A Model of Ingenuity
SF's Octagon House stands as a model of 19th century convenience
By Tina El-Qare

Although eight residences in San Francisco were built in the shape of an octagon in the middle of the 19th century, as we enter the 21st century only two remain.

One of which is Octagon House, a museum of the Decorative Arts of the Colonial and Federal Periods, located at 2645 Gough Street.

It is believed that the builder, William C. McElroy, designed the house after he read Orson S. Fowler’s A Home for All, a book that discussed the physical, spiritual and emotional well-being of living in a residence in the shape of an octagon, according to Janis Horne, colonial dame of the National Society of Colonial Dames.

Because, at that time, electricity and plumbing was not available, Fowler believed the best shape a house could be was a circle, but since a circle was difficult to build, the next best thing is an octagon, Horne said.

An octagon, he thought, allowed the best of both worlds: space and natural light. It would allow for windows to encompass all eight sides instead of four, and would get light from all eight sides at various times in the day. In addition, a cupola -- a skylight -- would allow for light from the top as well, according to Horne.

Fowler believed that any house must fulfill certain functions – it must enclose space, have structural strength and weather resistance, provide light, warmth, and ventilation, and the floor plan would provide adequate arrangement of the rooms.

When the house was originally built in 1861, four rooms were on the ground level and four on the top level. The upper level consisted of the bedrooms and the lower level was a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and a back parlor. A staircase encompassed the center of the house, which left no room for hallways or entryways, thus eliminating the loss of heat.

Over the years, the house changed ownership many times, finally finding itself in the hands of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1952.

"We wanted to turn it into a museum," said Nancy Weston of the National Society of the Colonial Dames.

After the death of the last of three sisters who lived in the house, PG&E;, the previous owner of the house, offered the house for $1 to the Colonial Dames on condition that they relocate it. The Colonial Dames paid PG&E; $1 and began raising funds to pay for its relocation.

In 1953, the Colonial Dames moved the house across the street to 2645 Gough Street, from its original location, 2618 Gough Street.

Somehow, the National Society of Colonial Dames heard about the sale, paid for the house and the move and decided to turn it into a museum of Colonial and Federal Era documents and furniture, according to Weston.

An interesting fact is that PG&E; owned the house for more than 30 years, but they never put electricity in the building, Weston said. Now the house has been renovated and somewhat restored to its original luster.

The society demolished the walls of the rooms on the first floor to allow more walking space and moved the staircase to the back parlor area, eliminating one of the rooms. They also added a restroom and all of the furniture and pieces that can be seen in the house.

The newest piece of furniture in the house is an 1830 Queen Anne, Chip-and-Dale-style dressing table. Every other piece of furniture is before that time.

One room serves as a library specializing in genealogy, history and the decorative arts. Another room, which is known as the Signer's Room, contains 54 of the 56 signatures of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A third room contains a 1740 chest and stand. The chest has a secret compartment, which is part of the molding. The stand is also two pieces so that it can be a table and a dresser.

Staffed by volunteers, Octagon House is open to the public on the second Sunday of every month, and the second and fourth Thursday of every month, from noon to 3 p.m. For more information about the house, call 441-7512.