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Mrs. Margaret's House
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Although the Telfair’s Owens-Thomas House has been standing for 185 years, it has been owned by just two families. The house was designed by English architect William Jay, who was just 24 at the time. “This was Jay’s first house in Savannah,” curator Carol Hunt Chamberlin says. “If you compare it to the other Jay houses, the Scarbrough and the Telfair, it doesn’t look like them.” Today, the Scarbrough House is home to the Ships of the Sea Museum, while the Telfair House is the South’s oldest art museum. Two other houses in Savannah that were designed by Jay were torn down years ago. Chamberlin says the design of the Owens-Thomas House is as architecturally important as that of a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed and built for merchant and banker Richard Richardson and his wife, Frances Bolton. Richardson lost the house after the financial panic of 1819 and the property reverted to the Bank of the United States. It was rented to Mary Maxwell, who operated a boarding house there. Her most important guest was the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary War hero. Lafayette gave two public addresses from the house’s south balcony in 1825. In 1830, the house was purchased by George Welshman Owens, an attorney. It remained in his descendants’ possession for 121 years. Its last owner, Margaret Gray Thomas, Owens’ granddaughter, left it to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences after her death in 1952. As part of her arrangement with the Telfair, Thomas asked that the house be used as a museum named after her father and grandfather. “Margaret never married, and she did not want her house to be torn down or converted,” Chamberlin says. “These families were very proud of their homes,” she says. “It took a lot of money to keep them going.” Although the house was in good shape, much work had to be done before it became a museum. “It was almost three years before the house was ready to be opened to the public,” Chamberlin says. “At the time, there were two apartments on the second floor,” she says. “Margaret put them in in the 1950s and by the 1960s, one still had a tenant.” The house is considered by many to be the most beautiful house in the United States. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. “The parlor and dining room are furnished in the style of the 1820s.” Chamberlin says. “Those rooms are virtually unchanged since the house was built.” The rest of the house is furnished as it might have been in 1830 and the years beyond. “We have a fair number of things in our collection from the Owens family,” Chamberlin says. “Margaret was a canny collector of antiques. It would be tremendously expensive to get all 1820s things when we already have such wonderful things from the family.” Originally, the exterior was covered with pumpkin-colored stucco. “It was determined that over the years, it had been painted white and gray, different color washes,” Chamberlin says. “Those are historic in their own right, so we decided to leave them there. “We get questions all the time,” she says. “‘Why don’t you paint the house?’ It is really about preserving it rather than restoring it to what it originally looked like.” The colors of the shutters and trim reflect the 1830s. “When George Owens purchased the property in 1830, he added rooms upstairs,” Chamberlin says. “Since then, nothing has been done. The house looks much as it did in the 1820s and 1830s.” While some might argue about the house being the most beautiful, there’s no doubt that it is the finest example of English Regency style in the U.S. “It’s being honest to say that,” Chamberlin says with a smile. Between 50,000 and 60,000 people visit the house in a year. While that’s good for tourism, it’s hard on the house. “The house was built for a family,” Chamberlin says. “Fifty-thousand people going through it causes a lot of stress. We are walking a fine line trying to preserve it and keep it open to the public at the same time.” Because of the Regency style, the Owens-Thomas House is strictly an English house, while the nearby Federal-style Davenport House is an American house. Visitors are surprised at what they find at the Owens-Thomas House, Chamberlin says. “Most people are captivated by it,” she says. “It is very different. In this country, you don’t see a house that looks like this very often. “The staff and the docents love working here and become very protective of the place,” Chamberlin says. “Some take a personal interest in the plantings. They’ll say, ‘Why is this chair moved from over there to here?’ because they know where it is supposed to be. There is a feeling of love and affection.” During tours, an effort is made to make visitors understand how hard life was when the house was built. “It was not just running out and throwing something in the microwave,” Chamberlin says. “We try to give people a real understanding of what it was like to live in Savannah during the first part of the 19th century. “These were wealthy families who lived here,” she says. “People like to see what other people’s lives were like.” Despite the discomforts of 19th century life, the house was the first in Savannah to have indoor plumbing. “It had indoor plumbing before the White House did,” Chamberlin says. “I wonder what happened 40 years after the house was built,” she says. “What happened when the plumbing started breaking down? There weren’t any plumbers.” The water system no longer works. “The cisterns are still there, but the lead piping is gone,” Chamberlin says. “In the basement bathing room, the two marble tubs are long gone, although you can see evidence of where they were. “We know what it looked like,” she says. “There were flushing toilets with wall-mounted tanks.” The building behind the house is called the carriage house. “In one end, there was a hay loft,” Chamberlin says. “Some say the stable was underneath, while others say just the carriages were kept there and the horses were kept at a livery stable. “The north end is the slave quarters,” she says. “When it was decided to bring the building back to its original configuration, the false ceiling was taken out. “That was when they discovered there was ‘haint paint’ in the slave quarters,” Chamberlin says. “It was a blue color applied by the slaves to keep evil spirits away.” It is unusual to find an urban slave quarters that is still intact. “Most urban slave quarters have been turned into pricey condos or trendy shops,” Chamberlin says. A formal garden stands between the house and the carriage house. “It has been here since 1954,” Chamberlin says. “We don’t have room for social events inside the house, so we use the garden for them.” Instead of a formal garden, this once probably was a utility area with a privy and possibly a kitchen garden. “Dr. Thomas had an office back there that was later turned into a garage.” Chamberlin says. Inside the house are many points of interest. In the master bedroom stands the four-poster bed where Margaret Thomas was born, slept and died. The front part of the house is the formal part. The public rooms were ostentatious and showy. In the parlor, the ceiling has been painted with blue sky and clouds. All the original plaster remains. Eventually, the dining room and parlor will have wall-to-wall carpeting. “The carpet mill in England that did the original carpets is still in business,” Chamberlin says. “All the old patterns are still available.” The dining room has an unusual Greek-key design window with the original amber glass. “All of it has been cleaned and conserved,” Chamberlin says. “As long as there is daylight, there is a warm glow in this room.” The dining room also features rounded walls and a cornice design based on a honeysuckle leaf. “It is a a classical style,” Chamberlin says. “That was what the Regency harked back to.” For many visitors, the most fascinating feature of the house is an unusual bridge that joins upstairs rooms in the front of the house to rooms in the back. “I can just imagine the many children who lived here running over that,” Chamberlin says. “There were a lot of people in houses like this,” she says. “Relatives would come and stay for months. “These were real people,” Chamberlin says. “They were not stiff people, the way we picture those who lived in the past.” The only thing the house currently does not reflect is the presence of children, but steps are being taken to change that. “The Richardsons had perhaps five children and the Owenses had more,” Chamberlin says. “There were children all over the place.” The Owens-Thomas House wears its history in layers. The topmost layer is the present day and the history is still being written. On Sunday, Oct. 24 from 1-3 p.m., the public is invited to join in a free anniversary celebration with cake served in the house’s courtyard. “The public has been so supportive of this house,” Chamberlin says. “This is a gesture to thank everyone in the community.”