One of the most historically significant homes in Savannah, the Owens-Thomas House is a great example of how life was in 1800s Savannah Georgia
The regal Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Savannah, Georgia. The National Historical Landmark sits on the north-east side of Oglethorpe Square, emanating quintessential appeal. An inclination toward admiring the home's splendor is inevitable.
Its significance, however, does not lie in its appearance but rather in the events that unfolded within its walls. The dwelling was once home to many living in perpetual servitude, some who remain unnamed, and whose stories we are just beginning to discover. While often regarded as an architectural gem, the home is, in fact, an embodiment of inequality, a manifestation of humanity's perceived differences, and the antiquated views of the antebellum south.
The construction of the structure we now refer to as the Thomas-Owens House was commenced in 1816 for slave trader and merchant, Mr. Richard Richardson, and his wife, Frances. Upon the home's completion in 1819, the couple, their six children, and nine slaves moved into the estate.
Three years after moving in, the Richardsons faced an unexpected wealth decline, due in part to the financial crisis that emerged after the Napoleonic wars. While the battles were ongoing, England depended on the United States for supplies. Once the conflict ended, and soldiers returned to their designated trades, the demand for American-made products diminished significantly.
Richardson also experienced personal hardships during this time after his wife and two of his children passed away. Richardson put the house on the market in 1822 and moved to New Orleans, where he had been selling and purchasing slaves for years. In 1833, the slave trader died at sea during a journey from Le Havre, France to New Orleans.
In the mid-1820s, the Bank of the United States acquired the home and rented it to Mary Maxwell, who turned it into a boarding house. One of the boarding house's most notable guests was Marquis de Lafayette, a French military officer, and American Revolutionary War veteran, who stayed in the home while touring the country.
The mayor of Savannah, George Welshman Owens, acquired the home in an auction for 10,000 dollars. In 1830, he moved into the house with his large family and 15 slaves. Owens owned an estimated total of 400 slaves throughout his plantations. The estate remained in the Owens family until 1951 when his granddaughter Margaret Gray Thomas passed away. Margaret Thomas did not have any direct heirs, so she willed the home to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. The dwelling was restored and opened to the public three years later.
Savannah's thriving cotton industry brought immense success to previously impoverished European immigrants. This new-money generation created unspoken competition amongst the wealthy, pressured not only to demonstrate their riches but also to leave behind an incredible legacy. Consequently, many expensive mansions were erected, each one more extravagant than the last.
The large home, designed by English architect William Jay, is an excellent example of Regency architecture in the south. The style, influenced by the rule of King George IV, was appealing and coveted in the western world. King George IV, himself, was considered to be a man of impeccable taste with a keen eye for detail. His excessiveness, combined with inspiration taken from ancient Greek and Roman architecture, impacted how buildings were designed and furnished during the early to mid-19th century.
In its entirety, the Owens-Thomas House features beautiful expensive details, with the formal dining room being the home's most luxurious space. The large dining area has a unique, rounded shape, mahogany furnishings, and intricate plasterwork. Unlike the other faux marble, faux wood, and cast iron-adorned rooms, the formal dining room displays a solid marble fireplace, wood carved tables, and bronze hardware.
The gleaming appearance of the home, however, is dimmed under a more sinister light as we travel across the estate's peaceful garden and towards the Slave Quarters. There we discover the key to the home's beauty: slavery. The fully carpeted floors, and nook and cranny-filled plasterwork don't seem so desirable when we realize the maintenance involved in a property this size. The aesthetic of the home is also hindered when we see how the people that cared for it lived. To stand between the main house and the slave quarters is to experience - within just a few feet - the stark contrast between social classes in 19th century Savannah.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the home's history is the arduous slave labor required for its maintenance and the inhumane treatment that took place within its boundaries. The Slave Quarters were a two-story, six-chamber building where freedom-deprived African Americans lived. After being ripped from their home and transported as cargo to another country, these men, women, and children were thrown into cramped, deteriorated rooms, and forced into labor. They were verbally mistreated, physically, and sexually abused, punished for practicing their religions, and speaking their native language.
The dull, unfinished quarters they resided in were furnished with subpar bare essentials: a brick fireplace for cooking, deep wooden crates with a sheet and pillow for sleeping, and candlesticks for illumination. As new people were brought in to serve the affluent families, the lack of proper space forced many to sleep on the floor, resting uncomfortably before their long, tiresome shift. Their days consisted of cleaning, cooking, and raising the family children.
Every element in the main home required maintenance, and the grander the decor, the more slave labor was needed. The silver and china were looked after with extreme care by the family's enslaved butler, who also prepared the meals. The ornate crown moldings were dusted daily. The symbol of wealth that was a carpeted room required weekly cleanings that involved it being taken apart, beaten, steam cleaned, and reinstalled.
After slavery was abolished in 1865, the building was rebranded as "servant quarters," while still housing many of the same formerly enslaved individuals. Freedom was not enough as the abuse and lack of education had crippled their autonomy. Not having the means to move forward meant that those freed would need to let go of any hope of being independent and embrace their new roles as servants.
The stories of those who serviced the privileged are often missing from our narratives. Records are scarce since teaching slaves to read or write was a crime at the time, believing that educated African-Americans would revolt against their masters. Although some managed to get an education - thanks to clandestine schools like the one run by the celebrated Jane DeVeaux in her family home, it seems like the families that lived in the mansion made sure their slaves remained illiterate. The truth of the past has unfortunately been replaced by a romanticized old-world ideal of wealth, failing to highlight the inevitable byproduct of power: oppression.
The Telfair Museum currently offers walk-in guided tours of the Thomas-Owens House & Slave Quarters. Visit the estate for a dose of history and reality that offers a true look into Savannah’s interesting yet troublesome past.
Sunday & Monday: Noon - 5:00 p.m.
Tuesday through Saturday: 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
124 Abercorn Street
Savannah, GA 31401