These unique homes are relics of the 19th century “octagon craze.”
Have you seen this bizarre blue home in Russian Hill? The McElroy Octagon House is a famous reminder of the octagon craze of the 19th century, and it continues to turn heads even 160 years after it was built. You may also be familiar with the Feusier Octagon House and the Land’s End Octagon House.
The octagon craze was a wild Victorian trend resulting from the 1848 book The Octagon House: A Home For All, written by amateur architect Orson Squire Fowler. The octagonal design was meant to let in sunlight on all sides of the building throughout the day, and use fewer materials to approximate a circular shape. The design ended up being quite cumbersome given the strange angles, and one estimate says there are just over 2,000 octagon houses left in the United States from this era.
San Francisco at one point had at least five octagon houses around Russian Hill, most of which were likely built by a single builder in the mid-1800s. There are only 2 that remain, plus the abandoned octagonal lookout station in Lands End.
McElroy Octagon House
SF’s famous McElroy Octagon House was built in 1861, and is listed as San Francisco Landmark #17. Not much was known about it until the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California saved it from destruction in 1952. More details came to light in 1963, when an electrician discovered a time capsule left by the house’s original owners, William Carroll McElroy and his wife Harriet Shober McElroy. They left behind newspaper clippings, photos, and a letter written by Mr. McElroy on July 14, 1861, who explained that the home had been constructed as their “privet Residence.” A scrapbook was also found, belonging to his daughter Emma Eliza McElroy. It’s not on public display, but you can browse its contents digitally here.
The McElroy House is now a free museum available for the public to visit on certain days of the year. Usually, the house is open from 12-3pm to the public on the second Sunday of each month, and gives docent-led tours on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. Keep checking back about future dates here.
Find the McElroy Octagon House at 2645 Gough Street in Russian Hill.
Feusier Octagon House
The Feusier Octagon House is listed as San Francisco Landmark #36, estimated to have been built in 1857 or 1858. It was originally a two-story house, having later added a third story before the 1906 earthquake. It ended up surviving the earthquake and fire, and went on to house several families throughout the years.
The 4-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom house was first owned by George L. Kenny, an agent for famed bookseller and publisher H. H. Bancroft. Louis Feusier, a companion of Mark Twain and Leland Stanford, likely came to own the house in 1875. The Feusier family owned the house for the next 80 years, until they sold it in 1954. It passed through several more families, and was just listed on the market in May 2021 for $8.6 million.
You can see the Feusier Octagon House at 1067 Green Street in SF’s Russian Hill neighborhood, but it is not open to the public.
Land’s End Octagon House
The Lands End Octagon House is a historic lookout station, or “Merchant’s Exchange Lookout.” It was built in 1927 as a place to identify approaching ships and announce their arrival. Decades ago, the little station was situated high up on a clear hill with excellent views of the Bay. Now, it is shrouded by trees and long-abandoned, but easy enough to recognize for its characteristic octagonal shape.
This octagonal structure was favored for its 360-degree views, many years after the octagon craze of the mid-1800s. The station went through several iterations, was built at multiple locations, and eventually came to be known as the “Marine Exchange” building. The lookout lived there with his family on the first floor, and used a gigantic telescope on the second floor to spot ships as far as 30 miles away. The building is now owned by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and plans are in the works to preserve it.
The Lands End Octagon House is not open to the public, but you can see it at 2301-2409 El Camino Del Mar across from the parking lot.
Featured image: SnapASkyline via Shutterstock