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.
When The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California1 saved the Octagon House from destruction in 1952, almost nothing was known about the early history of this eight-sided wooden residence located on the corner of Gough and Union streets in San Francisco. A contemporary newspaper account speculated that the house could have been constructed anywhere between 1848 and 1864. In the absence of facts, the newspaper substituted fancy, recounting an apocryphal ghost story claiming that, “on the night of each November 24 something may be heard climbing the stairs to the second floor. At the 20th step, the something lets out a piercing shriek. This is followed by a muffled thumping, as of a body falling down the 20 steps to the first floor landing. Then there is silence.”2
This state of ignorance did not last long, as the house’s story would soon be revealed by a surprising find. Less than one year later, in March of 1953, an electrician working on the renovation of the home discovered a “time capsule” left by its original owners, William Carroll McElroy and his wife Harriet Shober McElroy. The round tin canister (along with a cache of newspapers) had been hidden near the stairs going up to the house’s cupola. The time capsule contained newspaper clippings, an ambrotype photograph of the original family, and a letter written by William C. McElroy on July 14, 1861. The letter confirmed that the Octagon House was built and owned by the McElroys as their “privet Residence.” With the information gleaned from the time capsule, the history of this 150-year old San Francisco treasure could finally be told.3
Thanks to Janis M. Horne and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
1. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California (NSCDA-CA, Colonial Dames, or the society) is a non-profit organization that actively promotes our national heritage through historic preservation, patriotic service and educational projects. In addition to owning and operating the Octagon House, the NSCDA-CA supports several museum properties in San Diego. It is one of the state societies making up the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA). The NSCDA and its constituent societies own, operate or support museum properties across the United States, as well as Sulgrave Manor (the ancestral home of the Washington family) in England. For more information, visit www.NSCDA.org.
2. Jane Hogan, “Colonial Dames Come to the Rescue of Famous Octagon House,” San Francisco Chronicle, July
3. “Old Octagon Yields Story,” San Francisco News, March 30, 1953, p.1; Robert Strebeigh, “Octagon House
Mystery Solved,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 1953, p.. 36; Octagon House Docent Manual, September, 2003, based on society archives and curator’s information, hereafter cited as Docent Manual.