Visiting Savannah’s Best Historic Homes & Museums

Savannah, Georgia is home to so many historic homes that it can be hard to know where to start when planning a visit. The city has one of the most carefully preserved historic districts. These districts are around to enjoy today because of some forward-thinking residents who saved many historic homes from being demolished in the 1960s.

When you visit Savannah you can view many of these homes that have been transformed into museums, inns, and even restaurants.

Harper Fowlkes House

Harper Fowlkes House was designed by Charles B. Clusky and is noted for its unique “Temple of the Wind” columns, richly furnished interiors, important oil portraits, and original architectural details

The home was built in 1842, and was then purchased by Aaron Champion in 1843.

Aaron Champion’s only child, Maria Sophia, married James McAlpin and lived at the nearby Hermitage Plantation (home to 201 enslaved people) using the house on Orleans Square for entertaining

It was bought in 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression (at a foreclosure sale) by Alida Harper Fowlkes who paid a grand sum of $9,000 for the mansion and lived there until her death in 1985. Alida was a shrewd business person who bought and restored a number of historic homes, later selling them all for at least twice what she paid at the time of purchase.

Alida’s left the property to be held in trust to the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Georgia. This is an organization of gentlemen who are direct descendants of George Washington’s officers during the Revolution.

Harper Fowlkes House
230 Barnard Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 234-2180
https://www.chsgeorgia.org/HFH

Admission: $12 adult, $5 child (age 4-12)

Davenport House Museum

In 1955, this house was going to be demolished in order to become a parking lot. But hours before the home’s planned destruction the Historic Savannah Foundation gathered just enough money to buy the American Federal style home.

Built in 1820, the two-and-a-half story brick structure was the home of Isaiah Davenport, his family, and his slaves. The interior of the home has been authentically restored and features beautiful woodwork, original plaster work, and a unique hanging staircase.

In 1827, Isaiah Davenport died from Yellow Fever leaving behind his wife and several children. Now a widow, his wife Sarah was charged with taking care of six children, several unfinished construction projects, unpaid debts, and numerous properties that had to be looked after.

Sarah had few options for income so she began renting out rooms at the Davenport House. She rented out her slaves as well. She sold off several of her husband’s properties and finished the construction of a sawmill. Not only was she now financially stable, but she actually prospered. In an action tinged with irony she actually purchased three more slaves. Many construe her story as one of female empowerment. Yet Sarah was only able to take on these roles because of her privileged status. Her late husband’s position in society, large properties, and the ownership of slaves are what allowed her to achieve prosperity.

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Davenport House Museum
323 East Broughton Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 236-8097
https://davenporthousemuseum.org/

Admission: Adults $10, Children (6-17) $5, Students (18-21) $7, Children under 6 years-free

Green-Meldrim House

When Charles Green arrived in Savannah from England in the 1830s, he was almost dead broke. The twenty-something-year-old man spent the next 20 years working his way up the shipyards, eventually becoming one of the richest men in Savannah. By 1850, Green was a cotton merchant and shipowner and was wealthy enough to have a $93,000 house built, equivalent to about $3.2 million today.

The Green-Meldrim House is notable for its ornate Gothic architecture. It is actually considered one of the best preserved examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the South. The house is adorned with oriel windows, a spiral staircase with a skylight directly overhead and walnut wooden floors.

The house became famous for its role in the Civil War. General Sherman used the building as his headquarters while his Union troops occupied the city. Rumor has it that General Sherman chose the house because he knew the Confederates wouldn’t touch it; the house was one of Savannah treasures. (However, some believe Green offered it so as not to have the Union army destroy it.)

The house was sold to the Meldrim family in 1892, who later handed it over to St. John’s Epicopal Church. The Church still uses the house to this day.

Green-Meldrim House
14 West Macon Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 233-3845
https://stjohnssav.org/worship/visit/green-meldrim-house/

Admission: A donation of $10 per adult is suggested

Andrew Low House

The Andrew Low house, located at 329 Abercorn Street, was built by Scottish immigrant Andrew Low in 1850. Low arrived from Scotland in the late 1820s and got to work as an apprentice for his uncle’s cotton factoring business. Eventually, he took over the company and became wildly successful.

Low is known for the numerous historic figures who were his guests, most notably English author William Makepeace Thackery and General Robert E. Lee. Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, was born in the carriage house of the building.

The Andrew Low House was designed and built by New York architect John Norris. The Italianate-style stucco-brick mansion was completed in 1850. Surrounded by a dry moat, it features some of the most intricate ironwork in the city. While the entrance is guarded by two cast iron lions, the interior boasts period antiques, silver, and crystal chandeliers. A 500-gallon cistern, still located in the attic, piped water to the kitchen and bathroom. It was one of Savannah’s earliest indoor plumbing systems.

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Low had several children with his wife Mary Cowpers Stiles, including a son William. William married his longtime sweetheart Juliette in 1886 and inherited the home upon his father’s death. Upon William’s death the home passed on to Juliette.

In 1912, she met with a group of volunteers in the home’s parlor to formalize a group of Girl Scouts. She remodeled the mansion’s carriage house into a clubhouse and headquarters for the group

Upon her death Juliette Gordon Low bequeathed the carriage house to the local Girl Scouts chapter. The Colonial Dames of Georgia purchased the home from her estate in 1928. The society painstakingly restored the residence which they used as the organization’s headquarters for several decades. The home was opened to the public as a house museum in 1952.

Andrew Low House
329 Abercorn Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 233-6854
https://www.andrewlowhouse.com

Admission: Adult-$12, Senior Over 60-$11, 
Student (6-12)-$10, Children under 6-free, 
Active Military (with ID)-free

Mercer-William House

Built in 1871, this house is one of the most beautiful homes in Savannah, and also one of the most famous. The house was originally built by architect John S. Norris for General Hugh W. Mercer, though no Mercers ever resided in the house. It wasn’t until 1969 that Jim Williams, one of Savannah’s earliest private restorationists, bought the then-vacant home and spent two years restoring it to the stunning structure it is today. You may have heard about the house because of a murder that took place in the house, which was subsequently made famous in John Berendt’s popular novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and later in a feature film.

If you tour this glamorous house you’ll see furniture and art from Williams’ private collection, including 18th century English and American portraits and a wide collection of Chinese export porcelain.

Mercer-William House
429 Bull Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 238-0208
https://mercerhouse.com

Admission: Adult $12.50, Students and Active Military (with ID) $8.00, Children 7 and under-Free

Sorrel Weed House

The Sorrel Weed House was built for French Haitian merchant Francis Sorrel in the 1830s in the Greek Revival style.

The Sorrels were among Savannah’s most influential families. Francis was a West Indian plantation owner who became one of Savannah’s wealthiest men. He was born in Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. A slave revolt forced his family to flee, and the young Francis was saved by slaves who refused to take the life of a young boy. He eventually began to work for a shipping company in Port-Au-Prince that transferred him to the United States.

Despite being saved by slaves, after a time he became a slave trader. Sorrel and an associate opened a shipping company in Savannah where they shipped salt, butter, molasses, cotton, and African slaves. The company grew by leaps and bounds making Sorrel a wealthy man.

Moxley Sorrel was Francis’s son. He fought for the confederates in the Civil War and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. He fought in the siege of Fort Pulaski when Union forces overwhelmed the Confederates and took the fort.

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Local businessman Henry D. Weed purchased the house in 1862 and it remained in his family until 1914.

The Sorrel-Weed House represents one of the first examples of Greek Revival and Regency architecture in Savannah and was one of the first homes in the state of Georgia to be designated a state landmark. At 16,000 square feet, the Sorrel Weed House is one of the largest historical homes in Savannah.

The Sorrel Weed House gained fame after making several appearances in movies and television shows. The building was featured in the opening scene of Forrest Gump. The scene was shot from the roof of the Sorrel Weed House and shows Madison Square and the surrounding vicinity. The house has also appeared on the Today Show, as well as several ghost-themed TV shows, including Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures.

Sorrel Weed House
6 West Harris Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 257-2223
https://sorrelweedhouse.com/

Architecture and ghost tours offered daily lasting 60 minutes. Tours are $10 for adults and $6 for children.

“The Formal Dining Room”
Picture from: Telfair Museum’s Website

Richardson-Owens-Thomas House

The Richardson-Owens-Thomas house was built in 1816 in the Regency style. William Jay was the architect and was also behind other historic buildings in Savannah like the Savannah Theatre and the Telfair Mansion.

The house was completed in 1819, when it was acquired by banker and cotton salesman Richard Richardson who had familial ties to William Jay. Richardson moved into the home with his wife, six children, and nine slaves. Not long after, the Richardson family was struck by tragedy with the death of his wife and two of his children. Richard had also made a large investment in the building of the SS Savannah which failed to generate revenue. The Great Savannah Fire of 1820 then swept through the city destroying over 400 buildings and the city’s economy. He lost most of his fortune and eventually also the house.

The house was repossessed by Richardson’s creditors and by 1824 was owned by the Bank of the United States which then leased it to Mary Maxwell as a boarding house. The Marquis de Lafayette was a guest of Mrs. Maxwell when he visited Savannah in March 1825 as part of his tour of the United States for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution.

In 1830, George Welshman Owens, the mayor of Savannah, purchased the property at auction for $10,000. Owens, who was also a lawyer and planter, moved in with his wife Sarah, and their six children in 1833. Over the years, Owens kept nine to 15 enslaved people in the property and about 400 men, women, and children in bondage on his surrounding plantations. The last Owens descendant to live in the house was George Owens’ granddaughter Margaret Gray Thomas. When Thomas passed away in 1951 with no direct heirs, she willed the house to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to be run as a house museum. The site opened to the public in 1954.

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When many Americans think of slavery, they have the misconception that it was strictly an agricultural institution, with black people forced to labor on farms, picking cotton, sugar, and tobacco. But historians say that by 1860 slaves made up 20 percent of the population in major cities, and in Charleston, SC, black people outnumbered whites. Urban slaves (like Mr. Katin) were forced to work day and night for the Owens family.

Inside, this historic home has remarkable features including intricate plaster work and trompe l’oeil ceilings. The property has a formal garden with perfectly manicured greenery. Touring the house you’ll also see the property’s original carriage house, including the oldest intact urban slave quarters in the country.

The Richardson-Owens-Thomas House on Oglethorpe Square is a microcosm of the history of Savannah. From the English-inspired architecture to hosting a family of slave traders, nowhere else can you get a better picture of the two realities of wealth and slavery which collided in the deep South.

Richardson-Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters
124 Abercorn Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 790-8800
https://www.telfair.org/visit/owens-thomas/

Admission: Adults $20, Seniors and Military $18, Students $15, Children $5

The Scarborough House: Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum

On MLK Boulevard near River Street, one of Savannah’s most historic houses has been converted into a museum called The Ships of the Sea. In 1819, the Scarborough House was designed in the Greek Revival style by architect William Jay.

William Scarborough was an American from North Carolina who made his fortune in shipping. He was perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the famous SS Savannah, the first steamship to successfully cross the Atlantic. Although it was one of the city’s proudest moments, the venture was a commercial failure and Scarborough fell into bankruptcy. His handsome house was sold at auction, and would serve as both an orphanage and Savannah’s first public school for black children before finally (after being abandoned for a time) being restored by the Savannah Historic Foundation.

In 1995, it was acquired by the Ships of the Sea Museum and completely restored including the portico and garden. The Scarborough House is an elegant setting for the museum’s collection of ship models, paintings, and maritime antiques.

Scarborough House: Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum
41 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 232-1511
https://www.shipsofthesea.org/

Admission: Adults-$9, Students, Seniors, Military, AAA members-$7, Children (under 5)-free

Photo credit: Middlejourney.com

Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home

Flannery O’Connor, best known for her short stories and novels like Everything The Rises Must Converge and Wise Blood. She is one of the South’s most popular writers. This beautiful Greek Revival townhouse is where the famous author spent her childhood from 1925 to 1938.

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Intimate family relics speckle the parlor on the old row house in Savannah: a wobbly baby stroller by the doorway, a childhood portrait of a wealthy cousin, gilded molding by the same wealthy cousin. Original hardwood floors and two fireplaces frame the double parlor of this attractive home.

The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home is a museum restored to its appearance in the Great Depression era. The museum sells O’Connor’s novels and collections, gifts, and t-shirts. Visitors can take tours around the house and attend lectures and readings. It is kept afloat by the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation.

Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home
207 East Charlton Street
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 233-6014
https://www.flanneryoconnorhome.org/

Admission: Adults $8, Students and Military $6, Children(under 12) free

Image from: Tourpass.com

Visiting Historic Homes, an Overview

Traditionally, people visit historic homes for the architecture, interior design, and maybe some history. These things, of course, are part of the allure. In cities such as Savannah, GA, and Charleston, SC, tourism for many years has taken the form of nostalgia for the antebellum South, Southern charm, and hospitality. For years tours of historic homes would focus on their architecture and fine furniture, but not on the wealth so clearly displayed that depended on enslaved labor.

There has been a growing consensus among the docents who guide people through historic properties that by excluding stories of the enslaved, institutions like historical societies, museums, and tour companies have sent the message that power and wealth were not directly connected to slavery and erased the stories of the black people who built these cities. Now that’s changing.

A few years ago people touring the Owens Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah would have heard a lot about George Owens, the lawyer, farmer, and Congressional representative who lived in the massive home in 1833. And about banker and slave trader Richard Richarson, for whom the house was built in 1816. They might have heard Emma Katin’s name, but not about how the enslaved black woman spent most of her nights sleeping on the wooden floors of the house, so that she could be available at all hours to the infants in the Ownes family.

They wouldn’t have heard about the 14 other enslaved people who lived there. And there’s a good chance that visitors would not have heard about the 400 slaves the Owens family had on their other nearby properties.

Those pieces of the story would have been missing because they would have been treated as an ancillary to the lives of the Owens.

That said, curators of the historic homes in Savannah with ties to slavery have been rethinking the way the history is told, and we are all the richer for it.

Savannah’s historic house museums are a treasure that all should experience when they visit Savannah. Hope you enjoyed our picks for the top house museums in the city.

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Author: Copy Editor

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