You’ve realized by now how smitten I am with
house tours, right?
From Pittsburgh’s own Henry Clay Frick’s Clayton House to the Lorenzo Mansion in Cazenovia, New York, to plantations around Charleston. History is fascinating and one way of learning about the people of a time is through visiting their homes. While touring the Frick with their $4,000 dining room place settings may seem that you’re only learning about the wealthy, when you have an excellent docent, they also teach you about how the money was made, which helps you understand the daily life of regular folk.
In Savannah, the docents have the tough job of balancing the achievements of these white folks with the fact that their advancement in society came on the backs of enslaved people. The disparity between rich and poor is evident in the northern states as well, the difference being that indentured servants in the early years of the USA had a contract with an end date and earned a wage—very different from being wrenched from your homeland and made to work for someone against your will.
Owens-Thomas House at Oglethorpe Square
The Owens-Thomas (originally Richardson) house is one of the numerous area buildings designed by English architect William Jay. It is part of the Telfair trio of places to tour—a wonderful deal for $20—allowing you a week to visit all three museums.
Richardson lost the home and Mary Maxwell operated it as a boarding house for a number of years, boasting the Marquis de Lafayette as one of her most famous guests. One hundred and twenty-one years after her family (Mayor George Welshman Owens) bought it, in 1951 granddaughter Margaret Thomas bequeathed the home and property to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Your tour starts in the small slave quarters, where nine to fourteen people resided. A fascinating aspect is the blue ceiling of the first floor of this building—the “haint” indigo paint is supposed to ward off evil spirits. It’s one of the oldest existing examples of this color at work.
From the slave quarters, you move onto the basement of the English Regency styled mansion and get to see a cistern used to provide indoor plumbing. Entering the front door, you’re greeted by a single staircase that splits into two and further provides a surprise with a bridge over the first floor to a cozy (albeit accessible from rooms on either side) seating area. It looked the perfect place to curl up with a book on Georgia history and have a sweet tea.
Haint Indigo Ceiling Owens-Thomas
Owens-Thomas splitting staircase
Telfair Academy at Telfair Square
This is the original Telfair family home and was huge when constructed at 11,000 square feet. When the last daughter, Mary, gifted it to the city along with an endowment, it was expanded to over 21,000 square feet. It became a public museum in 1886—advanced planning for the time.
Jackie was the docent and quite good at bringing history alive for the group. We ran into her later in the day and chatted a bit more about Savannah in general, and the beauty of Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks, their branches stretched out long over the streets.
William Jay designed this home and as in the Owens-Thomas house, he re-used the bridge design with doors and windows at the front of the second floor. Sadly, Telfair eliminated the bridge in order to fully open the second floor, creating a grand entrance for museum visitors.
Like more than one home in this list, the “oak room” parlor walls are comprised of plaster, painted and grained—a docent said a feather was used to make the effect—to look like wood. Faux painting wasn’t discovered in the last few decades!
As with the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the museum’s curators have been tracking down original furniture. The parlor contains the only original light fixture in the home—a chandelier made in Britain.
Jepson Center at Telfair Square
With only a church separating them, next up was visiting the Jepson Center. This is mostly contemporary and abstract art, the latter is not my preferred style. There is an exhibit through June by Carrie Mae Weems, “The Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992,” which explores the history of Gullah-Geechee communities. The black and white photographs were quite evocative.
It was also nice to stand before Bird Girl, made most famous by being on the cover of the book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.” She is tinier than expected, at perhaps four feet tall. No photos permitted. A replica of her in the Mercer House gift shop stood about 18” and went for $118. Out of my garden’s price range.
Isaiah Davenport House Museum at Columbia Square
Nearby the Owens-Thomas home is the Davenport house, built in 1820 and standing the last fifty years as a museum—the first home saved by the Historical Savannah Foundation. This organization proves what seven determined women can achieve when they set their minds to a common goal. HSF has saved hundreds of homes and it shows in the rich architecture scattered throughout the district.
Davenport was a master builder, a craftsman rather than one of Savannah’s wealthy elite.
At only $9.00* for a guided tour that lasted about fifty minutes, this house is well worth viewing. The docent, Priscilla, was very engaging. Like other houses you’ll tour, the organizations have teamed with folks re-creating wallpapers from the era—often from photos of the homes. The subdued yellows and blues were inviting, but we questioned the lively scenery of the master bedroom as being not exactly sleep inducing.
Davenport bedroom wallpaper
Davenport boys bed
Davenport - room for dancing!
Mercer Williams House Museum at Monterey Square
While Alex, the docent, was a wonderful storyteller with a resounding voice, at $13 and no photographs permitted of the house or gardens, this was my most expensive tour. In lieu of pictures I was madly scribbling notes in my Writer’s Travel Journal in the hopes of burning the images into my memory.
From when Jim Williams first came to Savannah in the 1950s to when he bought the Mercer Home in 1969 and long after, he continued to purchase, restore and sell as many as 70 buildings throughout the city. Think what you will of his—acquitted—colorful past, but the man had a penchant for saving the history of this lovely town.
Mercer House was commissioned in 1861 by the grandfather of lyricist Johnny Mercer but with the outbreak of the civil war and changes in circumstance, he never finished it and no Mercer has ever resided in it. With various owners over the decades, when the Shriners vacated it as their local headquarters, it set vacant for some time and was in danger of being demolished.
Luckily that didn’t happen. It is a private residence, owned by Jim Williams’ sister, Dr. Dorothy Kingery, hence the no photography rule. You see only the main floor, consisting of the foyer, parlor, office, library and dining room. The tour focuses mostly on the artwork on display as Williams was a lifelong purchaser and seller of a wide variety of art items.
One fun story is connected to a several-feet tall portrait in William’s study. Alex told us that when a portrait that lengthy wound up in a home that did not have the ceiling height to accommodate it, the owners simply cut it down to size and re-framed it. Often they kept the disused parts. There is one copy painting in the entire home, in the office, of a soldierly looking man from the mid-chest up. Beneath him and framed separately, are a set of matching legs—facing the wrong direction and not actually belonging with the fellow. Humor at work.
The sunken garden—oh, it would be great to see it in bloom—is comprised of Savannah Gray “slave” Bricks. Because the making of these bricks ended after slavery, they are considered to be over 140 years old—rescued from a demolished building.
If I were choosing again between this and another of the dozen homes available for tour, I’d skip Mercer Williams and pick one with more rooms to see and that concentrated on the house rather than the artwork in it. For instance the Flannery O’Connor Childhood home, “…includes both levels of the home that the O’Connor family occupied. Each room has been closely restored to the Depression-era, presenting unique insights into the formative years of one of America’s greatest writers.”
Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum near Franklin Square
What a deal for seven dollars*! Another William Jay construction built for shipping merchant William Scarbrough, this home is just down the street from the Fairfield Inn where we stayed, so it was hard to resist walking the two blocks to explore it. I’ll admit I went back and forth with myself a number of times: What do I care of ships? Oh, try something new. But there’s the Flannery O’Connor home and the Juliet Gordon Low building and I could try again to get into some churches (they spurned my advances twice with locked doors!), especially the grand Cathedral of St. John the Baptist with it’s huge spires.
My pushy inner voice won and I decided to try something brand new—always the road to take—and was not disappointed.
The ship models are utterly fascinating from the multi-masted sailing vessels to World War II destroyers. You could spend a couple of hours wandering the three floors and reading every placard placed at every display.
The docent on hand was more than eager to discuss the fellow who’d constructed most of the models, sadly I cannot find any information online about this master model maker and didn’t jot down his name.
Ships of the Sea Museum
Sea - William Jay window-door design
Ships of the Sea Sailing ship
*Note: on the Ships of the Sea website the following is offered: “DISCOUNTED TICKET PRICE FOR ALL THREE HOUSES (Scarbrough, Davenport, Andrew Low: $21.00 PER PERSON. Tickets expire 30 days from the date of purchase.” However, no one mentioned this to me or I’d have included the Low house in my wanderings.
Touring Homes in Savannah
There are so many houses, buildings and museums available in Savannah both for touring and even as B&Bs, that you could spend at least a week visiting them. Whether you methodically plan ahead or meander the way I did, you’ll be sure to be delighted with the histories—both of the structures and the people who created it.
When you go:
Ask if they have a AAA discount—most of these museums offered one. Note: The Telfair Museums put your discount through as being a senior—I’m several years away from the number, but am not offended by seeing it on the receipt!
If you go off season, reservations aren’t necessary, however, if you’re going during peak tourist time, plan ahead and book your tours—especially if there is a group involved.