular book published in the mid 1800s, The Octagon House, A Home for All by Orson Squire Fowler, who proclaimed the eight-sided house ideal. He claimed it allowed for maximum spatial efficiency, light and fresh air—all major concerns of the stuffy Victorian era.
Twelve years later, Armour sold his house to New York City tea merchant Joseph H. Stiner, who transformed the plain, two-story structure into the five-story, domed fantasy it is today. Inside, he had many of the walls and ceilings painted, stenciled and leafed with detailed designs. Several hundred octagon houses were built in the United States around that time, but, experts say, none had a dome or was as grand as Stiner’s. “This is the ultimate octagonal house,” says Dolkart of Columbia University. “It’s so big and so ornate.”
A collection of interesting people lived in the house after Stiner, including a biochemistry professor, an advertising executive, and the founder of
the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference (now Scenic Hudson, Inc.), Carl Carmer, who, when he could no longer live in the house due to old age, sold it for around $100,000 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation so it would never be torn down. The house was in bad disrepair.
Enter Joe Lombardi. the son of an Italian-American architect, Lombardi grew up among the brownstones of New York’s Harlem, where he learned to love old buildings. He studied architecture at Columbia University, formed the architectural firm of Joseph Pell Lombardi and Associates in 1969 and specialized in preservation architecture before it was a real profession. “He really was a pioneer,” says Columbia’s Dolkart.
Lombardi made his mark in SoHo and TriBeCa, where he recognized the beauty and potential of the areas’ architecture at a time when few people did. “These were some of the finest old buildings in the city—the greatest collection of cast-iron buildings in the world—but in the early ’70s, no one wanted them,” Lombardi says. “I bought the buildings, or convinced other people to buy them with me and hire me as an architect.”
Lombardi also wanted to revive a great country house for himself and his family: Nan, a fine artist (they divorced in 1994), and their young sons Chris and Michael. “I went on a search for the most unique old house in the country,” he says.
His family had no choice but to go along. “My wife thought looking at old houses was fun,” he says, “but the kids said that when they grow up, they would live in a brand-new, modern house and never set foot in an old house ever again,” he says.
“We were always looking at houses and house museums and going to auctions. All our spare time was spent on this activity, instead of playing ball or swimming or something like that.” (Michael, now 35, has worked on the Octagon House on and off for most of his life, and he can still be found there on weekdays supervising the restoration of the building and grounds.)
When the Octagon House “became a possibility,” Lombardi says, “there was no question” about buying it. He points out that he was the first “private citizen” to purchase one of the National Trust’s holdings, which he immediately set out to restore by jacking up its roof and squeezing its sagging dome back into place, the latter by a dangerous, two-year process implementing a unique technique that Lombardi invented, using high-tension steel cables.
After repairing its exterior, Lombardi turned his attention to restoring the house’s interior, painting it in its original colors (determined by the microscopic analysis of paint scrapings), and filling it with antique Renaissance Revival-period furnishings and fixtures found through specialized dealers, auction houses and, believe it or not, eBay. “It’s always a little iffy to buy something sight unseen,” Lombardi concedes, “but sometimes it’s worth it to get a crack at something special.”
The resulting renovated interior spaces on the first floor include a cozy, light-filled solarium, a formal dining room encased by original etched-glass doors and a salon with a lavender and pink-carved ceiling that opens onto the wraparound porch. The second floor contains four bedrooms, including a master bedroom featuring a massive, carved rosewood headboard and step-down dresser. The third floor has a women’s gymnasium with original walnut and long-leaf, yellow pine floors and the fourth floor, a ballroom pierced by small, eight-sided windows. From there a spiral staircase climbs to a tiny fifth-floor observatory offering breathtaking Hudson River views.
Still to come is the painstaking restoration of the multi-hued painting, stenciling and leafing that decorated many of these rooms’ walls and ceilings. Indeed, Lombardi says, “This is the only house in the world that has to be painted with an artist’s paintbrush.”
Arthur Riolo, co-owner of Peter J. Riolo Real Estate in Hastings-on-Hudson, believes that if the Octagon House were put on the market today, it would sell for about $6 million. What it might fetch when Lombardi has finished working on it is another matter. “It’s going to be very difficult to establish a value for it, because it’s a one-of-a-kind situation,” Riolo says. Lombardi puts the home’s value at upwards of $10 million. “It’s like a very beautiful antique,” he says. “Not just rare but unique to the world.”
When not spending weekends restoring his beautiful antique home, Lombardi lives on the 29th floor of Liberty Tower, a formerly derelict 1909 gothic office building in TriBeCa that he restored and converted to apartments in 1980. On winter weekends, he heads to another home that he restored, a Greek Revival-style parsonage built in 1850 in Peru, VT. Vacations take place at his 1,000-year-old chÃ¢teau-fort in the mountains of central France and his medieval, moated castle with its onion-shaped dome in Hungary—both of which he is slowly returning to their days of grandeur.
“He collects historic buildings, exemplary and unusual structures that are real challenges,” says architect Richard Gluckman. “Over the years, some of us have gotten Christmas cards of his properties, and they’re staggering, just fabulous. We can only look at them with envy.”
Lombardi certainly considers himself lucky. “I would assume that almost every mountain climber who wants to be great has the opportunity to see if he can climb Mount Everest,” he says. “But for a preservation architect, to have the opportunity to be the architect of a great house, let alone own the house, that’s a dream come true.”
Jacqueline Coleman-Fried is a freelance writer living in White Plains.