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  • Writer's pictureGM Shay

Understanding the Owens-Thomas House

When Richard Richardson began construction on his palatial residence in 1816, he knew he was making a place that would leave a deep impression on Savannah’s history. Although he was fully capable of designing it himself, he chose to engage an English architect whom he had never met, William Jay. Together they made the historic home preserved to this day as the Owens-Thomas House Museum and Slave Quarters. William Jay remains a bit of a mystery, but his greatest creation reveals its reasoning in imaginative architecture. Embodying the grandeur of the times in Regency style, its intentions as a showy display of wealth and a belief in a divine order find expression in its scale, proportions, composition and details.

Designing a place on the opposite Trust Lot facing Oglethorpe Square (one of Savannah’s original six) offers a unique challenge today, over 200 years later. By filling in the missing piece of this elegant puzzle, the square and President Street will be completed for the first time in over 50 years. This opportunity also presents an enormous responsibility. As designers, we began with a careful study of what makes the Owens-Thomas House so iconic and discovered a hidden language in its design. Outwardly seeming to be a simple 5 bay composition, the façade on Oglethorpe Square contains harmonic proportions that link mathematical logic to a representation of Divine Order. In addition to symmetry, the devices of radial geometry, the Golden Mean, and numerology were also carefully employed. These devices, first espoused by early Renaissance architect Alberti, have the subliminal effect of making architecture iconic. Hidden in the building’s proportions and details, the number eleven appears over and over: the number of coynes on the corners, the height-to-width proportions of the columns, and the number of steps up to the entry porch. The angle of 33 degrees also emerges repeatedly. We believe these are subtle references to the steps up to the highest level of Freemasonry. Savannah’s Solomon’s Lodge was indeed founded in 1734 by General Oglethorpe and in 1816 probably included Richard Richardson among its most prominent members. Freemasons believe in God as the architect of the natural order that governs the universe.

Based upon this deeper understanding of the Owens-Thomas House, and a similar study of the existing Federal Style houses that now comprise The President’s Quarters Inn on the same Trust Block, we decided to employ a traditional architectural vocabulary carefully learned from these adjacent buildings. In traditional terms our building program is for a welcoming bottega (commercial building), not a regia (palace), like the Owens-Thomas House, so we will employ the traditional architectural response of invention within a style. This approach favors compatibility over differentiation but allows for respectful imagination. Many of the visual harmonies embodied in the William Jay design will also be utilized, to further reinforce the order inherent in the Oglethorpe Plan, and the very special place within that plan for buildings on Trust Blocks.

By preserving The President’s Quarters and adding compatible infill, our hope is that the result will be a place that completes Oglethorpe Square, reflects the order expressed in the Owens-Thomas House, and appears to be what has always been wanted here. We look forward to presenting our design in a follow up blog next week. In the meantime, please enjoy these analytical drawings of the existing historic buildings.


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