Oglethorpe Square in Savannah Georgia
While more modest than many of Savannah’s other historic squares, Oglethorpe Square is certainly one of the oldest in the city. In fact, Oglethorpe Square is actually one of the final squares that General James Oglethorpe, Savannah’s founder, created while living in Savannah. Laid out in 1742, the Square was originally given the name Upper New Square. It was later renamed after Oglethorpe.
Interestingly enough, the Square’s name is not the only names that have been altered over the years. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the streets encircling Oglethorpe Square or bisecting it were a very royal (and British) affair. With the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, however, came freedom and independence, and that mindset encouraged the alteration of street names near Oglethorpe. King Street became President Street, Prince Street turned into State Street, and Duke Street into Congress Street. That nineteenth century decision to create street names that veered away from the British-colonial mindset, truly demonstrates and reflects the patriotic pride Savannah locals had when the United States became its own nation.
(Fun fact: Lincoln Street apparently was not named such after President Abraham Lincoln, but instead refers to General Benjamin Lincoln, a local hero during the Revolutionary War.)
The Marker of Memory
Although Oglethorpe Square does not have any large-scale monuments as many of the other squares do, there is a granite pedestal in the northeastern section of the Square that is certainly worth checking out.
Standing at about four feet tall, the column-shaped pedestal stands unwavering and proud. Before it, a bronze plaque reads: “In Memory of the Moravian Colonists in Savannah 1735 - 1740 who maintained a mission to the Indians. This memorial is presented to the City of Savannah by the Wachovia Historical Society of Winston-Salem, NC."
The marker was erected in 1933 in memory of the Moravians who arrived in America. Ethnically and religiously, the Moravians were a Protestant sect from Germany (formerly Saxony during the eighteenth century). Groups immigrated to Savannah to help create a mission for the Native Americans in the region. However, war interrupted their plans, and the Moravians left Savannah to establish themselves elsewhere. They ultimately resided in Pennsylvania, where descendants stand today.
Abercorn Street, between East State Street and East York Street
Notable Historic Buildings in Oglethorpe Square
The Presidents' Quarters Inn
Today, the Presidents' Quarters Inn is one of the premier and historic bed and breakfasts in Savannah’s Historic District. It wasn’t always an inn, though.
The history of the lot rewinds to the mid-eighteenth century when the plot of land actually belonged to British-Colonial Georgia’s Trust Lots. The home that once sat on the lot was quite modest, but it belonged to colonial Georgia’s first Royal Governor, a man named John Reynolds. Reynolds had arrived in Savannah in 1754, and established himself quite well in his position of authority.
By 1855, however, the property had shifted hands and had been demolished. The estate of railroad entrepreneur William Washington Gordon purchased the double Trust Lots for a meager $1,900. Two Federal-Style homes were then constructed—these historic homes make up the property for the Presidents’ Quarters Inn today. Each house was built for $7,600, and at one time a rather famous General found himself enjoying a meal at the present-day Presidents’ Quarters Inn. In 1870, Civil War General Robert E. Lee had traveled to Savannah in order to visit his daughter. Crowds rushed to meet him at the train depot as they welcomed the general to Savannah with wide open arms and gracious smiles. As the crowd thinned, Lee was brought to Federal-Style mansion to dine with its owner, General Andrew Lawton, and many of the other Confederate generals and men-of-position that he had not seen since the Civil War had ended. It would be Lee’s final visit to Savannah.
(Fun fact #2: William Washington Gordon’s second born child was Juliette Gordon Low, who would later in life go on to found the Girl Scouts of America. Thanks Juliette, for starting an organization that would provide Americans with the best cookies out there!)
The two Federal-Style mansions were renovated in 1986 and again in 2007; they were united to form the Presidents’ Quarters Inn. With sixteen guest rooms, private balconies, a beautiful blend of antique and modern furnishings, the Presidents’ Quarters Inn invites guests to stay and “time travel” to an earlier, more opulent era.
The Owens-Thomas House
Strolling along the brick sidewalks of Oglethorpe Square, it is difficult to miss the architecturally beautiful Owens-Thomas House at 124 Abercorn Street. From the street, the columned entrance portico is a welcome sight to any passerby. Constructed of tabby, a regional material made of sand, shells and lime, the Owens-Thomas House is one of the last remaining architectural examples of the Regency Style in Savannah. (The term "Regency" was nicknamed after the English monarch, King George IV who ruled as Prince Regent from 1811-1820).
William Jay: The Architect
England-born William Jay had been commissioned by Bermuda-born cotton merchant and banker Richard Richardson to build the house. Previously to arriving in Savannah, William Jay had apprenticed in London for a period of six years (1807 - 1813) with architect David Roper, who was known for his Greek Revival and Gothic Revival aesthetics and design. Jay’s own style also leaned toward neoclassical designs. It is said that when William Jay, a prodigy if there ever was one, arrived in Savannah, he had created a mini-London within five years of living within the city.
Jay worked on the Owens-Thomas House from 1816 until its completion in 1819 before he had even turned twenty-one. (Richardson, the owner, was the brother-in-law to Jay’s sister, so one has to wonder if any deals were cut along the way). During this period, the budding architect made himself invaluable to many of Savannah’s wealthy residents, as well as to many people in Charleston, South Carolina. The last property he was commissioned to complete in Savannah was the Bank of the United States in 1821.
Unfortunately, Jay’s illustrious career would not remain forever prosperous. He returned to England in 1822 and although he did well for some time, a major project development failed in 1829. Bankrupt and with no source to climb himself out of his fallen position, Jay accepted a position in 1837 in the faraway island of Madagascar off the coast of southeastern Africa, where he remained until his death in 1837.
The History of the Owens-Thomas House over the Years
Richard Richardson, the first owner of the house, would also face some troubling financial issues. Within three years of the house’s completion, Richardson was forced to sell the property. For a period of eight years, the house was owned by the colorful character, Mary Maxwell, who operated an elegant lodging house on the property.
(Fun fact #3: the famed Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette stayed in Mary Maxwell’s lodgings in 1825. As the legend goes, he stood on the south-facing veranda of the mansion and addressed enthusiastic Savannah locals).
In 1830, all-around Renaissance man and mayor of Savannah George Welshman Owens purchased the property for $10,000. The Federal-Style Mansion would remain in his family until 1951, when his daughter bequeathed the property to the Telfair Museum of Art.
Today, the Owens-Thomas House is listed as National Historic Landmark and functions as a house museum. With furniture that has belonged to the Owens family for over a century on display, as well as other furnishings dating between 1750-1830, the Owens-Thomas House remains one of Savannah’s most treasured gems. Tours are offered daily, and include not only the main house, but the English-inspired garden, the original carriage house and the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South.
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