Irwin, Harriet Morrison (1828-1897)
Harriet Morrison Irwin (1828-1897) of Charlotte, N. C., holds a special place in American architectural history as the nation’s first woman to patent an architectural design—for a hexagonal house in 1869. She may also have designed other hexagonal houses, and she and her husband built at least one version in Charlotte. The following account is drawn primarily from Beverly Heisner, “Harriet Morrison Irwin’s Hexagonal House: An Invention to Improve Domestic Dwellings” (North Carolina Historical Review LVIII, No. 2 [Spring, 1981]).
Harriet Morrison was born into a prominent, educated, and well-connected family in Mecklenburg County, N. C., one of several children of minister Robert Hall Morrison, an educator and Presbyterian minister, and Mary Graham Morrison. The family was part of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian community important in Mecklenburg and nearby counties. In 1837 her father became the first president of the Presbyterian-sponsored Davidson College. The Morrison family placed strong emphasis on the daughters’ as well as sons’ educations, and in 1844 Harriet attended Salem Academy in present Winston-Salem, one of the state’s few institutions of higher learning for women at that time. Among Harriet’s siblings were Mary Anna, who became the wife of the former college professor and Confederate general, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and as his widow his biographer; and Isabella, who wed Daniel Harvey Hill, another college professor and Confederate general and a scholar of southern history, businessman, college president, and publisher.
In 1849 Harriet Morrison married yet another member of the region’s large Scotch-Irish leadership, planter and merchant James Patton Irwin (1820-1903), an 1843 graduate of the University of North Carolina then resident in Mobile, Alabama. The couple spent three years in Mobile, but Harriet found the climate deleterious to her health, and in 1852 the couple made a lasting move to Charlotte. They had nine children, of whom five survived infancy. After the Civil War, James Irwin and Daniel Harvey Hill were associated in Charlotte enterprises including publishing and land development. Along with her role as wife and mother, Harriet turned to writing and publishing, addressing various historical topics and promoting progress and prosperity. James, an editor himself, evidently encouraged Harriet in her efforts.
How and when Harriet Irwin developed her interest in house design is not known, but it probably reflected her concern for progress and improvement in domestic life. She was aware of mid-century designs for octagonal houses, which were touted as especially healthful and convenient, but she saw special advantages in hexagonal forms akin to those in beehives. Her hexagonal house design for the patent application featured a central chimney, three exterior entrances, and a flow from room to room. A mansard roof and pointed windows lent a picturesque flair. Her patent letter explained, “Thus it will be observed, that without the aid of the ordinary passage, and its consequent waste of the interior area of the building, I at the same time have afforded every facility of communication between the different rooms. Thus it will readily be seen, that for the purposes of ventilation, &c., my arrangement is far superior to any other now used, while at the same time, when privacy is desired in either or all of the apartments, you have simply to close the doors that are hung in the jambs . . . and the same is instantly executed.” The “inventor” noted on the drawings was “H. M. Irwin.” The patent application date was August 24, 1869.
Harriet and James Irwin effectively promoted her design. She described her achievements in the popular Southern Planter and Farmer (Richmond, September, 1869). Acknowledging her familiarity with the octagonal house plans promoted by Orson Fowler in A Home for All (1848), she stated, “I gave these octagon plans some study, and decided against them, for reasons which it is scarcely necessary to state. But on trying the hexagon, or six-sided roomed building, I found what I had so long sought for—the most economical, convenient and beautiful arrangement possible. The octagon form could only be applied to the exterior wall, but the hexagon, one of the most appropriate forms for a room, could be applied to each individual room, and these rooms fit into each other without any loss of space, just as square rooms do. I drew plans of various kinds, and the more I extended . . . them, the more I was impressed with the capabilities of the hexagon form for meeting all requirements for the comfort, convenience, and elegance of domestic architecture.” Those interested in the subject were directed to apply to James P. Irwin of Charlotte, “who can furnish drawings of any sized buildings desired” (Southern Planter and Farmer, Richmond, Vol. 3, No. 9, September, 1869, p. 563-564, courtesy of Carl R. Lounsbury).
Harriet and her house design attracted attention. The February 3, 1870, issue of the Revolution, edited by women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and owned by Susan B. Anthony, carried an article called “Woman as Architect,” which stated that women knew best how to plan domestic architecture and noted, “The papers say that Mrs. Irwin, a sister of Stonwall Jackson [sic], proposes an entire revolution in the method of building houses, and has applied for a patent for six-walled, or hexagonal apartments. She believes they are cheaper, handsomer, will give more space, and are capable of greater artistic beauty than the square houses.” That same month, the Charlotte journal, The Southern Home (founded in 1869 by Harriet’s brother-in-law, Daniel Harvey Hill), carried a more accurate report reprinted from the Huntsville, Maryland, Herald: “Mrs. Irwin of Charlotte, N. C., a sister of Mrs. Stonewall Jackson, has secured a patent for an improvement in the construction of houses, which, it is claimed, will create a new era in architecture.” It described the advantages of the six-sided forms and noted, “The patentee also claims that this mode of building, in the hands of a good architect, is capable of assuming greater artistic beauty than the square quadrangular form. The octagonal building attracted a good deal of attention some years ago, but the hexagonal is claimed to be something entirely new.”
The Southern Home continued to feature designs for houses that expressed Harriet Irwin’s ideas. The issue of September 20, 1870, carried an advertisement for plans for “Hexagonal Houses” which featured “the principles of Bee-Building applied to Human Architecture” and “An Improvement in the Construction of Homes.” (The advertisement mentioned that the design had been patented in 1869 but did not give Harriet’s name.) To obtain an illustrated circular, interested parties were to contact “Hill and Irwin”—a land company formed by Harriet’s husband and brother-in-law. This was one of several “Hexagon Houses” featured in The Southern Home with similar texts but showing larger and more elaborate designs. Whether Harriet designed any of these variations is unknown. One example pictured in The Southern Home of June 20, 1871 had a central tower and stair hall and was described as “suitable for buildings of every size, from cottage to a palace and for any style of architecture—Tudor- Gothic, pure Gothic, Italian or Romanesque.” Harriet and James Irwin built a version of the hexagonal house on property they owned at 912 West Fifth Street in Charlotte, which they made their home. A photograph shows that it had a central tower, projecting wings, and a porch similar to the 1871 design. Some accounts indicate that the Irwins built other examples in Charlotte.
Although no known examples of houses built from Harriet Irwin’s designs are known to survive, her patented design and the published notices of her work assured that her unusual accomplishments would enter the annals of history. The expanding scholarship on women’s history in the mid- and late 20th century highlighted Irwin and her work in such studies as Madeleine B. Stern, We the Women, Career Firsts of Nineteenth-Century America (1963) and Susan Torre, ed., Women in American Architecture (1977).
- Beverly Heisner, “Harriet Morrison Irwin’s Hexagonal House: An Invention to Improve Domestic Dwellings,” North Carolina Historical Review 58.2 (Spring 1981).
- Carl R. Lounsbury, research files, private collection.
- Contributors:Harriet Morrison Irwin, attributed designerDates:Ca. 1870Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:912 Fifth St., Charlotte, NCStatus:No longer standingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Beverly Heisner, "Harriet Morrison Irwin's Hexagonal House: An Invention to Improve Domestic Dwellings," North Carolina Historical Review 58.2 (Spring 1981).Note:The Irwin house at 912 Fifth St., described as a frame structure, is believed to have been razed ca. 1965.