Among Savannah, Georgia’s 2,500 buildings of historical significance, only 9 are opened on a regular basis for tours. The Owens-Thomas House is one of them, and inside is an architectural wonder that I’ve never seen in a house before.
A 24-year-old English architect/genius named William Jay designed it. It was his first job in America. He chose the Regency style named for the current Prince Regent, a not-yet king ruling a monarchy due to illness, absence, etc. Jay imposed perfect Greek and Roman symmetry on his design, used the latest technology including indoor plumbing, and took 3 years to build this house for wealthy merchant Richard Richardson, who was a relative of Jay’s by marriage. Like me, others in Savannah admired it and hired Jay to design houses for them. Some say he created more homes in America than in Great Britain.
Richardson moved in at a bad time because the Panic of 1819 immediately occurred. Broke, he moved to New Orleans. Five years later Mary Maxwell bought the property and turned it into an upscale boarding house for 6 years. During this time the Marquis de Lafayette stayed with her while on his extensive Farewell to the U.S. Tour.
Then a remarkable thing happened. Savannah’s mayor, George Owens, bought it for $10,000 and the house stayed in the family for 121 years. If you were to rent it for that length of time, you would pay about $14 a month. When Margaret Thomas died in 1951, she left Owens-Thomas to the Telfair Museum, which has been showing it as a House-Museum since 1991 when the last tenant moved out. About 1/3 of the furnishings on view, Ruth & I were told, belonged to the Thomas family.
Tours begin in the slave quarters. The house immediately reminded me of Charleston’s Aiken-Rhett because so much of it has been left as it was. For example, the quarter’s ceiling is still covered with its original paint. It was common for slaves to apply haint blue to their walls and ceilings. A mixture of indigo, buttermilk, and lime from oyster shells, haint was thought to protect humans from spirits. Remember that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is NON-fiction.
While the unique skylight in the formal dining room is what the house is best known for, I was far more fascinated by the really cool bridge on the 2nd floor. Yes, an entire curved bridge upstairs connects the front and back halls. Today it is used only sparingly and tours don’t get to cross it. They don’t get to take pictures of it either. When I saw it, this singular Savannah architectural masterpiece/home became a 5 Compass experience.