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
Shipping merchant and enslaver Richard Richardson commissioned this house around 1816, and his family moved in upon its completion in 1819. The home was designed by English architect (and relative to Richardson by marriage) William Jay but was constructed by builder John Retan and likely a team of free and enslaved men in his charge. The property 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 only lived in the home for a few years before they saw a steady decrease in their prosperity. After the combination of 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, Richardson decided to sell the house and move to Louisiana, where he had family and business interests.
By 1824, the Bank of the United States owned the home, 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, lawyer, landholder, and enslaver George Welshman Owens purchased the property at auction for $10,000. He lived here with his wife, Sarah, their six children, and up to fourteen enslaved laborers. Over the next 121 years, the home would continue to be owned by the Owens family until the last descendent, Margaret Gray Thomas, George Owens’s granddaughter, bequeathed the property upon her death in 1951 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.
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. About five to fourteen enslaved people, most of which were female and children or teenagers, lived and worked on the site at any given time. These individuals worked in domestic labor duties like cooking, cleaning, washing laundry, and raising children.
The parterre style garden occupies the space between the main house and the carriage house. This area originally functioned as a work yard, which likely included a small kitchen garden, areas to dry laundry and clean rugs, and perhaps pens and coops for small livestock and chickens. It even contained a two-sided privy, or outhouse, in the northeast corner.
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, enslaved butlers maintained the fine silver, china, and glassware used in entertaining. They would have stored valuable items in this space, which is complete with original cabinetry’s faux finishes, reproduced according to the results of paint analysis.
The basement, which retains many original components, contains the kitchen, scullery, a large cistern, and other workspaces. These wonderfully preserved spaces offer more interpretive text and material to help visitors understand the day-to-day lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked here.
The furniture and decorative objects from Telfair’s collection that are displayed at the Owens-Thomas House date largely from the early to mid-19th century. Most were produced in England or America. About one third of the objects descended in the Owens family, and many others were owned by wealthy Savannahians of the same period.