Georgia Historical Society’s Hodgson Hall

A History of the Georgia Historical Society’s Hodgson Hall

Dedicated in 1876 as a permanent building for the Georgia Historical Society, Hodgson Hall serves as the organization’s Research Center. Designed by the American Institute of Architect’s founder Detlef Lienau, Hodgson Hall is one of the oldest library buildings in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was a gift of Margaret Telfair Hodgson and Mary Telfair as a memorial to William B. Hodgson, a prominent Savannah citizen, American diplomat, and oriental scholar.

William Brown Hodgson

William Brown Hodgson

On the 26th of June 1871, William B. Hodgson, for many years a member of the Society, and for twenty-five years one of the Curators, died while visiting New York City. The respect and affection in which Margaret Telfair Hodgson held for her husband of nearly thirty years was shown by her decision to construct a new headquarters and library in his memory for the Georgia Historical Society. The initial work for the building began in 1873. Sadly, Mrs. Hodgson died without having made any provision for its completion. Her sister, Miss Mary Telfair, wanting to carry out the intentions of Mrs. Hodgson, delivered to General A.R. Lawton a trust deed conveying the property for the benefit of the Society and charging the residuary estate of her sister in her own hands with the completion of the building. In this deed, Miss Telfair stated that the portrait of William Brown Hodgson shall be inscribed, in permanent letters, with the following words: “In Memoriam, William Brown Hodgson; this building is erected by Margaret Telfair Hodgson, A.D., 1873.” In September, 1875, the library was placed in Hodgson Hall. The formal dedication took place on February 14th, 1876.

Mary Telfair, daughter of Georgia Governor Edward Telfair, founded the Telfair Museum of Art with her will of 1875. She was the sole inheritor of the mansion and then bequeathed the house on Telfair Square to the Georgia Historical Society to be used as a public “academy of arts and sciences.” In 1886 the renovated and expanded Telfair mansion opened to the public as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. The museum operated under the support of the Georgia Historical Society until 1920, when an independent board of trustees was established.

The distinguished scholar-diplomat William Brown Hodgson (1801-1871) became a core member of the cultural and intellectual life of Savannah following his marriage in 1842 to Margaret Telfair, the youngest daughter of Georgia governor Edward Telfair. Born on September 1, 1801, in Georgetown, D.C., Hodgson was left fatherless as a young boy. During his childhood, he developed an unusual talent for foreign languages and ultimately would master thirteen of them, including Hebrew and Sanskrit. Although he never attended college, Princeton University would later award him an honorary degree in 1824. Hodgson spent many years of his life in his country’s service in the East and is distinguished for his studies of oriental life and language and his collection of rare books and manuscripts.

Hodgson Hall is a unique architectural structure especially designed by Detlef Lienau, noted 19th-century New York architect and one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. Lienau was born in 1818 in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein, which at that time was a part of Denmark. After completing his schooling, he studied for several years in trade schools in Berlin and Hamburg. From there he went to study at the Koenigliche Baugewerksschule in Munich. Next, Lienau headed for Paris in 1842 where he studied under Henri Labrouste – a leader of the rationalist school of French architectural thought. By this time, Lineau was eager to establish himself as a leading architect.

In 1848, at the age of thirty, Lienau immigrated to New York City. With his brother’s help he began to establish himself in a city that was beginning to thrive architectually and flourish with new design and life. Lienau spent his first years familiarizing himself with the language, customs, and architecture of this new land. Lienau’s thorough architectural training in Germany and under Henri Labrouste in Paris prepared him well to cope with an expanding economy in the decades following his arrival in America. In the course of forty years of practice, he designed almost every kind of building, from simple cottages to great mansions, as well as commercial structures, churches, schools, libraries, and even a museum. Furthermore, Lienau’s background and association with Labrouste gave his work a consistently conservative character that contrasts sharply with the picturesque quality that dominated High Victorian architecture. This left its mark on members of the younger generation. Lienau’s career spanned the “Brown Decades,” and he was able to bring clarity, honesty, and skill to a period often remembered for its architectural excesses.

Hodgson Hall

Hodgson Hall

Detlef Lienau designed Hodgson Hall to serve as a library and headquarters for the Georgia Historical Society. This impressive structure serves as a representation of the Society to most of its members and provides a beautiful and historic atmosphere in which to study and research, while recognizing and appreciating the vision of the Society. The main floor, reaching 36 feet with its three-story-high ceilings and two balconies, houses the Society’s library room. The striking feature of this room in particular is its vaulted arched windows that were designed to provide maximum light and ventilation in the days when there was little artificial light and no air conditioning. The windows located on the third story were essential to relieving the oppressive summer heat and provided maximum daylight for the reading room in the main hall. Lienau’s original drawings are preserved in the Avery Library of Columbia University; photostatic copies are on file in Hodgson Hall. High above the entrance to the spacious main hall, engraved in red-mottled marble and permanently gold-leafed, is Mary Telfair’s will: “No Feasting, drinking, and smok-ing or amusements of any kind will be permitted within its walls.” Around the walls of the library room hung portraits of well-known Georgians — The portrait of William B. Hodgson by Carl Ludwig Brandt, located at the end of the hall, was installed in 1876 and is enclosed in a mantle of carved wood and Georgian marble.

Though the Society’s expanding collections and membership have required periodic renovations, improvements and additions to the original structure, much of the building remains intact. For example, the interior doors to the Reading Room still operate on their original decorative, brass hinges. The bronze railings along the mezzanine and staircases are also original to the building. The four large tables in the reading room, made of slabs of solid walnut supported by cast iron bases, date to the opening in 1876. The front doors, which are also original to the building, are made of solid pieces of mahogany. The outside entrance is a broad brownstone stairway with heavy curving metal balustrades leading to a two-columned portico. The property is surrounded on two sides by an ornamental iron fence with gates.

Hodgson Hall Reading Room

Hodgson Hall Reading Room

The Georgia Historical Society decided in 1970 to build a much-needed and long-overdue modern annex in which to store its many treasures. Built in 1970 and named in memory of Edmund H. Abrahams, lawyer-historian of Savannah, this addition– the first physical expansion in over 90 years–provides a state-of-the-art archival facility for housing the Society’s growing collection of manuscripts, maps, artifacts, photographs, and architectural drawings. Portraits not on exhibit as well as the Society’s historical artifacts are also housed in the annex. The Abrahams Annex is arched to blend in with the original building.

Hodgson Hall stands at the northwest corner of Forsyth Park and serves as Georgia Historical Society’s Research Center. Each year thousands of people come to Hodgson Hall, representing virtually every state and many foreign countries. The historic and architectural significance of Hodgson Hall was recognized when the building was recommended by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to be placed on the National Register. In memory of William B. Hodgson, this historic building upholds Georgia Historical Society’s commitment to the preservation, education and discussion of history in Georgia.