Octagons: A Popular Design in the 1860s

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. icon-pdfSee PDF of Complete Article.

“The Best Plan Yet” – Floor plan submitted by Mr. Howland and originally published in Orson S. Fowler’sA Home for All, 1853.

“The Best Plan Yet” – Floor plan submitted by Mr. Howland and originally published in Orson S. Fowler’sA Home for All, 1853.

The McElroys chose to follow the latest architectural fad in building their home. Octagonal houses were first popularized by an 1848 book titled A Home For All. The book went through at least nine different editions before the fad had run its course. Written and self-published by an amateur New York architect named Orson S. Fowler,12  the book advocated the building of multi-story eight-sided homes with windows in all sides and a cupola typically positioned over a central stairway. (Later editions also promoted “gravel wall” or concrete-like construction tech niques.) Fowler’s book argued that eight-sided houses were healthier and more economical than four-sided houses. They were healthier because the windows and cupola would let in more natural light and ventilation than traditional housing. They were more economical because the octagon came close to the circle (or sphere) in maximizing the volume of interior space, while providing a more compact floor plan. Fowler’s book inspired the construction of more than a thousand octagonal houses across the country, not to mention churches, schoolhouses and other structures.13 At least five other octagonal homes are also known to have been built in San Francisco during the mid-nineteenth century.

The McElroys may have taken the inspiration for the floor plan of their approximately 1,620- square-foot two-story home from a plan published in the 1853 edition of Fowler’s book. Submitted by the book’s engraver, Mr. Howland, and called “The Best Plan Yet,” it featured four roughly square-shaped rooms surrounding a central stair- case, with the rooms separated by triangular shaped spaces at the corners.14 This floor plan bears some striking similarities to the layout of the McElroys’ home.

The image on the next page provides the best reconstruction of the Octagon House’s original floor plan. The McElroys would have entered the first floor of the home through one of the four small triangular-shaped spaces. From there, they could have turned left to walk into the parlor (and beyond it the back parlor), or turned right to enter the dining room. Both rooms gave access to the central stairway, which in turn gave access to the kitchen. A fireplace in the parlor and the kitchen stove probably provided the only sources of heat in the house.

Upstairs, the home featured four rooms comparable to the rooms below surrounding the central staircase. A separate staircase ran from that floor to the cupola, which was positioned directly above the main stairs. Imagine the views the McElroys must have experienced from the cupola of their hillside home. Looking in one direction, they could see the city of San Francisco growing by leaps and bounds. Looking in another direction, they could see the traffic on Presidio Road, the sand dunes, and perhaps even shipping along the Golden Gate.15

Octagon House floor plans – lower and upper floors.

Courtesy of Octagon House archives.



What led the McElroys to commemorate the building of their house by creating a time capsule? A review of William’s letter and the newspaper clippings suggest the family was driven by a sense of living in historic times. After all, the couple had witnessed the extraordinary growth of San Francisco as it transformed itself from a sleepy village of “three thousands Souls” in 1849 to a bustling metropolis “of about Ninety Thousand in 1861.” William’s letter is filled with a sense of pride at what had been accomplished in the new city, citing statistics on the growth of trade, the average annual yield from the gold mines, and the number of manufacturing firms in San Francisco. “I do not believe that, the world ever has furnished a parelell to our progress as a City in the Same time,” he wrote. “Look which ever way you will and you observe happiness prosperity and wealth.” Among the news clippings in the time capsule was an article exemplifying his point—it reported on the departure from San Francisco of the Panama- bound steamship Uncle Sam with a cargo of 190 passengers and nearly $1.3 million in gold.16

A portion of William McElroy’s letter from the time capsule. Courtesy of Octagon House archives.

A portion of William McElroy’s letter from the time capsule. Courtesy of Octagon House archives.

Perhaps even more importantly, the McElroys knew the United States was on the verge of Civil War after the election of President Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860 had led many southern states to secede from the Union. Most of the time capsule’s newspaper clippings chronicle the unfolding crisis from the time the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter to the most recent skirmishes in Virginia prior to the battle of Bull Run on July 1, 1861. The dispatches, which originated in St. Louis, were transmitted by pony express from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Fort Churchill, Nevada, and thence by telegraph to San Francisco. They contained a fascinating mix of fact and rumour. This “news” must have been eagerly devoured by a divided San Francisco anxiously waiting to learn the fate of the Union. William’s letter makes it clear where the McElroys’ loyalties lay. “I say to you that the great bulk of the People of the State of California are very strong for the union of these States, and for myself and family, we are for the maintanence of our glorious Constitution and the Laws of the land as they are and as our Fathers transmitted them to us.”17

William McElroy would live to see the restoration of his beloved Union before his death “after a short illness” at age fifty-eight on December 23, 1869. “Friends and acquaintances” of this “pioneer miller” were invited to attend the funeral “THIS (Sunday) morning … from his late residence, corner of Gough and Union Streets.” He was survived by his widow, Harriet and their daughter, Emma Eliza, who would both continue to live in the Octagon House for many years to come.18

Next Section: Harriet & Emma Eliza McElroy

Thanks to  Janis M. Horne and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

12. Orson Squires Fowler was an eccentric in an age of eccentrics. Best known as the popularizer of the octagon house fad, Fowler was a man who practiced what he preached. In 1853, he built his own 60-room, three- story octagonal mansion in Fishkill, New York.
“Fowler’s Folly”, as the mansion was known, stood for less than 45 years before it was demolished in 1897. In addition to being an amateur architect, Fowler was one of the first Americans to promote the pseudo-science of phrenology, the belief that character could be deter- mined by the shape of one’s skull. A practicing phrenologist, he published the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany and a number of other phrenolo- gy manuals. Fowler also wrote on a variety of reform topics, from vegetarianism to teetotalism to the dangers of corsets to women’s health. Finally, he gained a cer- tain amount of notoriety by writing and publishing health and sex manuals in furtherance of his career as a marriage consultant and sex educator. Source: Orson S. Fowler, The Octagon House: A Home for All, unabridged reproduction of 1853 edition with a new introduction by Madeline B. Stern (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973), pp. vii-xi.
13. Ibid., pp. vi,viii, xi-xii.
14. Ibid., pp. 160-161.
15. McElroy letter from Octagon House time capsule.
16. Ibid., newspaper clippings from Octagon House time capsule, including ”Treasure Per Uncle Sam” (undated and unidentified).
17. McElroy letter from Octagon House time capsule; news- paper clippings from Octagon House time capsule, including “Arrival of the Pony! Fight at Baltimore. Jeff. Davis Marching on to Washington. Blockading of Southern Ports” (undated and unidentified, with an April 22, 1861 dateline).
Author’s Note: Mr. McElroy also identified himself as a supporter of northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, principal opponent to Republican Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860, and supporting a “Douglas Democrat” for San Francisco Supervisor for the 12th District according to a political notice in the Octagon House’s archives. There is no evidence that McElroy himself ran for political office.
The political notice read, “Union Douglas Democratic Ticket for Supervisor of the 12th District, William C. McElroy.” The 12th supervisorial ward or district ran from Larkin Street on the east to the Pacific Ocean and north to the bay. The winning candidate for the district in 1860 was James W. Cudworth. No evidence was found in newspapers or city records that McElroy was a candidate for supervisor in those years. The presidential election in 1860 was a four-way race with Republican Abraham Lincoln winning California by some 600 votes. The other candidates were northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell. The information in this note is courtesy of Paul Rosenberg, San Francisco, historian on San Francisco supervisorial races.
18. Two obituaries of William C. McElroy, unidentified and undated, in Emma Eliza McElroy’s Scrapbook, Octagon House archives.