Built between 1860 and 1861, the Octagon House on Gough Street in San Francisco holds a significant amount of history. Its first owners were a couple who met in the city and fell in love, both immigrants from the east coast. After the McElroy family moved out, the uniquely-shaped home suffered incredible damage in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that destroyed 80% of the city. Nearly 100 years later, after being abandoned, rumors of ghosts, and narrowly escaping demolition, a historical society purchased the Octagon House. Once renovation began, an electrician discovered something incredible inside its walls.
William McElroy And Harriet Shober Moved To San Francisco Separately
In 1849, Harriet Shober moved to San Francisco from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two years later, her future husband William C. McElroy, a wood miller, arrived in San Francisco from Martinsburg, Virginia. According to the National Society of the Colonial Dames Of America In California, documents show that McElroy also worked at flour mills in St. Louis, Missouri, before making his way to San Francisco.
In 1850, around the time he left the city, a massive fire had destroyed nine blocks of buildings along the St. Louis waterfront. Although not confirmed, it could be a reason that McElroy left for San Francisco.
McElroy Bought The Plot Of Land In 1859, The Year They Married
McElroy bought a lot on the east side of Gough Street in 1859. Although it’s unclear how they met, it was the same year that William McElroy and Harriet Shober were married. Their wedding was recorded on June 9, 1859, at First Presbyterian Church on Stockton Street in San Francisco.
The couple began building the Octagon House on the rural lot in 1860. Both successful in business on their own right, McElroy and Shober were in their early 40s when they came together, McElroy being two years Shober’s senior.
The Designer Of The House Remains A Mystery
In the 1840s, about 20 years before the Octagon House in San Francisco was built, designer Orson Squire Fowler was known for popularizing the octagon home concept. However, there are no documents that show Folwer had any involvement with the McElroy home.
According to letters, it seems that McElroy and Shober were inspired by the idea of an octagon home and took it upon themselves to find a designer and hire workers to build it. However, there are no documents tying any one designer to the Octagon House.
It Was Built In Cow Hollow Neighborhood
The home was built in Cow Hollow, a neighborhood of San Francisco that’s appropriately named for its roots in the cattle industry. It’s located alongside the Marina District, between Russian Hill and Presidio.
Historically, cows grazed on the land that was also a neighborhood to fishermen. Today, it’s an affluent neighborhood with homes costing in the millions. Among the million-dollar homes sits the Octagon House, rooted in history.
The Couple Was Upper-Middle Class
In a letter, McElroy described his family as “pretty well off in the world of goods.” Not only was McElroy making good money as a miller, he was also the proprietor of Gough Gardens, according to city directories from 1863 to 1865.
His wife also made money of her own and was described in her obituary as “a lady of remarkable business ability and energy,” according to NSCDA. Shober personally owned several properties throughout San Francisco, including on Stockton Street between Clay and Washington streets.
The Home Has Incredible Views From All Windows
McElroy and Shober were extremely business savvy and enamored with the development of the City of San Francisco around them. Although Cow Hollow was a rural area at the time the Octagon House was built, McElroy noted the quick development happening all around the property.
Neighborhoods and buildings could be seen being built from all angles, with the unique shape of the house. In a letter, he wrote, “Look whichever way you will, and you observe happiness, prosperity, and wealth.”
The Original Floor Plan Was Confusing
The Octagon House was originally built with two floors, each with four rooms. A winding staircase located in the middle of the house led to the second floor.
As with most historical octagon homes, the layout was totally bizarre– each room was behind multiple sets of doors. Guests and residents entered the home through a tight, triangular-shaped foyer with doors on all three walls. one door led to the parlor. Another led into the dining room.
The Couple Left The House And Rented It Out To Affluent Tenants
In the 1880s, McElroy and Shober decided to move out of the Octagon House and rent it out to tenants. They weren’t ordinary renters, however.
One of the tenants was Daniel O’Connell, a journalist, actor, and poet who co-founded the Bohemian Club. The club, which had a headquarters in nearby Union Square, was made up of affluent businessmen, entrepreneurs, and artists. The club continues today and has members that include world leaders.
The 1906 Earthquake Was One Of The Worst In American History
At 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake struck the coast of Northern California, rattling the city of San Francisco to its core. Fires erupted throughout the city and continued to burn for days.
One of the deadliest earthquakes in American history, more than 3,000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed. Although the Octagon House wasn’t leveled, it was severely damaged in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake.
The Octagon House Was Badly Damaged
Although part of the house still remained after the 1906 earthquake, the Octagon House was in bad shape. It’s unlikely that the McElroys still owned the property during this time.
By 1909 the Octagon house was no longer in their name and had been sold and purchased several times, according to records. By 1951, the property had been vacant for a long period of time and remained on the east side of Gough street, completely neglected.
Pacific Gas & Electric Bought The Lot With Intentions Of Destroying The House
In 1924, Pacific Gas & Electric purchase the McElroy Octagon House with the intention of taking apart the historical house and utilizing the lot for a substation. Under its ownership, the house remained vacant, and ironically, without electricity.
Legend has it that during this time, runaways squatted in the home. Soon, a ghost was discovered. Every November 24th, the spirit could be heard climbing the old wooden staircase before falling from the second story with a loud, resounding, thump. The spirit was never identified as being connected to a lost soul, however.
The NSCDA Stepped In And Bought The House In 1951
The Octagon House was scheduled for demolition when the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America purchased the neglected property in 1951. PG&E agreed to sell the house to the society for $1, so long as they took it off the lot.
The NSCDA made plans to move the house from its original location to the other side of Gough street, with plans for extensive renovations to preserve the historic building. They hired an electrician to install electricity in the house for the first time.
Renovation Began In 1953 And An Electrician Found Something Odd
After purchasing the Octagon House and moving it across the street from its original location, the NSCDA got to work on renovations. After rebuilding the walls and frame, the society called in an electrician to install power in the historic home.
The electrician was upstairs, drilling into the wall when his tool hit something. He turned off the drill to see what had caused the resistance and the noise he heard, hitting something inside the wall.
A Tin Box Was Found Inside The Wall
While drilling into the wall upstairs in the Octagon House, the electrician found a tin box placed inside the wall. After all of these years, the house had been through a massive earthquake and decades of vacancy, where youths from the nearby juvenile center had broken into, as well as other runaways.
There were even legends of a ghost wandering the house! There were plenty of possibilities for what that tin box could hold, and who could have put it there.
It Was A Time Capsule
Inside the tin box was something more significant than the electrician could have ever imagined– it was a time capsule left by McElroy himself before the family left the Octagon House. Almost 100 years had passed since the tin box was placed there– it even survived the 1906 earthquake.
Knowing that the time capsule was an incredible find, the electrician turned it over to the NSCDA. The society was elated to discover what was inside.
It Included Their Family Photograph
Inside the time capsule, the society found a photograph and a pile of letters. Pictured is William McElroy, his wife Harriet Shober, their adopted daughter Emma Eliza, and their nephew Samuel A. Wolfe. According to McElroy’s letters found in the time capsule, Samuel was an artist. However, the couple disapproved of his chosen career path.
In the letter, McElroy wrote that by the time someone found the time capsule, he wished that his nephew would “be in a more respectable business,” according to NSCDA.
He Wrote About The High Cost Of Real Estate
In one of McElroy’s letters, he expressed his disapproval of the high cost of real estate in San Francisco, an issue that is still relevant in the city nearly a century later.
The flour miller vented about the atrocious rates he paid for labor in building the Octagon House, although both he and his wife had plenty of money to support the build. The house was built on a lot with beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay, located in what is still a highly-desirable neighborhood today.
McElroy Wrote That He And Harriet Were “Very Good Looking”
Perhaps the most entertaining find in the Octagon House time capsule was McElroy’s inclusion that he and Harriet were a good-looking couple. According to NSCDA, in the same letter that McElroy documented the adoption of Emma, he wrote that he and Harriet were “a very good-looking old couple.”
Judging from his letter, the couple sounded happy, having not found each other until later on in life when they fell in love in San Francisco. This photo shows the downstairs living room in the Octagon House after it was purchased and renovated by the NSCDA.
The Time Capsule Revealed They Adopted A Daughter
A letter written by William in 1861 was included in the time capsule that was found in the walls of the Octagon House. The handwritten letter documented the adoption of their daughter, Emma Eliza McElroy. She was nine years old at the time that the letter was written.
According to NSCDA, census records showed that Emma was born in New York, and that her parents were born outside of America.
A Look Into San Francisco’s Past
Built between 1860 and 1861, the Octagon House is historically significant on its own. The fact that a time capsule placed by its original owners was found on the property nearly a century later is nothing short of incredible.
The home, sitting across Gough street from its original establishment, is now in good hands with the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. With more than 80% of the city of San Francisco destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, it’s incredible to see the Octagon House remain.