Discover the Owens-Thomas House in Savannah Georgia
See the architectural historians finest example of English Regency architecture in America.
Inspired by classical antiquity, this style of architecture takes its name from England's King George IV, who ruled as Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820. The house was designed by the young English architect William Jay (1792-1837), one of the first professionally trained architects practicing in the United States. The elegant residence was built for cotton merchant and banker Richard Richardson and his wife Francis Bolton. Mr. Richardson's brother-in-law was married to Ann Jay, the architect's sister.
Overlooking Oglethorpe Square, the house was constructed on a prominent trust lot, site of the colonial residences of the surveyor generals of South Carolina and Georgia, Henry Yonge and William Gerard DeBrahm. An inscription under the front portico signed by the local builder John Retan reads: Began Nov AD 1816 / Finished Jan AD 1819.
Three years after the house's completion, Richardson suffered financial losses and sold his house which later ended up with the Bank of the United States. For eight years, Mrs. Mary Maxwell ran an elegant lodging house in the structure. Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette was a guest of the city in 1825 and stayed at the home. On March 19, he is believed to have addressed a throng of enthusiastic Savannahians from the unusual cast-iron veranda (pictured, top right) on the south facade.
In 1830, planter, congressman, lawyer, and mayor of Savannah Georgia, George Welshman Owens, purchased the property for $10,000. It remained in the Owens family until 1951 when Miss Margaret Thomas, George Owens's granddaughter, bequeathed it to the Telfair Museum of Art. The historic house, now called the Owens-Thomas House, is a National Historic Landmark.
The Owens-Thomas House is a wonderful marriage of English design and native materials. When architect William Jay arrived in Savannah Georgia on December 29, 1817, work on the house was already under way.
The exterior design is beautifully proportioned with two principle stories supported by a heavy basement and crowned parapet wall. Triangular pediments, pilasters, and articulated window openings add elegance to the architecture. The serpentine-shaped front portico with its delicate Ionic columns and classical alcove entranceway is especially fine.
The house is constructed largely of "tabby," a concrete-like mixture of lime, oyster shells and sand. The exterior is finished with a honey colored stucco that was scored to resemble ashlar stone blocks. The Ionic capitals on both porticoes and the front exterior balustrade are made of imported artificial stone called "Bubb" after the more well-known English "coadestone."
The interior of the house is an outstanding interpretation of the Regency style. A columned foyer with a marbleized floorcloth leads to a brass-inlaid staircase with a unique bridge spanning the stairwell (pictured, upper left). The drawing room (top right) features a trompe l'oeil ceiling that gives a domed effect. The dining room is rich in classical detail: the niche lit from above by a Greek-key patterned window of amber glass, and the spectacular plaster cornice with its stylized anthemion flower motif.
William Jay introduced two innovations to Savannah Georgia. The Grecian-inspired veranda on the south facade was the first large-scale use of cast iron in the region. In fact, in 1820, Jay established a foundry with Savannahian Henry McAlpin in an effort to promote fireproof construction. The other remarkable innovation was an elaborate plumbing system with running water, water closets, cisterns and baths. It was one of the most sophisticated domestic sanitary systems in 19th century America.
The basement service areas (right, second image) of the Owens-Thomas House are in striking contrast with the refined apartments above. Vestiges of the plumbing system still exist along with a kitchen gallery, laundry, wine room and ice chamber.
The only major alteration to the building was an addition in the 1830s of a second story on the rear facade. The English-style parterre garden, added in the 1950s, was a working garden and may have been a carriage turn-around. It is bounded by nineteenth-century tabby walls and the original carriage house (bottom right), which includes one of the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South and an orientation center.
The Owens-Thomas House Collection
The Owens-Thomas House has an outstanding collection of decorative arts, which complements the refined architectural setting. The nucleus of the collection belonged to the Owens family, who lived in the house from 1830 to 1951.
A few objects from the original owner Richard Richardson are also on display. The furnishings of the house reflect American and British taste from 1790 to 1840. Most of these beautiful antiques are in the neoclassical style and were owned by Savannahians.
Among the highlights of the collection is an important Federal dining table with an innovative folding mechanism and twelve matching chairs attributed to Henry Connelly of Philadelphia. A rare caned settee attributed to Duncan Phyfe, a suite of neoclassical furniture and two gilt looking glasses were all crafted in New York around 1810.
The collections also include rare Savannah-made textiles and silver, Chinese export porcelains and fine nineteenth century paintings.