get to know one of the most historically significant homes in Savannah
The imposing William Scarbrough House stands only a few miles from Savannah, Georgia's Historic District. Although the estate was to be passed down for generations as a highly-valued family asset, unforeseen circumstances led it down a surprising path, becoming a school for African American children, and headquarters of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Today, the house operates as the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, paying homage to the building's first owner, William Scarbrough, who funded one of the most significant steamboat voyages in history.
Affluent merchant William Scarbrough (1776-1848) was born into a family of shipbuilders and traders in South Carolina. He sailed to Savannah in 1798 after spending two years between London, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, working as a merchant's apprentice. Once settled in the south, he established himself as a massive importer of foreign goods, an endeavor that earned him a spot among the city's "Merchant Princes."
The business was fruitful, granting William and his wife, Julia, the means to live an incredibly excessive life, reaching a level of extravagance rarely seen in America. Despite having several small children, the couple threw parties that would put Jay Gatsby to shame. Their functions would go on until the early morning, and Julia, with all the food and drinks she served her guests would sometimes spend, in one night, the money her husband made that day.
Scarbrough's thriving firm brought more than social success; it granted him the role of President and principal investor of the Savannah Steamship Company. After joining the company in 1818, the wealthy businessman financed the construction and launch of the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The Scarbrough House, which was still in the process of construction, was rushed to completion in preparation for President James Monroe's 1819 visit to the city. The purpose of his trip was to witness the SS Savannah launch, a significant event in American maritime history. Scarbrough had high hopes, but the ship became a commercial failure after it sank off the coast of New York on its way back from Europe.
Being suddenly faced with financial difficulties took an emotional toll on William, who had known nothing but riches his entire life. During this time, his physical health also began to decline, the sudden overall collapse making it impossible for him to provide for his large family and pay for the home. The court declared Scarbrough an insolvent debtor shortly after, and his property was seized. The building was purchased by the DeRenne family, who were kind enough to allow the Scarbroughs to remain in the home, although it is unknown for how long they kept this arrangement.
The William Scarbrough House was designed and built by renowned English architect William Jay (1792-1837). Jay, who came from a family of stonemasons, was introduced to the art of construction from a very young age. When he was 15 years old, he traveled from his hometown Bath, England, to London, where he began to work as an apprentice to David Riddall Roper, an esteemed architect and surveyor. After ten years of honing his craft, immersed in the luxury of King George IV, Jay traveled to Savannah. He arrived on the Georgia coast in 1817 as a highly reputable, highly skilled architect.
William Jay designed the Scarbrough House in a Regency style, introducing both Greek Revival and masonry elements. In his construction, Jay employed the restrained adornment characteristic of the Regency period, retaining the appeal of ornamental details while staying away from the maximalism of the previous Rococo era. The house’s exterior ivory-tone walls feature stuccoed brick scored to resemble stone blocks. The two-story building's layout is symmetrical, with columns and a semicircle window that adds visual interest without compromising functionality. As was customary, the interior of the home was decorated with the most expensive furnishings the family could afford.
William Jay's expert work was subsequently modified and upgraded to serve the needs of the building's different owners: the West Broad Street School, Historic Savannah Foundation, and the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.
Following William Scarbrough's financial troubles and the acquisition of the home by the DeRenne's, the house fell into the hands of the Board of Education. In his will, George DeRenne expressed that he wanted the house to be a school for African American children but that it would need to be returned to the family if, for some reason, this condition was not met.
Once the Board of Education obtained the residence in 1878, they transformed it into the West Broad Street School (an African American school), after the school's former location, the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church had burned down. The Scarbrough House operated as a school for 84 years, in which changes to both the architecture and teaching methods took place. Throughout the years, the school was forced to expand on several different occasions to accommodate all the students it admitted.
During the 1950s, as desegregation movements swept the south, West Broad Street School was once again faced with the pressure to expand. This time, however, the expansion was intended to allow for white students to attend the school. Unable to obtain the funds to finance the necessary changes, the institution closed its doors in 1962.
The former school building remained vacant until 1972 when it was purchased and restored by the Historic Savannah Foundation. The Foundation, founded in 1955, has helped stop the destruction of old structures throughout the city, contributing to Savannah's reputation as an excellently preserved location. Following its restoration, the house became the Foundation's headquarters and was designated a National Historic Landmark only two years later, in 1974.
Since 1996 the Scarbrough House has operated as the Ships of the Sea Museum. Founded in 1966, the museum offers a look into maritime life, displaying antiques, paintings, and ship replicas from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The museum also displays a small-scale replica of the SS Savannah, a 98-foot long steamship financed by Scarbrough. The ship, built in 1818, left Savannah on a six-month-long voyage visiting Liverpool, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, and Arendal but sank close to the New York shore upon its return.
Among the most significant exhibits in the museum is a 12-foot long, incredibly realistic replica of the most famous maritime disaster in history: the Titanic.
The William Scarbrough House is currently open to the public as the Ships of the Sea Museum and activity venue. The Museum is family friendly and accommodates people with disabilities.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m
41 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
Savannah, GA 31401