The Octagon House In San Francisco – More That Eight Facets

Built in 1861, the Octagon House in San Francisco has survived the 1906 earthquake & fire, the 1989 earthquake, and its near demolition in 1952. Through twists of fate and luck, the interesting history of its construction and its original owners has been uncovered.

Today, the Octagon House is a San Francisco historical landmark, an architectural treasure and a decorative arts museum. When the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California saved the Octagon House from destruction, almost nothing was known about the early history of the unique eight-sided wooden residence. All that changed a few weeks before it was set to open…


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A Strange Discovery

The Octagon House In San Francisco

The age and history of the Octagon House was revealed in a surprising way. In March 1953, an electrician working on a renovation at the house discovered a time capsule left by the original owners, William and Harriet McElroy. A round canister with a cache of newspapers, photos and a letter had been hidden near the stairs. Newspaper clippings showed the date of July 14, 1861. A letter in the canister confirmed the exact date that Octagon House had been built and revealed details about its original owners, the McElroys.

The story begins in the 1849, during the Gold Rush (of course, everything in San Francisco seems to be connected to the Gold Rush), when Harriet Shober moved to San Francisco from Pennsylvania to work as a housekeeper at the original Hotel St Francis on Dupont Street. Two years later William McElroy, a miller from Virginia, arrived. Records show that in 1856 McElroy was the owner of Eureka Mills on Francisco Street. That same year Eureka Mills advertised in the newspaper that they were makers of "guaranteed superfine flour".

It was a San Francisco courtship and marriage. Harriet and William got married on June 9, 1859 at the Presbyterian Church on Stockton Street. A year later, the couple adopted their daughter, Emma Eliza McElroy, who is listed in census records as having been born in New York. She was 9 years old in 1861.

The McElroys were a well-to-do middle class family. In addition to being a miller, William was also the owner of Gough Gardens, a vegetable market. Harriet also had her own money; she owned valuable property on Stockton Street, between Clay and Washington. In 1859 she purchased the land on Gough Street where the Octagon House would be built.


An Eight-Sided Fad

Octagon House In San Francisco, 1870

1861, and the McElroys built their house on Gough Street. The property ran from Union Street to Vallejo Street in Cow Hollow. At that time, Cow Hollow was a rural area, where dairy farmers and vegetable gardeners lived. The earliest photograph of the Octagon House was taken in the 1870s. (See the photo above, where the Octagon House can be seen in the lower half, a bit to the right.)

The McElroys didn't invent octagon houses, they were just following a contemporary architectural fad. Octagonal houses were first popularized in an 1848 book, A Home For All, written by amateur New York architect, Orson S. Fowler. He made the case that eight-sided houses were healthier and more economical. More than a thousand octagonal houses were built across the country in the next few years, as well as a few churches and schoolhouses. There were probably four or five in San francisco. (Two still exist today.)

The San Francisco Octagon House time capsule letter is filled with a sense of civic pride at what the couple's city had accomplished. William cited statistics on its economic growth and the profits from the gold mines near San Francisco. He wrote optimistically, "Look which ever way you will and you observe happiness, prosperity, and wealth."

William died at the age of fifty-eight in 1869. Harriet and Emma Eliza continued to live in the Octagon House for many years afterwards. A month after her father's death, 18-year-old Emma Eliza started a scrapbook. The first item is her father's obituary. Her journal also contains essays, poems, anecdotes, illustrations, humorous poems, cartoons, as well as dried leaves and flowers from picnics and outings. The last dated entry was May 1888.

Emma Eliza became a schoolteacher and got married in 1882. Only five years later her husband died of typhoid pneumonia, probably the same epidemic that led to the closure of dairy farms in Cow Hollow. Emma moved back into the Octagon House to live with her mother.

Emma later remarried and the house became a rental and changed hands many times during succeeding generations. From 1949 to 1952 the house stood vacant. Plans were made to tear it down and sell the property. The Octagon House seemed doomed.

Colonial Dames to the Rescue

Colonial Dames to the Rescue

But the Society of Colonial Dames of America (remember them?) came to the rescue. The Dames owned a collection of artwork housed at the de Young Museum, but in 1952 the museum informed them that the de Young could no longer hold their collection. Undaunted, the Dames went in search of an historic house that could act as both museum and society headquarters. Two of the society's members happened to live across the street from the Octagon House and agreed to donate a portion of their own property for its relocation.

The Dames bought the near-derelict Octagon House for one dollar. Of course, they also had to pay the cost of moving the house to the lot across the street. Then they were faced with the challenging work of renovating the house.

Architect Warren Charles Perry took on the task. Thanks to his unique experience, he preserved the spirit of the original house while adapting it for new uses. Perry removed the central staircase and interior walls to create one large room. Display cupboards were installed, windows were reconfigured, while upstairs the three original rooms and triangular corner spaces were retained.

The most exciting thing, though, was the discovery of the time capsule, just two weeks before the dedication ceremony.


The Octagon House Museum

In 1954, the Octagon House opened as a museum for the Dames' collection of Colonial and Federal period decorative arts and furniture dating from 1700 to the 1840s. Since then, the collection has grown through gifts, bequests, and purchases. Today the Octagon House contains heritage furniture, ceramics, silver, pewter, portraits, looking glasses, and other examples of English and Early American craftsmanship. It also has a collection of signatures by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Octagon House was designated a Historical Landmark by the city of San Francisco in 1968.

Octagon House San Francisco Resources

  • 2645 Gough Street
  • Open the second Sunday, and second & fourth Thursdays of the month
  • Noon to 3 PM
  • Closed the entire month of January
  • Website

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