The Owens-Thomas House is a museum home located in the Historic District of downtown Savannah. It is located on Abercorn Street in the center of the District, five blocks from the Riverfront and only minutes from Interstate 16. All of Savannah's downtown attractions are within walking distance of the house. The Owens-Thomas House is now owned by the Telfair Museum of Art.
The house was built between 1816 and 1819 by William Jay, a young English architect who had a practice in London. According to Frederick D. Nichols, author of the classic reference Early Architecture of Georgia, "William Jay was unquestionably one of the most important architects practicing anywhere in America in the early part of the nineteenth century.'' Jay built several more important homes in Savannah, including the building that now houses the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Juliette Gordon-Low Home.
The Owens-Thomas House is considered to be the finest example of Regency architecture in the United States. The house shows many Regency characteristics, including attenuated columns, graceful curves and fanlights. It was also one of the most sophisticated homes of its time, featuring a complicated plumbing system that gathered rainwater into cisterns and allowed for bathtubs, sinks and showers with running water as well as flush toilets. The home was built for Richard Richardson, a banker and cotton merchant in Savannah. He sold the house to Savannah mayor George Owens in 1830; it remained in the Owens family until 1951, when it was bequeathed to the Telfair Museum of Art. The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Since 1992, the museum has been preserving and restoring the house. Very few pieces remain from the original furnishings. Instead, the house has become a collection of decorative arts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tour of the house begins in the Carriage House Visitor's Center, which is actually the old stables and slave quarters. It proceeds through the English garden into the house and covers most of the interior of the house. Guides attempt to place the house and its early inhabitants into their historical context.
The Owens-Thomas House continues to research the lives of the Owens family, to acquire family furnishings and to rearrange the house according to the custom of the time. In early 2009, several rooms were reinterpreted. What was thought to be the music room has become an informal family dining room. The drawing room has taken on the function of a game room as well. Paint, carpet and window treatments have been modified. Even as these changes take place, the museum sends experts to England to study with architectural and artistic historians to ensure that they get as many details as possible as close to correct as possible.
Reviews from well-known travel websites of the house itself are excellent. The architecture and the decorative arts collection both receive high marks. The tour, on the other hand, is not as well-liked. Visitors think the tour itself is too short, while the time they are made to wait to get started is far too long. Some commenters liked their guides. One notes that "our tour guide was funny, highly entertaining and extremely knowledgeable.'' Others, however, think the guides could be better, calling them "rude,'' "condescending,'' and "very disappointing.'' Hopefully, this finest of Regency homes will continue to strive for the best, in both period detail and service.
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