The Octagon House on Gough Street in San Francisco, built between 1860 and 1861, is steeped in tradition. Its first owners were an immigrant couple from the east coast who met in the city and fell in love. Following the McElroy family’s departure, the home’s unusual shape was severely damaged in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that devastated 80% of the area. After nearly a century of being abandoned, reports of ghosts, and barely avoiding demolition, the Octagon House was bought by a historical society. When the renovations started, an electrician found something extraordinary inside the building’s walls.
Separately, William McElroy and Harriet Shober relocated to San Francisco.
Harriet Shober relocated from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to San Francisco in 1849. Her future husband, a wood miller named William C. McElroy, arrived in San Francisco two years later from Martinsburg, Virginia. Documents indicate that before coming to San Francisco, McElroy worked at flour mills in St. Louis, Missouri, according to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in California.
A major fire had destroyed nine blocks of buildings along the St. Louis waterfront in 1850, about the time he left the city. It’s possible that this is why McElroy left for San Francisco, but it hasn’t been proven.
The plot of land was purchased by McElroy in 1859, the year they married.
In 1859, McElroy purchased a plot of land on the east side of Gough Street. While it is unknown how they met, they married in the same year as William McElroy and Harriet Shober. Their wedding was recorded on June 9, 1859, at San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church on Stockton Street.
In 1860, the couple began construction on the Octagon House on the rural property. McElroy and Shober were both established businessmen in their own right when they met in their early 40s, McElroy being two years Shober’s senior.
The House’s Designer Is Also Unknown.
Designer Orson Squire Fowler popularized the octagon home model in the 1840s, about 20 years before the Octagon House in San Francisco was completed. There are no records, however, that indicate Folwer was involved with the McElroy residence.
According to letters, McElroy and Shober were motivated by the concept of an octagon home and decided to find a designer and employ staff to build it. There are no documents, however, that link any particular designer to the Octagon House.
It was constructed in the Cow Hollow area.
The house was constructed in Cow Hollow, a San Francisco neighborhood named for its ties to the cattle industry. It is situated between Russian Hill and the Presidio, alongside the Marina District.
Cows used to graze on the field, which was also a popular fishing spot. It is now a wealthy neighborhood with houses costing millions of dollars. The historic Octagon House is nestled among the million-dollar houses.
The couple came from an upper-middle-class family.
McElroy described his family as “pretty well off in the world of goods” in a letter. According to city directories from 1863 to 1865, McElroy was not only a successful miller, but he was also the owner of Gough Gardens.
According to NSCDA, his wife made money on her own and was described in her obituary as “a lady of remarkable business abilities and energy.” Shober owned a number of properties in San Francisco, including one on Stockton Street between Clay and Washington.
From every window in the house, there are breathtaking views.
McElroy and Shober were savvy businessmen who were enamored with the growth of San Francisco. Despite the fact that Cow Hollow was still a rural area when the Octagon House was constructed, McElroy noted the rapid development taking place all around the property.
With the distinctive form of the home, neighborhoods and structures could be seen being constructed from all angles. “Look whatever way you can, and you observe happiness, success, and wealth,” he wrote in a letter.
The original floor plan was a jumbled mess.
Originally, the Octagon House had two floors, each with four rooms. The second floor was reached through a winding staircase in the center of the building.
The layout was completely bizarre, as it was with most historical octagon homes– each room was hidden behind several sets of doors. Guests and residents entered through a narrow, triangular foyer with doors on all three walls. The parlor was accessible through one entrance. Another path led to the dining area.
The couple moved out of the house and rented it to well-heeled tenants.
McElroy and Shober agreed to leave the Octagon House in the 1880s and rent it out to tenants. They weren’t your typical tenants, though.
Daniel O’Connell, a writer, actor, and poet who co-founded the Bohemian Club, was one of the tenants. Affluent businessmen, merchants, and artists made up the club, which had its headquarters in nearby Union Square. The club is still going strong today, with world leaders among its founders.
One Of The Worst Earthquakes In American History, The 1906 Earthquake.
A major earthquake hit the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, shaking the city of San Francisco to its heart. Fires erupted all over the city, and they raged for days.
More than 3,000 people died in one of the deadliest earthquakes in American history, and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed. The Octagon House was heavily damaged in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake, despite not being leveled.
The Octagon House had been severely harmed.
The Octagon House was in poor shape after the 1906 earthquake, despite the fact that part of it remained. During this time, it’s doubtful that the McElroys still owned the house.
According to documents, the Octagon house was no longer under their name by 1909 and had been sold and bought several times. By 1951, the land had been empty for a long time and had become largely abandoned on the east side of Gough Street.
A finding inside the house nearly 100 years later, following a huge earthquake, was nothing short of miraculous.
Pacific Gas & Electric purchased the property with the intent of demolishing the building.
Pacific Gas & Electric purchased the McElroy Octagon House in 1924 with the purpose of demolishing it and using the land for a substation. The house remained empty and, ironically, without electricity during its ownership.
Runaways are said to have squatted in the house during this period. A ghost was soon identified. The spirit could be heard ascending the old wooden staircase on November 24th before falling from the second floor with a loud, resounding thump. . However, the spirit was never described as being connected to a lost soul.
Someone saved the house just before it was demolished.
In 1951, the NSCDA stepped in and purchased the building.
When the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America bought the run-down property in 1951, it was set to be demolished. PG&E decided to sell the house to the society for $1 if they removed it from the property.
The NSCDA made plans to relocate the house from its original location on Gough Street, with substantial renovations planned to preserve the historic structure. For the first time, they employed an electrician to install electricity in the home.
Something odd happened at that point.
Renovations began in 1953, and an electrician discovered an anomaly.
The NSCDA began renovations after buying the Octagon House and moving it across the street from its original site. The society hired an electrician to install electricity in the historic home after restoring the walls and frame.
The electrician was drilling into the wall upstairs when his tool collided with something. He switched off the drill to figure out what was causing the resistance and the noise he was hearing, which he assumed came from something within the wall.
A Tin Box Was Found Inside The Wall
The electrician discovered a tin box inside the wall while drilling into the wall upstairs in the Octagon House. The house had been through a major earthquake and decades of vacancy, where teenagers from the local detention center, as well as other runaways, had broken in.
There were also rumors that the house was haunted by a ghost! There were many possibilities for what that tin box might contain, as well as who could have placed it there.
It Turned Out To Be A Time Capsule.
It was a time capsule left by McElroy himself before the family left the Octagon House that was hidden inside the tin box, something more valuable than the electrician could have expected. The tin box had been there for almost a century, and it had even survived the 1906 earthquake.
The electrician handed the time capsule over to the NSCDA because he knew it was a rare discovery. The society was ecstatic to find out what was on the inside.
It also included a photograph of their family.
The society discovered a photograph and a stack of letters inside the time capsule. William McElroy, his wife Harriet Shober, their adopted daughter Emma Eliza, and their nephew Samuel A. Wolfe are pictured in this photograph. Samuel was an artist, according to McElroy’s letters contained in the time capsule. The pair, on the other hand, did not approve of his chosen career path.
According to NSCDA, McElroy wrote in the letter that he wished his nephew was “in a more respectable business” by the time the time capsule was discovered.
He wrote an article about the skyrocketing cost of real estate.
McElroy expressed his displeasure with the high cost of real estate in San Francisco in one of his letters, a topic that is still relevant in the city nearly a century later.
The flour miller bemoaned the exorbitant labor rates he charged when constructing the Octagon House, despite the fact that he and his wife had enough funds to finance the project. The house was built on a lot with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay, in a neighborhood that is still very desirable today.
McElroy and Harriet were described as “very good looking” in a letter.
McElroy’s inclusion that he and Harriet were a good-looking couple was perhaps the most amusing discovery in the Octagon House time capsule. According to NSCDA, McElroy described himself and Harriet as “a really good-looking old couple” in the same letter that registered Emma’s adoption.
The couple sounded content in his note, despite the fact that they had not met until later in life, when they fell in love in San Francisco. After the Octagon House was purchased and restored by the NSCDA, this picture shows the downstairs living room.
They Adopted A Daughter, according to the Time Capsule.
The time capsule discovered in the walls of the Octagon House contained a letter written by William in 1861. Emma Eliza McElroy, their adopted daughter, was documented in the handwritten note. At the time the letter was written, she was nine years old.
Emma was born in New York, according to census data, and her parents were born outside of America, according to NSCDA.
A Look Back at San Francisco’s Past.
The Octagon House, which was built between 1860 and 1861, is historically important in and of itself. It’s amazing that a time capsule buried on the property by its original owners was discovered nearly a century later.
The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America now owns the house, which is located across Gough Street from its original location. It’s impressive to see the Octagon House still standing since the 1906 earthquake devastated more than 80% of San Francisco.
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