Posted By CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland

CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland; Port Hope's famous octagonal house was built in 1856 by businessman William Barrett.

PORT HOPE - There are actually people who delight in octagonal buildings, Paul Wilson has found.

But even among the few octagonal buildings that stand, the yellow one he owns on Martha Street in Port Hope stands apart.

"There are 10 to 12 octagonal buildings in Ontario, but we are told the plans for this one came from Italy because it is so spread out. It's very different, much bigger, than what you'd expect from the outside," he said during a recent interview.

Wilson lives there with his wife Kay. They have always been eager to learn more about the house since buying it in 1973. From what he has learned, he can offer quite a tour.

Often called simply the octagonal house, its original owner was William Barrett, who had woollen mills on the Ganaraska River. He also built the Barrett Terrace townhouses, visible from his property. "I've seen the old newspaper article saying the house was nearing completion, and that was September 1856," Wilson said.

The Barrett family had the house until 1892, when it was sold to the Passy family. They held it until 1970, but the family who bought it found the property too much to handle.By the time Wilson came on the scene (a time when he was looking to relocate from his standard three-room bungalow in Scarborough on a 45x150-foot lot), a builder and a lawyer had bought it and were planning to sell the house -- and develop the grounds for townhouses.

The Wilsons bought it in 1973, he said, so they are in the 38th year of their 10-year plan.Originally, the flat-topped roof projection was used as a look-out point on which to relax and enjoy the view of Lake Ontario. The pitched roof came later. It's more a cupola than the traditionally smaller widow's walk.Both floors feature rooms opening from a central entry. Downstairs, Wilson listed the kitchen, butler's pantry, formal dining room, maid's room, larder, furnace room and Port Hope's first indoor bathroom. The house is built into the side of a hill, so there's also a walkout maid's entrance.

On the main floor, there were four bedrooms, two sitting rooms and a large main salon with hexagonal ceiling. They've decorated the salon to resemble photos they've seen of the room in the 19th century.To the right, large double pocket doors open into a sitting room which, in turn, has pocket doors opening into another sitting room. The middle sitting room was used for performances, Wilson explained, visible to those in the main salon through the open doors. After the performance, the doors were shut, like drawing stage curtains closed. From the middle sitting room, doors opened opposite the salon into another area used as the backstage or dressing room.The salon is still the salon. The stage is now a formal dining room (where octagonal china is used), and the backstage is a family room. The marble fireplace in the salon and the pine one in the family room are not used because they are too narrow, built to offer heat by cannel coal, but they are decorative. A model of the Titanic hangs in a shadow box above the family-room mantle in tribute to a relative of Kay's who went down with the ship.

The main-floor master bedroom has furniture specially made to fit that room by a Port Hope cabinetmaker. The tiny bathroom off the second bedroom has lovely white fixtures adapted to fit the odd corners of the nook that was formerly a walk-in closet.
The bedroom next to that is now the kitchen. The Wilsons can remain on the main floor if they wish without having to climb stairs. But there are wonderful features waiting downstairs if they care to make the trip.The former dining room is now a rumpus room. They've kept the butler's pantry and maid's entrance as they were, but the maid's room (just to the right as you come in the maid's entrance) is a home office.The larder is now a laundry room, and the furnace room still looks like a basement with its exposed-brick walls. The oil furnace they had in 1973 has since been replace by a gas one.

And Port Hope's first indoor bathroom is stunning, with the addition of a Jacuzzi tub and, through a door in the right-hand wall, a small sauna and shower.Outside, they installed a barbecue area in the back, and built a walking path by the Ganaraska River.The two-storey shed that was the summer kitchen (with three-hole outhouse) upstairs and the laundry (with two-hole outhouse) downstairs is now a garage. The antique wringer from the laundry is now a lovely garden ornament.

The Wilsons changed the driveway to a circular one and took down a dilapidated shed that had housed the buggies on the first floor and the driver on the second.They love the octagonal house so much they bought what was formerly the village skating rink at Cape Vincent, near Kingston, and built an octagonal summer place there. It incorporates all they liked best about their Port Hope home and discards some things they didn't care for. For example, instead of a central hallway, you enter the vacation home and find yourself in a living room (with all the rooms opening off that room), and the stairs to the cupola bend at an angle instead of curving.

Through enjoying the annual French festivals held in the area since 1968, they discovered the Passy family had roots in that area (under the name de la Passy).They also learned of The Emperor's Cup and Saucer House, an octagonal house built as a refuge for Napoleon (though he didn't live to use it). It burned down in 1857, the last remnant of Napoleon's empire.It got its name, by the way, because it resembled an inverted cup in a saucer.

"The locals were excited to have another cup-and-saucer house," Wilson said of the summer home he and his wife built.

That house is now on the market, though they plan to hold on to the Port Hope house. They could never duplicate the grounds, with their wooded banks going down to the babbling river, the sloping green lawn with the gazebo they built for their daughter's wedding, the changing face of their gardens each spring and summer.
And, with a cup of coffee in hand of a morning, a perch somewhere on the porch that runs along six of the house's eight sides is the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy it all.