Have you ever realized how easy it is to take our modern day lives for granted? In the rush of our day-to-day routines, conveniences like indoor plumbing, electricity and, especially in the South – air conditioning – are widely enjoyed, yet vastly under appreciated. Guilty as charged. Let’s face it, if we spent time each day marveling at every invention at our fingertips, we wouldn’t get much accomplished. But that’s all the more reason why when you plan your stay in Savannah you should definitely pencil in time for tours of the city’s many historic homes. The good news is you don’t have to wait until you arrive because we’re going to start your tour right now with a little insight into a few of the city’s more popular – and intriguing – abodes.
It may come as a surprise, but did you know that the historic Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah had indoor plumbing before The White House did? Imagine that! Savannah was ahead of our nation’s capital and, even better, you can tour this historic “modern marvel” still today.
Located in historic downtown Savannah on Abercorn Street near Oglethorpe Square, the Regency-style mansion was originally built in 1819 and designed by English architect William Jay. Your tour will include the main house, carriage house, parterre garden, and work spaces. Recently, new discoveries were made at the home, giving fresh insights into the lives of the many slaves who worked and lived there. As you glimpse the structures that once held anywhere from nine to 15 enslaved people, including men, women and children, and hear stories of their harsh day-to-day existence, you will be both humbled and stunned as you imagine what life for them was like.
Next, we move on to a Greek Revival mansion that was built in 1842 by the Champion family, and through various twist and owners, has been continuously occupied ever since. The Harper Fowlkes House on Barnard Street near Orleans Square has fascinated visitors for years both for its ornate design as well as this surprising fact: it was bought in 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, by an unmarried woman, Alida Harper, who paid a grand sum of $9,000 for the mansion and lived there until her death in 1985. Alida was a shrewd businesswoman who bought and restored a number of historic homes, later selling them all for at least twice what she paid at the time of purchase.
As for the home’s most distinct trait, “I can only speak for myself, and there are so many to choose from!” said Ben Wheeler, site administrator for the home. “[But] inside the front hall is an oval opening in the ceiling called an oculus, which allowed not only light from the windows on the top floors but a breeze as well coming in the first-floor windows, through the oculus, and out of the second and third-floor windows.”
Wheeler also noted the home’s faux boix or “fake wood” design in the dining room, and the Corinthian “Temple of the Wind” columns on the front portico among the details that capture the interest of visitors.
This next home is well-known and loved for so many reasons, it’s hard to know where to begin – so let’s just make the most logical step and start at the beginning! The house was designed by New York architect John S. Norris for General Hugh W. Mercer. Does the last name Mercer ring any bells as it relates to Savannah? General Mercer was the great grandfather of famed Savannah singer-songwriter, Johnny Mercer.
Construction on the home began in 1860 but was halted due to the Civil War. More than 100 years later, Jim Williams, a noted restorationist known for saving more than 50 houses, bought the Mercer House and oversaw a two-year restoration project. If the name Jim Williams rings a bell, then you’re likely familiar with the best-selling novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which tells the story of a particular slice of Mr. Williams’ life and also made the now-iconic Bird Girl statue famous (which is on display at the Telfair Academy – if you want to that stop to your stay). Now named the Mercer-Williams House, it is open for tours but is also the primary residence of Mr. Williams’ sister, Dr. Dorothy Kingery, and her daughters, Susan and Amanda.
Speaking of last names that sound familiar, the name “Low” may seem common, but when you add “Juliette Gordon” in front if it, it likely takes on new meaning (especially if you’ve ever been a Girl Scout). The beloved founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, was the daughter-in-law of Andrew Low, the original owner and namesake of the Andrew Low House. Located on Lafayette Square, the house was originally constructed in 1848 and from the formal parlor to the informal parlor, the library, and even the Robert E. Lee bedroom, made famous when the general spent a week at the home as a guest, the home is meticulously restored and preserved to provide guests with a true walk through history.
“One of the most surprising facts [about the home] is that Juliette Gordon Low lived here longer than she did her birthplace home,” explained Rebecca Eddins, executive director of the home. “She was actually living here when she founded the Girl Scouts!” Rebecca also noted that the home’s garden is one of only three in the city of Savannah that survives, intact, from its original design in 1848-49.
Of course these are just a few of the many historic homes to tour during your stay in Savannah (the Davenport House Museum and Sorrel-Weed House are also top picks), but whether you have time to tour one or all, you will have taken a walk back in time that is certain to give you a healthy appreciation for life back then and even great awareness of just how good we have it today. Happy touring!