This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Robert Hadley as part of his SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2018.
The Wright Square historical marker was dedicated in 1958. View the Wright Square historical marker listing.
- Poetter Hall Historical Marker
- Portrait Photograph of William Gibbons Preston
- Comparison of Architect’s Cotton Exchange Designs
- Cotton Exchange around the time it was built
- Cotton Exchange today, author’s Photograph
- Section Drawing of Front Façade Terra Cotta Details
- Section Drawing of More Terra Cotta Details
- Photograph of Details Today
- Drawing of Copper Roof Ornamentation Details
- Lamp Post and Iron Railing Detail
- Main Hall facing East
- Elevation drawing of floor plan
- Side-by-side drawing and photograph of stained glass window
- Pen-and-ink drawing of Cotton Exchange Details, original art by Robert Hadley, 2018
- Watercolor of Cotton Exchange Details, original art by Robert Hadley, 2018
- Watercolor of Cotton Exchange Building, original art by Robert Hadley, 2018
- Photo of Hotel DeSoto 2, GHS archives
- Photo of Hotel DeSoto 4, GHS archives
- Photo of Hotel DeSoto 5, GHS archives
- Photo of Liberty Street Entrance
- Elevation drawing of Bull Street
- Elevation drawing of Kitchen Wing
- Elevation Drawing of main fireplace
- Photo of the wall with mural of Oglethorpe landing in Georgia
- Photograph of Courthouse
- Collage of Drawings Illustrating Architect’s original Concept Designs
- Photograph of Courthouse shortly after being built, sans Tomochichi monument
- Elevation drawing of Clock Tower
- Photograph of Clock Tower
- Elevation Drawing of Grand Staircase
- Plan Drawing of Main Courtroom
- Perspective Drawing of Guards Armory
- Photograph 1 of Guards Armory
- Plan drawing for the rifle range and bowling alley
- Plan and Elevation Drawing of Tower at the back of the range
- Photograph of Tomochichi Room Fireplace
The following essay is by SCAD student Robert Hadley, 2018.
History is told through the stories and artifacts that persist. My goal is to illustrate the spirit of an age in Savannah towards the end of the 19th century, captured by the artistry and craftsmanship of the buildings designed by architect William Gibbons Preston. I first came to learn about William Gibbons Preston from a SCAD Historical Marker (Figure 1) located by the front entrance of Poetter Hall which I walk by every day on my way to class. I gained an appreciation and understanding of architecture when I attended Miami University in Ohio as an undergrad student. Some of the artistry that went into buildings has become hidden histories. Through my research I learned a great deal about these buildings and their original details and have compared it with what we have today. This research project is associated with the Wright Square Historical Marker. Wright Square is home to the Chatham County Courthouse, built after an 1889 commission from W.G. Preston. My research focuses on Preston’s most noteworthy Savannah commissions, including the courthouse. This project’s aim is not only to highlight the career and accomplishments of Preston himself, but also to illuminate the work of the unnamed craftspeople and to better understand the under-appreciated building practices that all contributed to Savannah’s built historical record.
William Gibbons Preston
W.G. Preston, 1842-1910, was born in Boston where he attended school at Harvard and worked and trained under at his father’s architectural firm. (Figure 2) In 1861 he attended the École des Beaux Arts School in Paris, the most important center of architectural education in the Western world at the time.[i] It was here during his early education that he would have rubbed shoulders with Henry Hobson Richardson, the man who made the Romanesque Revival style popular in the United States. W.G. Preston was more than 20 years into his career as an architect and well known for his interpretation of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture by the time he first came on the scene in Savannah in 1886.
To capture the level of esteem that Savannah had for William Gibbons Preston, a Savannah newspaper published an article as a tribute to him and his contributions to the city upon news of his death in April 1910. They wrote, “Mr. Preston was a man of considerable artistic temperament and his influence made a distinct and lasting impression in an architectural way on building construction in Savannah. It was he who introduced in Savannah the new style of ornate exteriors for buildings, departing from the severe designs which marked the buildings prior to the erection of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, which was Mr. Preston’s first work in Savannah.”[ii] It was also noted that “Terra cotta was used in Savannah for the first time in the construction of the Cotton Exchange.”[iii]
W.G. Preston’s ‘considerable artistic temperament’ won him the commissions of over two dozen prominent projects both public and private during the last two decades of the 19th century. Of all his architectural contributions to Savannah, I focus on four of his most well-known examples: the Cotton Exchange (1886), the Hotel DeSoto (1888), the Chatham County Courthouse (1889) and the Volunteer Guards’ Armory (1893).
Savannah Cotton Exchange
William Gibbons Preston’s design for the new Cotton Exchange building won the design competition for which almost a dozen architects submitted designs. While examining his original plans for the design I discovered an early elevation of the south facing façade that may have been the design he submitted initially for the competition. I have placed it next to the south façade design that he completed for comparison. (Figure 3) This façade is what helped make him so popular in Savannah and is still one of the most photographed buildings in the city. (Figures 4 & 5)
I have often wondered why the sides of the building seem to slope in towards the middle. After studying the architectural drawings, it does not appear that was W.G. Preston’s intent, meaning that most likely the two rows of main support columns the center of the building settled at some point after the building was completed and the full weight of the building was pressing down. Preston designed the Savannah Cotton Exchange to sit on columns over top of Factor’s Walk.
One of the most stunning aspects of the building is the nearly exclusive use of terra cotta throughout. Terra cotta, literally baked earth, is one of the oldest building materials known to history. It possesses a radiant quality perhaps from the firing process that makes it seem to glow. It is also durable being impervious to fire, acids and weather. Early immigrants to Pennsylvania introduced the making of terra cotta tile to America. The first truly successful factory started in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1877 and it is thought to be the main source of Savannah terra cotta.”[iv]
It was difficult to determine exactly how some of the larger, more complex sculptural elements on the front façade of the Cotton Exchange were created out of the terra cotta. I discovered W.G. Preston drew a section through the front façade elevation that illustrates exactly how it was done. (Figures 5, 6, & 7) It appears to be very much the same process you would use to kiln dry pots. The façade is composed of a number of smaller pieces, each with a part of the puzzle on it, all put together in place. Each piece is hollow inside so that they do not crack in the drying process, then tied in place to the inner brick structure using steel and mortar most likely. I imagine this process would allow the artisans to create the individual pieces off site in their studios and then ship them to the construction site. Note that in the initial design for the scene, the top gable was of a tall vase with cotton growing out of it, instead of the man that appears in its place today. (Figure 5 & 8)
The oxidized copper gutters, pediment cap, and ventilator turret are beautiful in tandem with the terra cotta. At some point, however, when the roof was redone the ornate slate tiles, copper finials and ridge cresting and flag poles were removed and replaced with asphalt shingles. (Figure 9) Fortunately the original plans exist so that at some point in the future these elements may be re-created and the roof-line restored.
The ironwork is also skillfully crafted. The railing and lamp posts in essence transition the wavy, spiral patterning found in the terra cotta designs and transitions it from the entrance of the building out and around the front plaza. The only thing that I have noticed has changed since the buildings original conception is the lamps atop the lamp posts. Originally, they were large gas lanterns. (Figure 10) Electric lamps were new at the time and not yet practical or accepted by everyone. In some cases, buildings and homes were wired for both electric and gas during this time. From historical photos of the 1920’s, white balls appear on the tops of these lamp posts, most likely around the time they were converted to electric. Later, the lamps were converted to small electric lamps that try to imitate the original gas lamps. It would be a positive decision to convert them back to the original gas lamps depicted in the architectural renderings.
I discovered one of the architect’s original sketches in the margin of one of his drawings. It was of the fireplace grate that was meant to sit in the main fireplace. This example illustrates the architect’s conceptual design phase. The fireplaces were one of the dominant elements in the rooms that W.G. Preston designed. (Figure 12) The Cotton Exchange was made to impress and every aspect was made with artistry and grandeur. When you walked in the door you had a view of everything from the grand staircase, through the main hall where men were studying the blackboards and talking around the fireplace, out through the great hand-made stain-glass windows. (Figure 11) Note that W.G. Preston was even conceptualizing a mural to be painted on the wall of the main hall. (Figure 12) I can loosely make out two figures opposite one another in a panel lifting up wind instruments of some kind towards the sky. We can see from the photo that this mural was either not painted or it was painted over in white. It is also observable from the photo that the information that needed to be documented on the blackboards outgrew the size of the original blackboards, so larger ones were brought in.
Finally, there is the great stained-glass window that is still intact and well preserved today. (Figure 13) It is lined with protective glass from the outside, along with all of the other windows on the north façade facing the river, have protective glass from the outside. It is unclear to me if W.G. Preston designed all of these individual aspects of the building or if he hired out artisans to work in his office under his name.
I have attached some of my own art that is based in a process of drawing from direct observation. Studying the real deal gives me a different perspective and appreciation that working from photos and drawings does not. (Figures 14, 15, & 16) As an Illustration graduate student at SCAD with a background in architectural rendering, my creative response to Preston’s work is in detailed renderings of building details.
A few years after finishing the Cotton Exchange, William Gibbons Preston was commissioned to design the Hotel DeSoto. Savannah was experiencing a boom in tourism which is supported by the massive design of the hotel. It was tragically demolished in 1965. What remains of it are the photos, architectural plans, a few artifacts such as the terra cotta lion head fountain on the side of the new hotel, and the DeSoto name which the subsequent Hilton displayed after its own name. Hotel DeSoto did not die in vain, however, and its demolition helped to build momentum towards preserving all of Savannah’s buildings within its historic districts.
It was particularly interesting looking through old photos of the hotel and trying to imagine how it would have looked from different angles. I discovered that over time the hotel went through a number of renovations and as layers were added the original design became obscured by decorations, awnings, fire escapes and built in porches. The photos I have selected here from the Georgia Historical Society archives I believe to be the earliest ones. (Figures 17, 18, & 19) In many respects it appears to resemble Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter.
This photo notes where the original location of the terra cotta lion fountain was located out front of the entrance facing Bull Street. (Figure 20) It is now located near the corner of Drayton and Liberty. This was not the only terra cotta panel of a lion designed for the DeSoto. Note in this image from the architectural plans a 4’x4’ lion relief planned for the exterior of the building. (Figure 21) Also note the directions for creating the scroll work that W.G. Preston specified to be “scratched in Portland Cement, plastered on brick.” From the photos, this specific plan for a Loggia a few floors up on the corner of Bull and Liberty does not appear to have made it to the building phase, along with a number of other elements characteristic of W.G. Preston’s other Savannah buildings. One such example is evident in the kitchen wing of the Hotel DeSoto. (Figure 22) The stair stepped brickwork up and around the spherical chimney, the scrollwork and the copper finials on the ridgeline of the roof all appear to have been deleted during the design phase. Also in this photo you will notice the swimming pool and Japanese garden added by the 1920s. The spires of the cathedral of St. John the Baptist poke up above the kitchen wing of the hotel.
The most interesting room on the interior that I studied was the lounge area on one of the lower floors in the round tower on the square. The main fireplace in this room has the rounded arch and the ornate scroll work that are characteristic of W.G. Preston’s style. It even includes a clock in the design. (Figures 23) Located on the wall adjacent to the fireplace was a mural painted of Oglethorpe’s first crew and the Creek Native Americans together around the time of Savannah’s first founding days as a colony. (Figures 24)
Chatham County Courthouse
In 1889 W.G. Preston was commissioned to design the Chatham County Courthouse which was an exception in that it was made using buff brick which is a light yellow-brown color that is often found in nature and had never been used in Savannah.[v] Preston used it the same way he did with his red terra cotta; it was just earth-tone yellow. (Figure 25)
Preliminary drawings show what W.G. Preston originally envisioned the Chatham County Courthouse to look like. (Figure 26) These renderings depict only one main entrance that we can see facing President Street. The entrance that exists today off of Bull does not appear. It also appears that he proposed the idea of a grand spiral staircase in the round tower on the corner of President and Drayton. This photo shows the court house around the time of its completion as we can tell from the absence of Tomochichi’s “replacement monument” in the corner of the square in front of the courthouse. (Figure 27) The Georgia Society of the Colonial Dames of America dedicated the new monument to Tomochichi in 1899 on the centennial of his death after his original monument in the center of the square was replaced by one dedicated to a railroad magnate.
One of my favorite of the exterior components is the clock tower. (Figures 28 & 29) The things that look like gargoyles are Venetian-inspired dentils made from stone and terra cotta. The oxidized copper on the tower looks just as good with the yellow terra cotta as with the red. Two original details to the clock tower have sadly been lost. The original clock hands for some reason depicted in the drawing and in the original photos have been replaced with plain metal hands. Secondly, the ornate metal and gilded finial and vane are missing. They can just barely be made out in the original photographs poking out halfway down the roof line. (Figure 27)
I walked in the Bull Street entrance to see the grand staircase and original details and almost immediately walked back out. I felt like I was in the wrong place. The inside hallway seemed to be refaced with bad 1950’s materials and was missing the language of W.G. Preston’s design style. Upon further research, I discovered that the interior was once beautifully decorated with the heavy ornateness of typical Romanesque buildings; however a renovation in 1954 by the City of Savannah replaced the interior in a totally updated manner including the removal of the grand staircase that Preston had originally designed. Additionally, the ceilings were lowered on the first floor, the walls were plastered and the original antique fixtures were removed. All of the court rooms have been completely rebuilt. The original court rooms were 2 stories high but in 1954 when the ceilings were lowered a second floor was added for offices. The grand stairway which was 12’ wide was removed and replaced by an elevator.[vi] It is an example today of how not to re-purpose a historic building. It is important to respect the original design intentions to create a sense of balance and harmony between the new and the old. Here one can see the original section of the main staircase and plan of the courtroom. (Figures 30 & 31)
SCAD – Poetter Hall
In 1893 W.G. Preston was commissioned to design the new Volunteer Guards’ Armory after the previous one near Wright Square had burned down. It is one of the best examples of his Romanesque Revival style in that it features a number of large rounded arches, turrets and loggias all in his red terra cotta brick. Here is a picture of what it would have looked like around the time of completion. (Figure 32) Notice in the back-left corner near the rear turret there is a separate smaller walled up area that I have not been able to identify. In subsequent photographs there is also proof of a wall at one point. (Figures 33) This wall appears to have been the original construction at one point. Today it is a parking lot for SCAD but the foundation of the wall is still visible.
People have speculated what the large room is on the second floor towards the back. According to these plans it was a rifle range and bowling alley for the members of the Volunteer Guards. (Figure 34) My favorite detail about the rifle range is the tower at the back that you can still go and climb the stair up into. (Figure 35) Their organization had been around since 1802 and they fought in every major war since then. The Volunteer Guards were the most prominent volunteer militia in Savannah as was evidenced by their new building. In their downtime however, the organization became largely social based thus the need for a billiards room, lounge and loggia overlooking the square. Another interesting detail is that the Lounging Room was also known as the Tomochichi Room and had ornate plaster decoration of Tomochichi and the Creek Indians on the main fireplace and as scrolls around the top of the room. (Figure 36)
In the 1970’s the Volunteer Guards’ Armory had fallen into decay and found a new purpose in life as the Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD set the example for repurpose and restoration with this building they now call Poetter Hall. It was the beginning of a new age in Savannah.
William Gibbons Preston’s considerable artistic temperament along with the spirit of the age defined by optimism and growth left a collection of treasures in the City of Savannah. It is important that we understand and learn to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that went into designing and building this architecture so that we have it to learn and grow from in the future. The same way that architecture in Italy inspired William Gibbons Preston, his own buildings may one day inspire future architects.
[i] “Biography – Preston, William Gibbons.” Vertical File. Georgia Historical Society. Accessed May 24, 2018.
[iv] “Savannah Terra Cotta.” Cliff Sewell. Savannah News-Press, Magazine. Savannah Public Library. Sunday, August 29, 1971. Accessed May 24, 2018
[v] “Biography – Preston, William Gibbons.” Vertical File. Georgia Historical Society. Accessed May 24, 2018.
“Biography – Preston, William Gibbons.” Vertical File. Georgia Historical Society. Accessed May 24, 2018.
“Savannah Terra Cotta.” Cliff Sewell. Savannah News-Press, Magazine. Savannah Public Library. Sunday, August 29, 1971.
“MS 1399-1.” Microfilm Roll. Georgia Historical Society.
“Historic Photographs.” Georgia Historical Society. http://georgiahistory.pastperfectonline.com