DANSVILLE, Mich. (AP) — The aged, sepia-toned photograph shows a large, two-story house still standing on East Mason Street in its glory.
A line of horse-drawn carriages, a woman in a white bridal gown sitting in one of them, are arranged in front of the stately home.
The photo shows mature pine trees on the lawn, standing taller than the home's cupola, which sits in the center at its very top — a room surrounded by eight windows, one for every side of the 156-year old house that still overlooks downtown.
The home stands at the edge of the village, a perfect octagon shape.
It's a local landmark steeped in rumors, the Lansing State Journal reported.
Was it once a stop in the Underground Railroad, a safe house with secret rooms and access to tunnels, where slaves sought refuge until they could escape to freedom? Then there are the ghost stories people tell about the eight-sided structure, about the spirits they believe are trapped inside.
Neither claim has ever been substantiated, but even without them, Dansville's octagon house is a national rarity — one of an estimated 1,000 octagon houses built in the U.S. and Canada between 1848 and 1920. Half of them are gone today.
Dansville's is the last octagon house still standing in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties, one of just 41 of the architectural oddities left in Michigan.
Diane and Marvin Swan bought it to save it from an uncertain future. Their goal now is to wait for a buyer who wants as badly as they did to preserve it.
It's a one-of-a-kind home, said Diane Swan, 76.
"You just can't replace it today."
On a recent Friday morning the Swans stood on the sidewalk in front of the octagon house they bought in the late 1970s.
Today several of the windows are boarded up, and a stone porch that once stood just outside the front door is gone.
For years the 12-room home, with more than 3,000 square feet of space, housed apartments. It was built in 1863 by Dr. D.J. Weston before Dansville was incorporated as a village.
The Swans decided to buy it after a side wall on the home collapsed. It faced demolition back then.
Marvin Swan, 76, grew up in Dansville, but he credits Diane with the purchase.
"I knew she wanted it, and it was alright with me," Marvin Swan said.
"It was not livable when we bought it," Diane Swan said. "I wanted to preserve it."
The couple invested an estimated $30,000 in repairs, paying a contractor to repair the wall and to cover the original exterior — made of eight-by-ten-inch grout blocks, each four inches thick — with stucco.
The home is one of just over 100 octagon-shaped homes built in Michigan.
Orson Squire Fowler created the design concept. The New York native believed octagon-shaped houses promoted good health, with windows that let sun and fresh air in from multiple angles. His book, "The Octagon House: A Home for All," first published in the mid-1800s, is still in print today.
Wisconsin historian Ellen Puerzer has been cataloging the uniquely-shaped homes built in the wake of Fowler's idea for more than 40 years. She wrote a book, "Octagon House Inventory," and today helps maintain a website that catalogs the homes.
Fowler's architectural trend was unique, but short lived, Puerzer said. Some of the octagon houses built were modest, while others were grand. Some were made out of wood, and others brick. Some were just one story, and others were taller.
"What intrigued me was that, although it was an eight-sided shape, there were so many different looks to them," she said.
Lansing had one on South Washington Avenue, points out Valerie Mavin, vice president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. It was an octagon-shaped mansion built in 1854 by Colonel Whitney Jones. Before it was demolished in 1929 it was used as a hotel.
"I always think of octagon houses as very light-filled, because they have so many walls with windows," Marvin said.
Despite its odd shape, Diane Swan said the rooms inside the East Mason Street home are square.
"To make the rooms square they put a closet in the corner of each one," she said. "Every room's got a closet."
There's a living room on the first floor with double doors that lead into a parlor, along with a half bathroom and the kitchen. The second floor contains four bedrooms and a bathroom.
Stairs on the second floor lead to the cupola, an octagon-shaped room surrounded by windows.
"It's really nice because you can see all around, the top of everything," Diane Swan said.
There are another three rooms in the home's basement.
"I love the woodwork and the big rooms," Diane Swan said. "It's got plaster ornamentation on the ceiling. It's just all the old craftsmanship that I really like."
As for the Underground Railroad rumors, the Swans say they've never seen evidence of secret rooms or tunnels that lead away from the property at Dansville's octagon house.
There used to be a garage in back of the house, built into a hill, Diane Swan said.
"The story was, that's where the tunnel would go out of the house," she said. "There were woods back there, and they would go through that tunnel to the woods if they needed to escape.I don't think any of it has been confirmed. It's just what people have said."
An air vent still extends all the way up from the first floor to the cupola, Diane said. It was used as a means of circulating air through the home.
"They'd open up the windows upstairs and that would blow air down in through the house," she said.
According to rumors the vent served a different purpose.
"The story is, that was a call tube," Diane said. "If somebody was coming they'd call up there and let them know, or they'd call down."
Puerzer said tall tales seem to surround most of the octagon houses that remain today.
Many stories center around the idea that these homes were stops on the Underground Railroad, she said, even though, in most cases, no evidence exists to support those claims.
Ghost stories surround many of the homes too, Puerzer said.
"Most of them are simply rumors," Puerzer said.
Dansville's octagon house hasn't been a home to anyone in decades.
The Swans say the task of restoring the home to its former glory proved to be too much for them over the years.
"We wanted to do a lot more, but life took over," Diane Swan said. "We got this far, and it's as far as we got. Now we're getting older. Now it's harder for us."
Today the home's wood floors are rotting. While the Swans once let people inside to have a look around they don't believe it's safe for visitors anymore.
"The roof had leaked a lot and it had a lot of damage inside," Diane Swan said. "It's pretty much intact except that the center beam, that goes across the center, needs to be reinforced."
The couple never finished that project. Plaster on the walls needs to be replaced and the home's plumbing needs repairing too.
The Swans want to find a historical organization or person to turn the house over to. Their only condition is that the new owner would work toward its preservation.
"I've had a lot of offers from people wanting to buy it," Diane Swan said. "But it was as an investment or to resell it, or tear it down."
Dansville Historical Society President Kelen Gailey said he toured the house with a group of society members last spring.
The structure is in "rough shape," he said, and restoring it would be a significant investment. Dansville's historical society can't afford it, he said, but Gailey still hopes someone steps up to save it.
"It is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Dansville," Gailey said. "And it's one of the buildings that people ask about when they think about Dansville."
Every octagon house that still stands is important, Mavin said.
"They are so rare," she said. "Unfortunately so many have been lost over the years. We as a culture don't tend to realize something is special until it's gone."
The Swans don't want to let the octagon house go if it would mean an end to a piece of history.
"I think history is important, and you've got to touch and feel history to really know what happened," Diane Swan said. "Just somebody telling you something doesn't really mean anything but when you actually see it and touch it, it's real. I think this should be preserved for other people to be able to experience it."
Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com