by Shannon Browning-Mullis, Curator of History and Decorative Arts
Two of Telfair Museums’ three beautiful buildings were designed by architect William Jay. Born in Bath, England, Jay trained at the Royal Academy and apprenticed with David Roper Ridall before traveling to the U.S. Jay arrived in Savannah in 1817 and changed the face of the city within a few years. All told, he designed at least five residential buildings and five public structures.
Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters
Richard Richardson commissioned William Jay to design a home for his family before Jay ever visited the United States. Richardson made a fortune as a shipping merchant, banker, and attorney. He traded in many commodities, including at least 200 human beings. Richardson and Jay likely met when Richardson’s business partner, Robert Bolton, married Jay’s sister Anne in 1811.
The house contains several unique features, including a bridge upstairs and one of the earliest indoor plumbing systems in the United States. Though Jay designed the house, John Retan oversaw its construction, which was carried out by a team of free and enslaved, white and black, skilled and unskilled laborers from November 1816 to January 1819.
When Richardson left Savannah for New Orleans in 1822, the house fell into the possession of the Bank of the United States and was run as a boarding house from 1824 to 1830. During his 1825 visit to Savannah, the Marquis de Lafayette lodged in the house. In 1830, George Welshman Owens, an attorney, politician, and enslaver of over 400 people, purchased the property. His granddaughter Margaret Thomas willed the house to the Telfair Museum of Art to become a museum when she passed away in 1951. Today, the site is used to tell the complicated history of all the people, free and enslaved, who resided there in the early 19th century.
By 1818, Alexander Telfair was the last surviving son in the powerful Telfair line. He commissioned this house as the city residence of himself, his three sisters, and their mother. From Savannah, Alexander managed the family plantations on which hundreds of enslaved people labored. He also participated in numerous civic endeavors from planning the celebration of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1825 visit to serving as a Justice of the Inferior Court of Chatham County.
Though Alexander passed away in 1832, his sisters remained in the home for the rest of their lives. Mary’s 1875 Last Will and Testament directed that the house become an academy of arts and science.
The museum opened to the public in 1886 after several years of planning and renovation. The museum’s first director, Carl Brandt, worked closely with architect Detlef Lienau to alter the structure for use as a public building.
After settling in Savannah and prospering as a shipping merchant, William Scarbrough commissioned Jay to design a grand home for his family. Completion of the mansion was rushed to accommodate a visit by President James Monroe in 1819.
Scarbrough and his wife, Julia, were extravagant entertainers with social ambitions. During their years in the home, large parties were common. One visitor commented, “Mrs. Scarborough [sic] lately sent out cards of invitation to five hundred persons. Three hundred attended. Every room in a large house was newly furnished for the occasion, the beds etc sent out; refreshments handed round from garret to cellar through the night to guests, who were mostly standing and ‘delightfully squeezed to death.’ How delightful!”
After half a century as a private dwelling, the house took on a new life as the West Broad Street School, serving African American children from 1873 to 1962. After several transfers of ownership and two restorations, the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum moved into the Scarbrough House in 1997.
Like many affluent men of his day, Archibald Stobo Bulloch had diverse business interests realized through inherited wealth. When he commissioned the Bulloch House in 1818, he was serving as collector of customs for the port of Savannah. Like many others, Bulloch lost much of his fortune in the Panic of 1819 and the fire of 1820. He sold the house in 1822 to cover debts.
After a stint as a boarding house and several transfers of ownership, the Bulloch House was purchased by Robert Habersham as a family home. His family remained there until 1898. It changed hands several times in the subsequent years before being purchased by the City of Savannah in 1915. The city demolished the mansion to make way for a municipal auditorium, which was itself destroyed in 1971 and replaced by the current civic center.
Savannah Branch of the Bank of the United States
When Richard Richardson was elected president of the Savannah Branch of the Bank of the U.S. in 1817, Jay got his chance to design a public building. Richardson was re-elected president in 1820 while construction of the bank was ongoing. The bank opened in 1821, just after Richardson resigned to become the president of the Planters Bank.
The U.S. Bank’s charter ended in 1836, and the building was occupied by several subsequent banking institutions. With each of its new tenants, the building experienced renovations to suit new operations. In 1924, the bank was demolished to make way for an office building.
The Savannah Theater
It is speculated that Jay arrived in Savannah with plans for the Savannah Theater already in hand. While in London, he entered a design into the competition for the New English Opera House, which he did not win. He likely heard through family connections that citizens were formulating plans for a theater in Savannah and decided to try his luck. Two of his residential customers, Alexander Telfair and Richard Richardson, were among the theater’s founders. Like many of Jay’s Savannah structures, the theater was caught up in the financial troubles of the early 1820s. It was sold to a northern investor in 1823. The theater experienced significant changes over the years, including seven renovations and at least three fires. Only remnants of the foundation of Jay’s theater survive below the structure today.
The Savannah Free School
The Savannah Free School Society, which educated thousands of boys and girls without means, was founded in 1816, and was granted land by the city council to erect a dedicated structure after several months of meeting in rooms of the Chatham Academy. Jay likely received the commission due to the involvement of William Scarbrough, a residential client of Jay’s, in the Society’s organization. Little is known of Jay’s design for the building, which was destroyed in a fire in 1852.
Archibald Stobo Bulloch served as the collector of customs for the port of Savannah from 1810 to 1822. During that time, he successfully petitioned the treasury department to approve a new custom house. It was left to Bulloch to choose the designer and oversee the project. He chose Jay to design the custom house, as well as his private residence. The structure was complete by the end of 1819, but the great fire of 1820 destroyed it before operations even moved to the new building.
This building has changed so substantially over the years that the first floor and façade are unrecognizable as the original. The upper floors, however, still sport original features reminiscent of Jay’s creative and whimsical design of other structures, particularly the house he designed for Richard Richardson. Curved walls and doors, elaborate mantels, and a bridge attached to the stairs still remain.
Jay also worked in South Carolina, England, and Mauritius, but never again enjoyed the same degree of success he found in Savannah.