The History of the Owens-Thomas House
In the heart of Savannah’s celebrated Historic District, on the northeast quadrant of Oglethorpe Square, stands a grand old mansion, known today as the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters. An impressive two-story structure on a raised basement, it was completed in 1819 for Richard Richardson (1765–1833), an entrepreneur, shipping merchant, domestic slave trader, and bank president, and his wife, Frances Bolton Richardson. The architect was William Jay (c. 1792–1837), who also designed the Telfair family mansion on Barnard Street, which was renovated during the 1880s and is now the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. Today, the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is the best-preserved example of Jay’s work in Savannah, and one of the best English Regency-style homes in the country.
William Jay, an Englishman, was born in Bath to a well-known preacher of the same name. He received his training in architecture as an apprentice to David Riddall Roper, an architect and surveyor in London. Speculation is that Jay received the commission for the Richardsons’ house as a result of a family connection: Frances Richardson’s brother, Savannah merchant Robert Bolton, was married to Jay’s sister Anne. Jay arrived in Savannah in 1817 to supervise construction of the Richardsons’ house, which proved to be a fortuitous time for his career. Savannah was a city with many wealthy cotton merchants and planters, and the economy was booming. As fortunes increased, there was a desire among the wealthy to build imposing mansions. As a professional architect, Jay fit easily into Savannah society, and the fact that he was English was a bonus, for it was to England that Savannahians looked for their examples of style and culture. While Jay was steeped in both, he also came equipped with new technology in the form of indoor plumbing and cast-iron decorative work, both of which he integrated into his design for the Richardsons’ house.
Jay’s design innovations include unusual room shapes, columnar screens, niches and demilunes for statuary—and even bolder schemes. In the seven years that Jay was in America, he worked in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, as well as Savannah. In addition to the Richardson and Telfair houses, Jay designed homes for the Scarbrough and Bulloch families. Jay also designed the Savannah Theatre on Chippewa Square and the Savannah branch of the Bank of the United States.
The first floor of the Richardsons’ house is built of tabby, a crude concrete aggregate consisting of lime, oyster shells, water, and sand. Tabby was not only cheap and readily available but also stronger than traditional brick and mortar when used in building construction. The second floor was built of coquina, a limestone naturally formed from shells and coral, which is lighter than tabby. Exterior walls are 22- to 24-inches thick, and interior walls are 12- to 18-inches thick. Iron is used in floor joists, columns, shutters, and windows. Combined, these materials have enabled the house to withstand centuries.
One of the mansion’s most distinctive exterior features is the cast-iron balcony on its south facade. Although the use of cast iron was fairly common in England, this balcony represents the first large-scale structural application in American architecture. It was shipped from England in pieces and assembled on site in Savannah.
Jay returned to London in 1824, when his business declined as a result of the financial panic of 1819 and a resulting depression in the United States. He married and had three children. In 1836 he became assistant chief architect and inspector of the Colony of Mauritius. He died and was buried there in 1837.
Owners, Residents, and Visitors
As for the Richardsons, they occupied the house for only three years, suffering unthinkable losses during that time. Two of their children died, the last one in 1822, when their mother, Frances, also died. Richardson lost his fortune the same year as a result of the depression that had caused Jay to depart for England. Not much is known about Richardson. By 1808 he was a cotton factor in partnership with the firm of R. & J. Bolton. In 1811 he married Frances Bolton, daughter of the firm’s founder, Robert Bolton Sr. He served in the War of 1812, and in 1817 became the first president of the Savannah Bank of the United States, a position he held until 1821. When his business failed, he sold his home and its contents to a business partner, Durham T. Hall, and moved to New Orleans, where his fortunes improved. He died at sea on a return voyage from Le Havre, France, to New Orleans in 1833.
By 1824 the Bank of the United States had title to Richardson’s house. The bank rented it to Mary Maxwell, a widow who operated it as a boarding house. In 1825 the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette and his son George Washington Lafayette, stayed in the house on the southern leg of their yearlong tour of the United States. During his stay, the Marquis addressed a large crowd from the house, once in English and once in French.
George Welshman Owens (1786–1856) purchased the house in 1830. Owens, a Savannah native and an attorney, had been educated at Harrow and Cambridge University, England. Eventually, he became an alderman, then mayor of Savannah, then a Georgia state senator and state representative, and finally a United States congressman. He also owned several houses in Savannah and plantations in north and south Georgia and St. Catherine’s Island where he enslaved over 400 people.
Before moving his family into their new home around 1833, Owens redecorated the interior and added three rooms to the second story at the back of the house. This is the only structural alteration made to the house since it was built. The family lived in their Savannah home during the winter months and spent summers in northern Georgia, New York, Philadelphia, or Europe.
After Owens’s death in 1856, the house passed to his wife and, eventually, to his children. In 1865 his daughter, Margaret Wallace Owens, married Dr. James Gray Thomas. Thomas’s surgery was in a small building in a corner of what is now the formal garden. Later this structure, which no longer exists, became a garage opening directly onto President Street. By 1907 Thomas had died, and Margaret, now widowed and in need of income, remodeled the carriage house to accommodate two townhouse apartments. These were occupied until the 1990s. Margaret and her daughters, Mary Bedford Thomas, known as Maude, and Margaret Gray Thomas, known as Meta, lived in the main house the rest of their lives. In 1951, Meta donated the family home to Telfair Museums to become the first house museum in the city.
The House and Its Design
The Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. A handsome building with a stucco exterior, in contrast to the more traditional red-brick Federal style of its Savannah neighbors, it is situated on a 60 × 180-foot trust lot facing Oglethorpe Square, named for General James Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah.
The Regency Style
The elegant urban villa that is the Owens-Thomas House comprises a front courtyard, the main house, a formal walled garden (originally a work yard), and a building at the rear of the property that once served as a carriage house and slave quarters. The style of the house is English Regency, named for the prince regent who became King George IV (1762–1830). The English Regency period dates from 1811, when the prince became regent for his incapacitated father, George III, until 1830, when he died. A pleasure-loving and extravagant man, the prince was also a discriminating patron of the arts and was recognized as the leading tastemaker of his day in decorative arts, architecture, furniture design, and interior decoration.
Noted for its elegance, the English Regency style derives from classical influences. In comparison to the earlier rococo and baroque styles, Regency furniture and décor possessed simpler lines and more restrained ornamentation. Symmetry is a basic tenet of the style and a dominant design rationale throughout the house, beginning appropriately at its main entrance, with the curving double stairways that rise to the front porch. The main facade itself is symmetrical in design, with paired windows, columns, and doors.
For the most part, English Regency interiors are elegant and graceful. In the homes of the wealthy, the style was often interpreted to include the ostentatious use of gilding, silk fabrics, and bold color combinations. Rooms were constructed in a variety of shapes: round, octagonal, or “D”-shaped, like the Owens-Thomas House formal dining room. Inevitably, such rooms led to new treatment of ceilings: some were domed or gave that appearance, as in the house’s parlor with its exquisite ceiling plasterwork. Innovative treatment of light sources was also introduced; these could be disguised or revealed in spectacular ways, as in the house’s beautiful amber dining room window.
The First Floor
A visitor to the house may be awestruck upon arriving in the imposing front entrance hall. Two Corinthian columns resting on plinths visually separate the reception area from the magnificent stairway, which rises to a landing, splits into two flights and culminates in a bridge that spans the stairwell and connects the front and rear portions of the second floor. The architectural details, columns, and bases are painted in faux marbre, or false marble. Inlaid brass on the railings and stair treads once reflected the candlelight used to illuminate the steps. The woodwork is grained to look like red oak in another decorative paint treatment called faux bois, or false wood, and the cast-iron balusters are painted to look like bronze. To the right and left of the entrance hall are a front parlor and a large formal dining room. These rooms and the hall constitute the public area of the house, used in its day for entertaining.
The front parlor, to the south of the entrance hall, is a spectacular example of William Jay’s energetic and elegant design. It is a square room with a slightly curved ceiling that gives the illusion of a shallow dome. The upper corners of the room are decorated with plasterwork that resembles gathered fabric. Paint analysis indicates that there was a blue sky with clouds painted on the ceiling and glazing on the walls that replicated hanging fabric, both popular decorative paint treatments in English Regency houses. These effects have been reintroduced in the recent restoration of the parlor. In another example of English Regency symmetry, the fireplace is flanked by two niches.
The formal dining room, to the north of the entrance hall, is the largest room in the house. It was used for gatherings and entertaining, and it was a showcase for the family’s best and most impressive furnishings. On the curved east wall is a black marble fireplace flanked by curved doors topped by lunettes. The cornice is decorated by plasterwork in an anthemion, or honeysuckle, pattern adopted from classical antiquity. Similarly, the splendid amber window on the north wall with its Greek key overlay filters a warm light that bathes the room in daylight hours. Below the window is the built-in marble-top sideboard with a deeply carved, single mahogany leg, the only remaining piece of Richardson family furniture in the house. A remarkable period dining table is exhibited in the room; open, it measures over 12 feet in length and folded, less than two and one half.
To the east of the formal dining room is the original family dining room. Exhibited there are gold-stenciled chairs in the Greek klismos form that date to the 1830s; these were bequeathed to the Telfair by Margaret Thomas in 1951.
Adjacent to the family dining room is a butler’s pantry, used for serving the food that was carried up from the basement kitchen. The pantry had a stone sink for washing dishes and a fold-down wooden worktable. The room has floor-to-ceiling cabinets in which china and crystal were stored. The walls were grained or painted in faux bois to resemble oak paneling.
Across the rear hall from the family dining room is a four-room suite comprising the master bedroom, a bathing room that once had a marble bathtub, a water closet with a flush toilet, and a dressing room. The house was the first in Savannah to feature indoor plumbing. The cast-iron balcony is accessed from the bedroom through jib doors below the lower sash of the window, which allow almost seven feet of clearance when fully open. The window cornices are original to the Owens family, and an Owens family bed made in New York about 1810 is exhibited in the room. This is where the Marquis de Lafayette stayed when he visited Savannah in 1825.
The rear hall opens onto a porch that overlooks the garden. Three ox-eye windows punctuate the rear hall, providing interior light. The windows operated on a pivot and could be opened and closed as needed to regulate the flow of air across the rear of the house.
The Second Floor
On the second floor are four large rooms, one small room, and several service rooms. The aforementioned bridge connects the front and rear halls. A comfortable spot in the front hall may have been used as a casual sitting area for reading or sewing. In hot weather, the French doors leading to a small balcony on the front facade were opened to allow any welcome breeze from an open window at the rear of the house to pass through.
The southwest chamber on the second floor was probably used as a bedroom by the Richardson and Owens families. Today it is called the Lafayette bedroom, for it is used to display Lafayette memorabilia. The room was dedicated in March 1960 to commemorate the Marquis’s visit to Savannah with his son. A terra-cotta bust of Lafayette (c. 1792) is exhibited in the room, along with engravings of Lafayette arriving in New York and of a triumphal arch (c. 1824) honoring him.
A small room opens off the upstairs front hall. Originally it was probably a utility room where linens were kept and household sewing was done. A door in the north wall of this room once opened into a trunk room.
Adjacent to the utility area was probably a family bedroom, which would have contained more than one bed. Children often shared rooms and even beds – having a bedroom to oneself was very uncommon. Since the Richardson, Owens, and Thomas families all had children, a enslaved nursemaid probably slept on a pallet in the bedroom with them. The room is presently decorated as a bedchamber with a Jamaican mahogany bed (c. 1825). Other furniture common to such a bedroom is a dressing table (c. 1820) and an armoire (c. 1800). Several portraits and paintings from the Telfair’s collection adorn the walls, including Thomas Sully’s Guilelmina Pickett Dalrymple Magruder of 1852.
In the northeast corner of the second floor is a study, where early 19th-century gentleman’s secretary and a sofa are presently exhibited.
At the rear of the upstairs back hall are the three rooms that were added by George Owens. Originally these were probably bedrooms with a playroom or sitting room in the center. Today these rooms are staff offices. Nearby, a small anteroom at the back of the house has a built-in ladder leading to the large attic.
In 1939 Margaret Thomas divided the entire second floor into two rental apartments, adding connecting doorways between several of the rooms and building an exterior iron stairway on the north side of the house. These non-structural changes did not significantly alter the original floor plan of the house.
The basement of the house teemed with everyday activity. It was the location of the kitchen, where meals were prepared with the aid of an iron stove imported from England. The laundry room with its original stone sink is there, and nearby is a room that was probably used as a cellar. Across the hall is a large room that was divided into four smaller rooms used for unknown purposes but possibly as the eating area for those enslaved. The raised basement is only partially below grade, allowing for openings to admit light and air. The sandstone for the basement floor was imported from England but was partially replaced in the 1960s.
The bathing area in the basement was probably restricted for the use of the owner, his family, and visitors. It comprised two small rooms, each with a marble bathing tub; and another room with a fireplace; and a fourth room with a stall shower. The marble tubs are long gone, but the shower is still intact.
The large cistern that supplied water to this level of the house was covered with planks so that access could be gained to the ice room under the front porch. Rainwater that drained from the rooftop gutters into the large basement cistern and other cisterns located in the attic and between the first and second floors was the main source of water for the household.
The space between the main house and the building that served as a carriage house and slave quarters was originally a service area with a well and two privies. It may also have been used as a place to hang laundry and plant a kitchen garden. The well would have provided water for the slave quarters and carriage house, and for maintaining the grounds. In 1956 the space was turned into a formal garden designed by Clermont H. Lee of Savannah. A fountain was later installed.
The former slave quarters on the north half part of the carriage house’s two floors is a rarity, for few urban examples in Savannah remain untouched. At various times in its past the building housed from nine to 13 people. Fireplaces in the slave quarters were relatively small and shallow and were likely used for heating rather than for cooking, supporting the notion that meals for the slaves were prepared and eaten in the basement of the main house.
The front of the property is bordered by a balustrade made of Coade stone, an artificial stone invented in Lambeth, England. A stucco-covered tabby wall connects the main house to the former carriage house and slave quarters, also built of tabby.
The Owens-Thomas House and Telfair Museums
When Margaret Thomas died in 1951, she bequeathed the property and its contents to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to be used as a museum honoring her grandfather, George Welshman Owens, and her father, Dr. James Gray Thomas. The first floor of the house opened to the public on October 27, 1954, after much diligent planning and research by dedicated volunteers. The second floor was opened in phases during the 1960s and 1970s.