This is a selection from CELEBRATING 150 YEARS OF HISTORY AT OCTAGON HOUSE: 1861–2011 by Janis M. Horne. The article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of The Argonaut, Vol 22. No.1. The Argonaut is the Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, San Francisco, CA www.sfhistory.org. See PDF of Complete Article.
Emma Eliza McElroy died just three years after the Great Earthquake, on April 12, 1909. Having no children of her own, Emma Eliza willed the Octagon House to her stepdaughter, Kate Van Duzer, who inherited it after some delay in 1917. The house then changed hands several times before it was purchased by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. PG&E, which apparently wanted the property as the site of a future substation, owned the home from 1924 to 1952.31
Despite these ownership changes, from about 1910 to 1949, the Octagon House was rented to just one family—that of clerk of the U.S. Customs Court, Augustine Riley. His three spinster daughters continued to live in the home after their father’s death.
The reclusive sisters apparently rebuffed San Francisco Chronicle historical writer Robert O’Brien several different times when he tried to visit their home in the 1940s. On one occasion, he attempted to interview one of the Misses Rileys as she was picking up her mail. She was an uncooperative interview subject, answering most questions with the response that “the house was not for sale and she did not want to subscribe to any newspaper.” When asked how she liked the house, she replied, “I do not care for it. It is very badly arranged and very inconvenient to keep orderly and clean.” Whether that exchange actually occurred or not (Mr. O’Brien was often suspected of inventing stories about the home), the Octagon House probably was an inconvenient place to live, as PG&E never put electricity in the residence in all the years it owned it.32
From 1949 to 1952, the Octagon House stood vacant, becoming increasingly dilapidated with the passage of time. A photograph from a 1952 newspaper article showed its deteriorating state. Runaways from the Youth Guidance Center even squatted there. In 1952, PG&E sought bids to tear down the house so the land could be sold separately. At this point, the Octagon House seemed doomed to destruction.33
Thanks to Janis M. Horne and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
31. Emma L. Van Duzer’s obituary, The San Francisco
Examiner, April 15, 1909; Jones, “Another View, p. 9-
10; Baird, “A History of Octagon House.”
32. Hogan, “Colonial Dames to the Rescue”; Baird, “A History of Octagon House.
33. November 20, 1952 letter from Carolyn Livermore, Chairman of the Headquarters Committee to the members of the NSCDA-CA, Octagon House archives.