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The Octagon House

by Karla Andersen

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the (McElroy) Octagon House, owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in California (NSCDA-CA). It is located on the corner of Gough and Union Streets in Cow Hollow.

Octagonal structures have been documented as early as 300 B.C. Early North American examples include Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat Poplar Forest, built in Virginia in 1806, and the Octagon House in Washington, D.C. built in 1801. This building served as a temporary White House during the War of 1812, and formerly served as the headquarters for the American Institute of Architects.

These buildings were popularized in North America and Canada in the 1850’s by a quirky amateur architect named Orson Squire Fowler in his very popular book entitledThe Octagon House: A Home For All. Mr. Fowler was a man of many interests; reportedly a teetotaler and a vegetarian, and was the foremost proponent of phrenology in the United States (the study of one’s personality by examining the skull). He also advocated for women and children at a time when women had virtually no legal rights and child labor was accepted in the industrial factories of the day.

Fowler wanted a house that was affordable for the average working person and provided an environment conducive to good mental and physical health for its inhabitants. He believed that the octagonal shape promoted better health by providing maximum exposure to light and air. Additionally, he determined that an octagon, built with the same exterior wall area as a rectangular house, enclosed about 20% more floor area – you got more house for your money! Elimination of hallways and the organization of space around a central core made for more efficient housekeeping, and Mr. Fowler also pioneered the use of speaking tubes and dumbwaiters. He recommended gravel-wall construction (essentially concrete), which made for a sturdy and comfortable, and virtually fireproof house. However, the house in Cow Hollow is constructed of wood.

Reportedly there have been as many as eight octagon houses in San Francisco, and two remain today. One is a private residence, referred to as the Feusier House, on Russian Hill. The Cow Hollow house was built for Mr. William C. McElroy and his family in 1861. Not much was known about the house and the family that built it until 1953, when an electrician working on the house discovered a “time capsule” left by Mr. McElroy. The capsule contained an ambrotype photograph of his family, some newspaper clippings, and a letter to posterity. In this letter Mr. McElroy confirmed that the house was built and owned as the “privet residence” of his family, describing himself and his wife as “a very good looking old couple”. It was originally located on the east side of Gough, on property later owned by PG&E.

In 1951 PG&E decided to develop the property and sold the house for one dollar to the NSCDA-CA, who moved it directly across the street to its current location on the northwest corner. The property was donated by two of the Society’s members, the Misses Edith and Lucy Allyne. Funds were raised and the house was restored and converted into its present use as a museum housing the Society’s collection of Colonial and Federal antiques. It also serves as their state headquarters.

The McElroy Octagon House is featured on our Cow Hollow walk, which is given on the first and third Sundays of every month (shameless plug for my team – come join us!). It’s open to the public on the second Sunday, and second and fourth Thursdays of every month. It’s also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is San Francisco Landmark Number 17, and in 1993 its garden received a special award from San Francisco Beautiful.

Sources:
*The Argonaut (the Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society), sfhistory.org
*nscda.org/museums/california
*The Crooked Lake Review, crookedlakereview.com

Thanks to Don Andreini’s excellent Cow Hollow tour script – thanks, Don!

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Octagon House in Cow Hollow.

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The Octagon House after the 1906 Earthquake.

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