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The young English architect William Jay designed the Owens-Thomas House, which was built from 1816 to 1819. Today, it is the only example of Jay’s American work that has not been significantly altered in structure, size, or detailing.

Jay was the second child and oldest son of the Reverend William Jay and his wife Anne Davies. The unique chain of events that brought him to Savannah began more than 60 years before his arrival.

In 1740, an English minister named George Whitefield (pronounced Whit-field) arrived in Colonial America with a young friend, James Habersham. Part of Whitefield’s purpose was to open several orphanages throughout the colonies, endowing them with funds from Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. Among these homes was Savannah’s Bethesda Orphanage, where a portrait of the Countess still hangs today. James Habersham stayed in Savannah to manage Bethesda while Whitefield traveled to Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of an impoverished schoolteacher named Robert Bolton.  Whitefield provided funds to send two of Bolton’s daughters, Mary aged 16 and Rebecca aged 10, to Savannah to live at Bethesda. Less than one year later, Mary Bolton married James Habersham, and shortly thereafter several members of her family moved to Savannah from the Philadelphia area. Among those was her brother, also named Robert.

Years later the Reverend Cornelius Winter, a protégé of Whitefield, came to Savannah to take a post as teacher to the enslaved children at Beth Abraham plantation. During his stay here, Winter made the acquaintance of Whitefield’s friend, Robert Bolton, who by this time had a growing family. Winter frequently stayed in the Bolton family home located on Oglethorpe Square. Bolton’s youngest child and only son, named Robert for his father and grandfather, was particularly impressed with the charismatic preacher and many years later told his own children about Cornelius Winter.

After a few years in America, Winter returned to England and opened a ministerial training school in Marlborough.  From 1785 until 1789, one of his students was a young man from Wiltshire named William Jay. To his protégé, Winter recounted his adventures and travels throughout America, including his few short years in Savannah.

The Reverend Jay was a natural orator and enjoyed success from a very early age as a minister. Despite his nonconformist theology, he gained a reputation among the most influential people of the day. One person who was very impressed with the Reverend was the Countess of Huntingdon, who endowed, in addition to orphanages, more than 60 chapels throughout England. In 1791 she used her influence to appoint Reverend Jay, not yet 21 years old, to the ministerial post at Argyle Chapel in Bath, Somerset.

Reverend Jay frequently entertained visitors in his home, and among the guests in 1807 was Robert Bolton Jr., the son of his mentor’s Savannah friend Robert Bolton Sr. Young Bolton was visiting England on a trading mission for the family firm, J&R Bolton, as well as to see family members and to look into studying for the ministry. Bolton called upon Reverend Winter at his home in Marlborough with the idea of beginning his training there, but Winter was now retired and so referred Bolton to Reverend Jay. Letters home during this time show Bolton impressed with everything he saw in the Jay household, including and probably especially the Reverend’s eldest daughter Anne. During his time in the Jay home, Robert Bolton was about 19 years old and Anne Jay was no more than 14. Upon his return home, Bolton wrote to Jay asking permission to marry Anne when she became old enough. In 1810, Robert Bolton returned to England and in May they married and settled in the area around Bath.

Among the guests at the marriage celebrations were Anne’s younger brother, William Jay, and Bolton’s friend and business partner from Savannah Richard Richardson, who was to marry Bolton’s sister, Frances Lewis Bolton, in 1812.

Reverend Jay succeeded in obtaining an apprenticeship for his son William with a building survey and assessment firm in London called D. R. Roper. After completing an apparently normal term as apprentice, William worked in London for a short time, during which he successfully submitted plans for at least one building that was constructed before he left.  Although Albion Chapel has since been demolished, sketches do exist and are an early indication of the very personal and unique style Jay was developing.

young architect William Jay
Young architect, William Jay. Photo from York Museums Trust.

By 1816 Jay had provided plans to Richard Richardson for a residence Richardson intended to build in Savannah. Construction began on Trust Lot X facing Oglethorpe Square in November 1816. Jay arrived in Savannah in December 1817 and began supervising construction. Within months of his arrival, Jay had obtained commissions to design several other buildings in town. He stayed in America for nearly five years, working in Savannah, Charleston, and Columbia, S.C.

Rarely does an architect enjoy the creative freedom given Jay in America. Jay had no competitors when he first arrived in Savannah but gained many followers and devotees over the next few years. The abundance of buildings built in Savannah and Charleston between 1818 and 1830 attest strongly to the popularity of the style, trends, and building techniques Jay advocated. Using building material both familiar and exotic in totally unconventional and unexpected ways, Jay set his buildings as gems against the commonplace redbrick and wood construction of the day.

Bringing with him from England the latest trends in building, Jay found himself surrounded in Savannah by a different brand of clientele than he knew in England. The economic upswing following the end of the War of 1812, coupled with a dramatic surge in cotton production, brought a new kind of man into Savannah’s budding middle class – educated, vastly wealthy and ambitious, and all craving to show their wealth conspicuously against the traditional provincial status quo of Savannah. Through their continued commercial and family ties to England, these merchants were aware of the latest English fashions and trends in general. Their wealth, ambitions, and unconventional natures prompted them to participate in the radical nature of his architecture, while their newly acquire status as merchant princes provided the wealth to indulge their appetite for the most lavish domestic and public settings Jay could envision.

Owens Thomas House historic photo

The residence Jay designed and constructed for Richard Richardson (1816-1819) was unlike anything yet seen in Savannah. Even before it was completed, the Richardson house was a phenomenal success for Jay.  Over the course of the next two years, he designed and constructed a number of High Style buildings under the patronage of Richardson’s elite circle of wealthy and prominent associates.

Among these associates was William Scarbrough, one of Savannah’s cotton-boom merchant princes.  Scarbrough helped finance the inaugural voyage of the trans-oceanic steamship S. S. Savannah as well as entertaining President James Monroe during his visit to Savannah to inspect the much-anticipated new vessel.  When Monroe arrived, citizens and soldiers escorted him to Scarbrough’s new residence on West Broad Street that was designed by William Jay.  This building still stands today in a much-altered state and houses the Ships of the Sea Museum.

A second associate of Richardson was Archibald Stobo Bulloch, a customs official, merchant, and city alderman for whom Jay completed a mansion in 1819.  This home faced Orleans Square from the west and was demolished in the early 20th century to make way for a civic auditorium, which was in turn demolished when Savannah’s civic center was built.

Alexander Telfair, son of former Governor Edward Telfair and Sarah Gibbons, commissioned Jay to design and build an urban villa style home on St. James Square (now Telfair Square).  Today this building houses the Telfair Academy, although structurally in an altered state from the original Jay concept.

Additionally, Jay’s designs for Savannah included a new U.S. Customs House, a school, a bank, and the Savannah Theatre.

The Customs House was situated in the northwest section of Johnson Square in Derby Ward.  The incomplete structure fell victim to the fire of 1820.  As a result of the physical, social, and economic devastation that followed this fire, the building, among others, was deemed too expensive to rebuild and so the project was abandoned.

In 1819, Jay was commissioned by the Savannah Free School Society to design and build a school for indigent children.  This building burned in 1852 and unfortunately, no accounts of the school’s physical characteristics have been found to date.

The Savannah Branch of the Bank of the United States was another of Jay’s public buildings.  Richard Richardson’s position as president of the local branch was undoubtedly a factor in Jay receiving the commission.  Demolished in 1924 to make way for a high-rise building, engravings of the period indicate it was similar in quality to the Scarbrough House, and strongly suggestive of Jay signature design.

The Savannah Theatre was the first of Jay’s public buildings to be undertaken and completed; however, subsequent evidence strongly suggests that it was not completed to his original design or intended opulence.

While Jay was busy designing for Savannah, he was also submitting plans for numerous structures in South Carolina.  The only residence unequivocally attributed to Jay in Charleston is a home he designed for William Mason Smith in 1819 and completed in 1821.  A single bill of lading signed by William Jay for building supplies delivered to the construction site and dated December 2, 1820 unarguably identify Jay’s involvement with the design and construction of this structure.

Several other buildings in Georgia and South Carolina were possibly designed by Jay. These include the original Troup-Dent plantation house at Hofwyl Plantation in Darien, GA, dated 1824, the City Hotel built on West Bay Street near the site of the present-day Days Inn, an 1819 pavilion in Johnson Square used during the ball honoring President James Monroe’s visit, and the plans for a theatre in Augusta, GA.

Several public buildings constructed in South Carolina in the early 1820s clearly show Jay design style.  Jay was appointed as architect to South Carolina’s first Board of Public Works (BPW) where he had the opportunity to do large-scale designs for county courthouses, jails, roads, and canals.  Apparently, he intended to design each jail or courthouse separately, but budgetary limitations caused the BPW to instruct him to design a stock plan and make multiple copies with minor alterations.  This obviously was contrary to style and perhaps because of this restriction on his creative endeavors, Jay left the BPW after less than one year.  Charleston-born architect Robert Mills replaced Jay on the board and oversaw the actual construction of many of Jay’s original designs.  Although Jay’s hand can clearly be seen in those remaining buildings, they are without exception credited to Robert Mills.

The last records of Jay’s activities in America are dated late 1824 and we believe that around this time he returned to England.  Between 1824 and 1828 Jay worked in diverse parts of England – Cheltenham, Cirencester, London, and Henley-on-Thames.   In 1828 he was declared bankrupt and only through the intervention of his father, who paid his debts, and family connections, was he able to retain work.

Jay married Louisa Coulson of Henley-on-Thames in 1827 and they had three children between 1829 and 1835.  In 1836 Jay accepted a position as Assistant Chief Architect and Inspector of the Colony of Mauritius.  The family arrived on the island of Mauritius May 12, 1836.  The only building designed by Jay on the island that still stands is a government office building that was originally a prison.

Shortly after their arrival the Jay’s oldest child, William died at the age of six.  On April 17, 1837, William Jay himself died after less than one year in his new position.  He is buried on Mauritius.

Louisa and the two remaining children returned to England and little is known of them from that point.

William Jay’s Family:

William Jay’s father, the Reverend William Jay was the son of a Wilsthire brick mason, William Jay and his wife Sarah.

Reverend Jay married Anne Davies in January 1791.  They had six children:

  1. Anne Jay –  born Nov. 15, 1793, died Sept. 25, 1859.  In May 1810 Anne married Robert Bolton of Savannah.
  2. William Jay – exact birth date unknown, believed to be between late 1794 to early 1797, based on his age at death being recorded as 41 years in 1837.  Although some historians insist that Jay was born as early as 1792, undeniable evidence exists in the form of Rev. Jay’s autobiography which lists William as the second of six children and identifies Anne as first born.  Anne’s life is well documented and her birth is undisputed.
  3. Arabella Jay Ashton
  4. Cyrus Jay
  5. Edward Jay
  6. Statira Jay

Little is known of the four younger children beyond the few words about them in Rev. Jay’s autobiography.

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