SAVANNAH, GA (October 2018) Two of Savannah’s most historic properties, Telfair Museums’ Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters and Telfair Academy, turn 200 years old in 2019, and the museum is celebrating with several events in their honor. Both properties are National Historic Landmarks.
Kicking off the celebration is Savannah’s most illustrious annual gala, the Telfair Ball, on February 23. Guests will enjoy a can’t-miss night at Forsyth Park complete with eccentric circus performers, live music, and horse-drawn carriage rides. All money raised during this event goes to support the museum’s educational programs. Other 2019 programming includes 200th-themed garden parties at the Owens-Thomas House, “Jay Walks”—William Jay walking tours led by local architecture experts—and lectures featuring esteemed scholars and writers. Two galleries in the Telfair Academy will also be devoted to the anniversary with an exhibition titled If These Walls Could Talk: 200 Years of William Jay Architecture, on view April 19, 2019 through 2020.
William Jay: Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters and Telfair Academy Architect
William Jay changed the face of Savannah with his beautiful designs during his short stay in the city two centuries ago. Born in England in 1792, Jay obtained an apprenticeship in London with the help of his father, Reverend William Jay. He then worked in London for a few years before providing Richard Richardson, a relative by marriage, plans for his private residence in Savannah. In 1817, Jay arrived in the city, bringing with him from England the latest architectural trends, and oversaw construction of today’s Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters.
Despite many Americans seeking to distance themselves from European influence in the early 19th century, a few, including Richard Richardson and Alexander Telfair of the Telfair Academy, still favored the classical elegance of the popular English Regency style. Jay delivered the luxurious showplaces they desired and also elevated Savannah’s civic life with a new theater, a design for the Savannah Branch of the Second Bank of the United States, and a new Custom House. Using building material both familiar and exotic in unconventional and unexpected ways, Jay set his buildings as gems against the commonplace redbrick and wood construction of the day.
Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters
Richard Richardson, a banker, shipping merchant, and slave trader, commissioned the architect to design his family’s home in 1816. The Regency-style mansion boasts elaborate molding, faux finishes, an indoor bridge as well as a garden, carriage house, and slave quarters – all of which are in line with Jay’s signature style. The home even had a complete indoor plumbing system before the White House.
Falling victim to the yellow fever epidemic and the financial Panic of 1819, the Richardson family sold the house in 1822. By 1824, the Bank of the United States owned the property, which they leased to Mary Maxwell as a boarding house. It is during this time that the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette visited Savannah and stayed at the home as a guest of Mrs. Maxwell.
In 1830, George Welshman Owens, then mayor of Savannah, purchased the property at auction for $10,000. Owens, who was also a lawyer, planter, and politician, moved in with his wife, Sarah, and their six children in 1833. Over the years, Owens kept nine to 15 enslaved people on the property and held almost 400 men, women, and children in slavery on his plantations.
The last Owens descendent to live in the home was George Owens’ granddaughter, Margaret Gray Thomas. When Thomas passed away in 1951 with no direct heirs, she willed the house to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to be run as a house museum in honor of her grandfather, George Owens, and her father, Dr. James Gray Thomas. The site opened to the public in 1954 and today is the only example of Jay’s American work that has not been significantly altered in structure, size, or detailing.
While Jay was overseeing construction on Richardson’s home, Alexander Telfair, of the prominent Telfair family, sought out the architect to design his own private residence just three squares away.
The two-story, Neoclassical, Regency-style mansion was meant to house Alexander, an Associate Justice on the County Tribunal; his sisters Mary, Sarah, and Margaret; his mother, Sarah Gibbons Telfair; and the family’s enslaved servants during the “social season” of fall and winter. The symmetrical “Telfair Yellow” façade is adorned with a four-column portico, side-facing staircases, and a lunette window. In contrast, the asymmetrical interior includes a double staircase, a double parlor for entertaining, and a unique octagonal reception room.
Following Mrs. Telfair’s death in 1827 and Alexander’s in 1832, the Telfair home was left to sisters Mary, Sarah, and Margaret. The sisters loved to travel and made the first of their four tours to Europe in 1841. During this trip, Margaret Telfair met the scholar and diplomat William Brown Hodgson, who ultimately became her husband and joined the sisters in the mansion.
By 1874, Mary was the sole surviving family member and took over the Telfair estate. After her death a year later, many of her family’s properties were given to charitable organizations, and her home was bequeathed to the Georgia Historical Society to be used as a public art museum, as stipulated in her will.
“Telfair Museums is honored to be responsible for preserving, restoring, and conserving these two significant pieces of Savannah history,” said Shannon Browning-Mullis, Telfair Museums’ Curator of History and Decorative Arts. “We can’t wait to celebrate their 200th anniversary with the public and share the stories of those tied to the sites, including architect William Jay, the Owens and Thomas families, the Telfair family, and the families’ enslaved domestic servants.”
About Telfair Museums
Opened in 1886, Telfair Museums is the oldest public art museum in the South and features a world-class art collection in the heart of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District. The museum encompasses three sites: the Jepson Center, the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, and the Telfair Academy. For more information, call 912-790-8800 or visit www.telfair.org.