Owens-Thomas House

Upon your future visit to the beautiful riverside city of Savannah GA, I would like to tell you the story of how a mansion became a museum.  On Oglethorpe Square in the heart of our historic downtown sits a stately and well kept home.  It’s peachy walls and ornate entryway invite passersby to enter and experience the elegance and austerity of the south in the 1830’s.  Designed by Regency Era English architect William Jay, the home is full of architectural elements that showcase the style of that time period.  Columns separate the public entryway of the home from the family’s secluded area, rod iron lines the interior stairway and the walls have been restored to their original finishes.  The two  most important aspects of the home are the intact slave quarters and the original 1819 indoor plumbing.  The house showcases how urban slaves would have lived and worked and the basement shows the original cistern that would have held rain water to be used in the family bathing room and the washroom.  Cisterns on the second floor and in the attic would have held water to be used in the lavatories on the ground and second floors.  The home is a beautiful representation of wealth and modern thinking in 1819 Georgia.  The Owens-Thomas House was built for a wealthy commodities broker named Richard Richardson who lost his family to disease and his wealth to a financial collapse.  The house was foreclosed on and leased out by the bank.  Through the 1820’s the house was leased to a woman named Mary Maxwell who turned it into a boarding house.  In 1825 Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette stayed in the home on his journey through the United States.  In 1830 the house was put up for auction and was bought for what today would be equivalent to around $200,000 for the mansion on the square.  The man who bought the home was planter and statesman George Welshman Owens, the story I will be telling starts with this man.

George Welshman ( G.W.) Owens was a busy man, he was a plantation owner, mayor of Savannah and a US Congressman.  He was enormously wealthy and held property all over the state of Georgia and also had property in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin.  In 1815 he married Sarah ( Sallie ) Wallace and became father to six children; three boys and three girls.  My story will focus on these three daughters and one of his sons, George Savage Owens who I will refer to only as Savage Owens.  Upon G.W. Owens death in 1856 the house was left to his wife as well as annuities for his children and monetary gifts for his domestic servants.  He specifies that his other lands should be sold and upon the death of his wife everything should be divided evenly amongst his children with the exception of his oldest son Richard.  When Sarah Owens dies in 1865 her son Richard is not in good standing, her son John has died, and none of her daughters are married .  Savage Owens leaves his sisters to live in the house on Oglethorpe Square until they are married or until they die.  The youngest daughter of G.W. Owens, Margaret Wallace Owens, marries Dr. James Gray Thomas in November 1865 and gives birth to four children (only two of these four survive to adulthood).  Margaret’s  sisters never marry and continue to live in the family’s home.  When Savage Owens passes away in 1897 he leaves everything to his wife and children to be divided evenly upon her death but he stipulates that his portion of G.W. Owens’ estate “be not sold, as long as it can properly be kept together.”

In 1903  Margaret Thomas is the only living child of G.W. Owens, she lives in the home with her two daughters Mary and Meta Thomas. In order to pay off some debt, the sons of Savage Owen petition the Court of Ordinary to sell some of their grandfather G.W. Owens estate.   Part of the estate to be sold is the house at 124 Abercorn Street where the daughter and granddaughters of G.W. Owens are living.  The women decide to file a lawsuit against the petition in order to keep their home and continue to live there.  In the wills of Sarah and Mary Owens, daughters of G.W. Owens, they leave their interests in the estate to their sister Margaret and upon her death to her daughters Mary and Meta.  This is what allows for the saving of the house and keeps it from being sold.  Neither Mary nor Meta ever marry and are the heirs to the estates left by their aunts and their mother. Upon Mary’s death in 1917, Meta becomes the sole owner of the house and everything in it.

At this point Meta begins to think towards the future and what will become of her hard won estate when she passes away.  She has no direct heirs and I believe she fears that the house and other pieces of the estate will be sold off by the remaining members of the family.  In 1940 Meta contacts the United States National Park Service about turning the house into a museum.  In the tentative draft of the contract between Meta and the NPS the house is described as “the finest surviving example of a great Savannah town house of extraordinary architectural merit constructed during the period of the early Republic.”  The NPS was interested in showing certain parts of the house in a museum like manner while Meta still lived in the home.  In the 1930’s the outbuildings and upper floor of the home had been converted into apartments to supply some income to Meta.  Under the contract with the NPS these would continue to be rented out so that the income could be used to pay for the upkeep of the home.  In the contract the NPS stipulates that Meta herself would be in charge of the upkeep and repairs on the house even though it would be shown as a museum for part of the year.  Meta never signs the contract with the NPS, I believe it is because of some these requirements.

In March of 1941 Meta signs a will that has her last wishes laid out in detail, this is where she describes her dream for her family’s ancestral home.  In 1941 the home at 124 Abercorn St had been in the Owens family for over 100 years, it had been loved and tended to and fought for.  Meta wants to be sure the home will continue to be loved and cared for so in her will she bequeaths the home to the Telfair Academy.  The Telfair Academy was left to the Georgia Historical Society in 1875 by Mary Telfair.  Ms. Telfair asked that her home be turned into an art museum and in 1886 it opened it’s doors to the public.  I assume that Meta Thomas had visited the Telfair on many occasions and probably knew the history of the house.  The Telfair home was designed by the same architect who designed the Owens-Thomas House and was built around the same time period, in this way their structure was already entwined with each other.  The Telfair family had been wealthy plantation owners and merchants so we can safely assume they would have socialized with the George Owens family and Meta probably had an appreciation for the family connection.  In Meta’s will she shows her confidence in the Telfair Academy by leaving them her home and it’s contents to be shown as a museum.  Meta seemed to understand the importance of her home and what it represented to Savannah.  She also leaves some money to help with the cost of upkeep but tells the Telfair to continue to accept rent from the apartments and use it to help defray the cost. In her will she gives the Telfair six months after her death to accept the home or the National Park Service will be next in line to take over the home.  If neither the Telfair or the NPS accepts the home then it is to be given to her cousins to be sold and divided.  Meta was intent on the home becoming a museum and added fail safes to her will to make that happen.

When Meta died in 1951 the Telfair did indeed accept the responsibility of turning the home into a museum.  When the Owens-Thomas House opened it’s doors in 1954, the outbuildings and upper floor were still being rented out as apartments and only the basement and ground floor were shown as a museum.  In the mid 1970’s the second floor was restored and became part of the tour.  Finally in the 1990’s the outbuildings were being taken over as offices by the Telfair museum when something amazing was discovered.  Under false walls the original coal burning fireplaces were found but even more important was the blue paint found under a false ceiling.  The paint is called “haint blue” and it was created and used by slaves to ward off evil spirits or “haints”.  The finding of these items made the Telfair decide to make the building part of the tour.  So much of the structural and historical integrity of the house was left intact that we have to be impressed with Meta’s understanding of the role of her home in Savannah’s history.

 

I would very strongly encourage you to tour this house on your visit to Savannah.  In my opinion it is the most accurately restored and depicted home in our historical district.  My goal in telling you the story of how it became a museum is to impart to you the appreciation I have for people who recognize historical importance and are willing to share it with the world.  Meta Thomas is one of these people.  She saved her home so that it could tell the story of Savannah in the early and mid 19th century.  She was forward thinking and aware of the times she was living in, she saved her home from the need to modernize cities in the mid 20th century.  Thank goodness for people like Meta Thomas.

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