House & HistoryEvery day, we tell the little-known stories of the enslaved people who toiled behind the scenes in this well-known historic home. Produced by Cosmos Mariner Productions
History of the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House
In November 1816, work began on the new home of banker, shipping merchant, and slave trader Richard Richardson and his wife, Frances. The home was designed by English architect (and relative to Richardson by marriage) William Jay, but was constructed by builder John Retan and the team of free and enslaved men in his charge. The site also included a two-sided privy and a building located on the east end of the lot, which was divided into a carriage house and slave quarters.
The Richardsons moved into the home with their six children and nine enslaved men, women, and children in January 1819. Unfortunately for the Richardsons, the next three years saw steady decreases in their prosperity, including the financial Panic of 1819, a yellow fever epidemic, a fire that destroyed half the city, and the death of Frances and two of the children. By 1822, Richardson decided to sell the house and move to Louisiana, where he had family and business interests. He had been shipping enslaved people, mostly children, from Savannah to New Orleans for years.
By 1824, the Bank of the United States owned the house, which they leased to Mary Maxwell as a boarding house. The Marquis de Lafayette was a guest of Mrs. Maxwell when he visited Savannah in March 1825 as part of his whirlwind tour of the United States for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution.
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 bondage 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.
The south half of this building originally housed horses and carriages on the first floor with a hay loft on the floor above. Beginning in November 2018, the first level of this building will house our Orientation Gallery. Exhibits in this space help put the story of the site into the larger context of local, regional, and national history. The site of the original hay loft now houses The Loft, a workspace for Telfair’s historical interpreters to study primary documents, examine archaeological artifacts, and research our sites’ history.
The north half of the building contains the original slave quarters for the site. This two-story structure was composed of three rooms on each level. Nine to 15 enslaved people, about half of whom were children, lived and worked on the site at any given time between 1819 and the end of the Civil War. Once the war ended, the space became servants’ quarters, housing many of the same people.
A lovely parterre style garden occupies the space between the main house and the carriage house. Though the style is appropriate for an English Regency villa in the early 19th century, the space originally housed a work yard, which likely included a small kitchen garden, hanging laundry, and small livestock. It even contained a two-sided privy in the northeast corner. As more tasks became mechanized over the years and less outdoor workspace was necessary, the work yard evolved into a yard with plantings as we think of them today. In the early 1950s, when the house became a museum, landscape architect Clermont Lee designed the garden you see today.
When the Richardson or Owens families entertained, they did so in the public spaces of their home: the drawing room, front hall, and dining room. These spaces, designed in the finest Regency style and filled with American and English furniture and decorative arts, were intended to impress. They feature elaborate molding, faux finishes, curved walls, and decorative sidelights.
Entertaining spaces also allowed for transfers of information, both intentionally and circumstantially. Peter, the Owens family’s enslaved butler, doubtlessly listened closely as George Owens debated politics and policies that would affect the lives of himself and his family and friends.
The bedrooms, library, and family dining room of the home were considered more private spaces utilized by the family and close friends, rather than entertaining spaces for formal events. These rooms allow for an in-depth exploration of how the economic elite and their enslaved servants interacted on a daily basis.
Enslaved butlers managed not just the daily operations of upper-class homes, but also the enslaved staff that serviced them. In addition, butlers like Peter, the Owens family’s butler, maintained the fine silver, china, and glassware used in entertaining. Peter would have stored those valuable items locked away in this space, which is complete with original cabinetry and faux finishes reproduced according to the results of paint analysis.
Working Cellar Level
The working cellar level, which retains many original components, contained the kitchen, scullery, cellar, bathing chamber, and a large cistern. These wonderfully preserved spaces now offer interactive exhibits to help visitors understand the day-to-day lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in the space, as well as the most unique architectural feature of the house, the indoor plumbing.
The furniture and decorative arts displayed at the Owens-Thomas House date from 1790 to 1840. Most of the pieces were produced in England or America, although a few French pieces are also on view. About a third of the items shown in the house belonged to the Owens family and have been in the house since the 1830s. Many of the other pieces in the home were owned by wealthy Savannah families of the same period.