You’ve realized by now how smitten I am with house tours, right?  The Savannah Historic District is loaded with homes to tour.

From Pittsburgh’s own Henry Clay Frick’s Clayton House to the Lorenzo Mansion in Cazenovia, New York, to plantations around Charleston. History is fascinating and one way of learning about the people of a time is through visiting their homes. While touring the Frick, their $4,000 dining room place settings seem that you’re only learning about the wealthy. An excellent docent teaches you how the money was made, which helps you understand the daily life of regular folk.

Docents balance relating the success of white folks against the cost of their success to enslaved people. The disparity between rich and poor is evident in the northern states as well. A difference is that indentured servants in the early years of the USA had a contract with an end date. They earned a wage—vastly different from being wrenched from your homeland and made to work for someone against your will.

Owens-Thomas House at Oglethorpe Square

The Owens-Thomas (originally Richardson) house is one of numerous buildings designed by English architect William Jay. It is part of the Telfair trio—a $20 deal—allowing you a week to visit the museums.  

Richardson lost ownerhsip of the home. Mary Maxwell operated it as a boarding house for a number of years, boasting the Marquis de Lafayette as one of her most famous guests. In 1951 granddaughter Margaret Thomas bequeathed the home and property to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Your tour starts in the small slave quarters, where nine to fourteen people resided. A fascinating aspect is the blue ceiling of the first floor of this building. The “haint” indigo paint is intended to ward off evil spirits. It’s one of the oldest existing examples of this color at work.

From the slave quarters, you move onto the basement of the English Regency styled mansion. A cistern was used to provide indoor plumbing. Entering, you’re greeted by a single staircase that splits in two. Upstairs you’re surprised with a bridge over the first floor. It leads to a cozy, accessible from rooms on either side, seating area. It looked the perfect place to curl up with a book on Georgia history and have a sweet tea.

Telfair Academy at Telfair Square

Yellow exterior of the Telfair Academy
Telfair Academy

This is the original Telfair family home and was huge when constructed at 11,000 square feet. The last daughter, Mary, gifted it to the city along with an endowment, expanding it to over 21,000 square feet. It became a public museum in 1886—advanced planning for the time.

Jackie was the docent and quite good at bringing history alive for the group. We ran into her later in the day. Chatting more about Savannah and the beauty of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks, their branches stretched over the streets.

William Jay designed this home. As in the Owens-Thomas house, he re-used the bridge design, placing doors and windows at the ends. Sadly, Telfair eliminated the bridge in order to fully open the second floor, creating a grand entrance for museum visitors. 

Like more than one home in this list. The “oak room” parlor walls are plaster, painted, and grained. The artists used a feather to make the effect—to look like wood. Faux painting is not a recent invention!

As with the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the museum’s curators have been tracking down original furniture. The parlor contains the only original light fixture in the home—a chandelier made in Britain. 

Jepson Center at Telfair Square in the Savannah Historic District

With only a church separating them, next up was visiting the Jepson Center. This is mostly contemporary and abstract art, the latter is not my preferred style. I saw an exhibit by Carrie Mae Weems, “The Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992,” which explores the history of Gullah-Geechee communities. The black and white photographs were quite evocative. 

I stood before Bird Girl, famous after gracing the cover of the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. She is tinier than expected, at perhaps four feet tall. No photos permitted. A replica of her in the Mercer House gift shop stood about 18” and went for $118. Out of my garden’s price range.

Isaiah Davenport House Museum at Columbia Square

Nearby the Owens-Thomas home is the Davenport house. Built in 1820 and standing the last fifty years as a museum. This is the first home saved by the Historical Savannah Foundation. The organization proves what seven determined women can achieve when they set their minds to a common goal. HSF has saved hundreds of homes and it shows in the rich architecture scattered throughout the district.

Davenport was a master builder, a craftsman rather than one of Savannah’s wealthy elite.

At only $9.00* for a guided tour that lasted about fifty minutes, this house is well worth viewing. The docent, Priscilla, was very engaging. Like other homes, the organizations have teamed with folks re-creating wallpapers from the era—often from photos of the homes. The subdued yellows and blues were inviting. We questioned the lively scenery of the master bedroom as being not exactly sleep inducing.

Mercer Williams House Museum at Monterey Square

Alex, the docent, was a wonderful storyteller with a resounding voice. At $13 and no photographs permitted of the house or gardens, this was my most, and incomplete, expensive tour. In lieu of pictures I madly scribbled in my Writer’s Travel Journal hoping to burn the images into my memory.

Jim Williams first came to Savannah in the 1950s and bought the Mercer Home in 1969. He continued to purchase, restore and sell as many as 70 buildings throughout the city. Think what you will of his—acquitted—colorful past, he had a penchant for saving the town’s lovely history.

Mercer House was commissioned in 1861 by the grandfather of lyricist Johnny Mercer. With the outbreak of the civil war and changes in circumstance, he never finished it. No Mercer has ever resided in it. It had various owners over the decades. When the Shriners vacated it as their local headquarters, the house sat vacant, in danger of being demolished.

Luckily that didn’t happen. It is a private residence, owned by Jim Williams’ sister, Dr. Dorothy Kingery, hence the no photography rule. You see only the main floor, consisting of the foyer, parlor, office, library and dining room. The tour focuses on the artwork as Williams was a lifelong purchaser and seller of a variety of art items. 

One Fun Story Connects to a Several-feet Tall Portrait in William’s Study

Alex said when a lengthy portrait arrived in a home without the requisite height, the owners cut and re-framed it. Often they kept the disused parts. There is one copied painting in the home office, of a soldierly looking man from the mid-chest up. Beneath him, framed separately, are a set of legs—facing the wrong direction and not belonging with the fellow. Humor at work.

The sunken garden—oh, it would be great to see it in bloom—is comprised of Savannah Gray “slave” Bricks. Because making these bricks ended after slavery, they are considered to be over 140 years old.

If I were choosing again between this and another of the dozen homes available for tour, I’d skip Mercer Williams. I’d pick one with more rooms to see that concentrated on the house rather than the artwork in it. For instance the Flannery O’Connor Childhood home, “…includes both levels of the home that the O’Connor family occupied. Each room has been closely restored to the Depression-era, presenting unique insights into the formative years of one of America’s greatest writers.” 

Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum near Franklin Square

What a deal for seven dollars*! Another William Jay construction built for shipping merchant William Scarbrough. This home is near our hotel, so it was hard to resist walking the two blocks to explore it. I’ll admit I went back and forth with myself a number of times: What do I care of ships? Oh, try something new. But there’s the Flannery O’Connor home or the Juliet Gordon Low building. Maybe I could try to get into some churches–they spurned my advances twice with locked doors! I especially wanted to see the grand Cathedral of St. John the Baptist with its huge spires.

My pushy inner voice won. I decided to try something new—always the road to take—and was not disappointed.

The ship models are utterly fascinating from the multi-masted sailing vessels to World War II destroyers. You could spend a couple of hours wandering the three floors and reading every placard placed at every display.

The docent on hand was more than eager to discuss the fellow who’d constructed most of the models. Sadly, I cannot find any information online about this master model maker and didn’t jot down his name.

*Note: Check the Ships of the Sea website for offers. I missed one. “DISCOUNTED TICKET PRICE FOR ALL THREE HOUSES (Scarbrough, Davenport, Andrew Low: $21.00 PER PERSON.  Tickets expire 30 days from the date of purchase.” However, no one mentioned this to me or I’d have included the Low house in my wanderings.

Touring Homes in the Savannah Historic District

There are many houses, buildings and museums available in Savannah for touring and as B&Bs. You could spend at least a week visiting them. Whether you plan or meander, you’ll be delighted with the histories—of the structures and the people who created them.

When you visit Savannah:

Ask if they have a AAA discount—most of these museums offered one. Note: The Telfair Museums put your discount through as being a senior. I’m several years away from the number, but am not offended by seeing it on the receipt! 

If you go off season, reservations aren’t necessary. If you’re going during peak tourist time, plan ahead and book your tours—especially if there is a group involved.

*Read, Historic Savannah