In the 1840s, a book launched an unusual architectural fad—that of eight-sided houses. An excellently preserved example of one such home is the Octagon House in San Francisco. This house, as its name indicates, has eight sides, and was built in 1861. Its floor plan closely aligned to a design from the 1853 version of the book, The Octagon House: A Home for All. Its author, William Squire Fowler, argued that houses with this shape were better for light, air flow, and space. The design called for four wedge shaped rooms and a central staircase. Whether or not Fowler was correct, the eight-sided craze ended up relegated to the annals of American fad history.
This Octagon House has an interesting history that almost ended in 1952, when its owner, an electricity company, sought to demolish it in order to use the land for another purpose. However, thanks to the efforts of the California Society of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the house was moved across the street and later renovated to be a museum of the Society’s collection of Colonial and Federal era decorative arts.
During the renovation, a workman made a fascinating discovery. He came across a time capsule left on the property by the original family, the McElroys, in July of 1861. This time capsule took the form of a round tin container, and it contained a selection of local newspapers, an ambrotype photo of the family, and a letter from patriarch William McElroy, addressed to future readers.
McElroy’s letter spoke of the tumultuous times in which the family lived. The recent Gold Rush of 1849, he wrote, exploded the population and wealth of San Francisco—“Look whichever way you will and you observe happiness prosperity and wealth.” What was once “three thousand Souls” prior to the discovery of gold became “Ninety -Thousand in 1861”.
As good as things may have been in San Francisco for those lucky enough to strike it rich, the country at large was ensnared in a major political crisis at the same time: the impending Civil War. “Our Glorious union is about being dissolved,” McElroy wrote. “Such is the Magnitude of the war now going on at Home between the North and the South that it is pretty hard to tell whether we will have any Government by the time they get through with it.” The included newspapers reported on the ballooning crisis with varying degrees of accuracy.
While San Francisco was home to both Confederate and Union sympathizers, McElroy expressed his stalwart support for the United States. “As for myself and family”, he wrote, “we are for the maintenance of our glorious Constitution and Laws of the land as they are and as our Fathers Transmitted them to us.” William McElroy died in 1869, five years after the end of the Civil War and the preservation of the Union.
In honor of the time capsule, NSCDA-CA added two of their own time capsules to the property. The first was installed at the house’s original dedication as a museum in 1953. The second was installed in 2011, in honor of the house’s 150th anniversary. Perhaps in another 150 years, they will be a fascinating discovery for future generations of preservationists and history lovers. But for now, visitors can discover the fascinating contents of the house itself, including Colonial and Federal era decorative arts and furniture, fine silver and ceramics, and a near-complete collection of signatures for signers of the Declaration of Independence.