Although Yorkshire and Winchester loom large on the calendar, here at the Trust we’re always looking ahead to future events. The schedule for our Spring 2017 Symposium to Savannah is rapidly being finalized before registration opens in October. One of the sites that has been on the agenda since this program was first envisioned is the Isaiah Davenport House.
The Davenport House plays a significant role in Savannah’s history as the first effort of the local historic preservation movement. Unlike the other historic homes discussed recently on this blog, the Davenport House has been a museum in one iteration or another for over sixty years, and the shifting focus of its collection, decoration, and interpretation is becoming just as much a part of its history as its historic aura.
Isaiah Davenport (1784-1827) was a Rhode Island-born carpenter who moved to Savannah sometime in 1808. Although primarily remembered today as a house carpenter, he was also a city alderman from 1817 until 1822 and an occasional firemaster and constable for the Greene and Columbia city wards. As befit the successful circumstances of many of his clients, Davenport’s buildings incorporated phenomenal architectural detail and millwork, features which he prominently displayed in the house he built for his own family.
The structure that survives today was built in 1820, a particularly busy time for Davenport, as he was helping to rebuild the city after a major fire. An elegant, if not slightly retard a terre, five-bay Federal-style structure, the dwelling served as a tour de force of Davenport’s aesthetic sense and technical skill. The curved double staircase and the extraordinary wood archway in the front hall, supported by ionic columns, are of particular note. Thankfully for the historically minded, these prominent features also saved the house from destruction.
Isaiah Davenport died in 1827 during a yellow fever epidemic, leaving the house to his wife Sarah, who took in boarders to help make ends meet. In 1840, she sold the home to the Baynard family, who owned the property until 1949. By the turn of the 20th century, the fashionable quarters of the city had shifted away from State Street, and the house increasingly suffered from neglect. And yet by 1934, when the house could be charitably described as “seedy,” its fine features were apparent enough to attract the attention of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented the structure. By 1955, the house was in dire straits, and, as so many historic structures were in post-war America, threatened with demolition. A group of concerned citizens banded together to purchase the dwelling, and, in doing so, formed the nucleus of the Historic Savannah Foundation, a community force that has saved hundreds of buildings in the city, and preserved the historic character so valued by locals and tourists today.
For the past six decades, the role and interpretation of the Davenport house has evolved, along with the fields of historic preservation and museum management. Originally the headquarters of Historic Savannah, the first floor opened as a museum in 1963, with the second and third floors added in subsequent decades as the Foundation moved its offices elsewhere.
Beginning in the 1990s, efforts to keep the house up to date with the latest museum standards and interpretation practices resulted in a new furnishing plan, research into the Davenports’ lives and possessions, and partnerships with craftsmen and scholars across the country to help bring the house back to the height of its 1820 glory. The efforts paid off. In 2003, the Historic Savannah Foundation won the Preserve America Presidential Award for the work on the restoration of the Davenport House and garden. In preserving the home, the Foundation has not just saved the visual record of the city’s history, they have saved the stories and tradition surrounding one of the key players in Savannah’s 19th-century development. We can hardly wait to explore the house next spring!