Western New York’s “burned-over district,” so named because it was so heavily evangelized that there was nothing left to “burn”—that is, to convert—was a hotbed of reform zeal in the decades before the Civil War. Abolitionism, temperance and woman’s rights movements, and Mormonism all emerged there and traveled with emigrants when they left for other regions. Many New Yorkers who came to Wisconsin during this period helped make this state another stronghold for social reform. Their progressive beliefs showed up in their architecture, too. Octagon-shaped houses enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1850s, thanks largely to their foremost proponent, Orson Fowler, another reform-minded New Yorker.
Tradition holds that John Moffat patterned his octagon house after one he had admired in Ithaca, New York, which he had left a year earlier. Originally the builders clad the dwelling in clapboard, decked it with Greek Revival details, wrapped it with a veranda, and attached a balustraded roof deck. By 1860 the family lowered the roof pitch and added a magnificent rooftop belvedere with segmental-arched windows and an onion-shaped finial. They updated the house with such Italianate details as paired brackets under the eaves, but they kept the original Doric columns and pilasters. After 1860, the Moffats added a wing and two more porches, and in 1916 their grandson stuccoed the exterior walls and removed the veranda’s balustrade. Today the building houses the St. Croix County Historical Society’s museum.