A Savannah, Georgia, Couple Embraces the Character of Their 1850s House
From our interview with Litchfield Carpenter and Washington Dender:
Washington: I always had an interest in preservation. I read a lot of history books when I was a child and minored in history when I was in college. My parents bought an old staircase and a Palladian window and wood floors, things like that, and had an architect design a house around them.
Litchfield: I had a very similar background with my interest in history early on, and it’s primarily through family. My mother loved to tell stories about family history. You start to get some of the social history of what people were doing and how they lived in houses. Then I got involved in American antiques and furniture, so it was more through the objects and what they say about social history.
Washington: We’re always doing some sort of preservation. We’re willing to live with things in order to preserve them rather than try to change the footprint of the house.
Litchfield: We went down to Savannah in 1999 for a home and garden tour. And then I told Wash that we had a real estate appointment to go look at this home I’d seen in the real estate ads of Preservation magazine. We [were living in Atlanta and] hadn’t really thought about Savannah, but we’d been looking for an investment-type rental property with the idea that we might want to fix it up and go down and live there at some future date. The house had a wonderful aura about it even though it had been chopped up into cheesy apartments.
Washington: I went reluctantly. I said, “We’re not buying anything in Savannah, it’s too far away.” But I will say one thing we liked was that the bones were good. [The previous owners] hadn’t mucked anything up; they had added temporary walls for apartments, but you could peel that all back. That stayed on our minds for a few months before we bought it.
The property was divided into five different apartments. We were like, OK, we need this thing to pay for itself. We rented it [out] as apartments and kept [that] going for 16 years until it paid itself off. So we had plenty of time to explore and think about it and draw little plans for how we wanted it to be.
Litchfield: Shortly after we bought it, I went to the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah and tried to find a bit of background about the house and who had lived there. My background is [in] curatorial work with a museum in Tennessee, but [even so,] it was difficult to find information.
Gordon Row, circa 1852–1853, was built as a speculative group of 15 brick homes in the then-new upscale residential area of Savannah just north of grand Forsyth Park. During this time in Savannah many of the homes were built by enslaved laborers as well as free Black workers and recent Irish immigrants. Savannah had a large population of enslaved workers living in town whose owners lived elsewhere but would hire them out for various craftsmen jobs as brick masons, plasterers, wood carvers, cooks, etc.
We did find some census records that we think pertain to our house, which listed one or two young Irish girls in service. Savannah had a large Irish population and a large number of Irish immigrants, so this would not be uncommon. We do not have any records about any enslaved persons working at 111 West Gordon pre–Civil War.
Washington: Through the census records, we found that it was usually a single family who lived there [before it became apartments in the 20th century]. These families were generally white-collar professionals who worked in the businesses in Savannah.
Litchfield: I found an advertisement for the row of houses we are in from when they were first built. It talks about how they’ve got cast-iron mantels. They’ve got speaking tubes, running water, and gaslights on the first two floors. We still have the cast-iron mantels in our parlor area. It’s nice to read what was there in the 1850s and then go back and say, hey, we have the mantel right here.
Washington: Every preservationist makes choices about what works for you and how true to the building you want to be. We have heating and air-conditioning, but we were sure to preserve the outline of all parts of the house and to preserve the overall structure.
Litchfield: When we started to convert the apartments into one house, we [began] working with John Deering and Josh Bull of Homeline Architecture. We got their names after talking to a number of folks, including the head of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. We liked their ideas and direction. They understood that we didn’t want a big master bathroom or huge additions. Homeline got where we were going, and we worked with them to draw out the interior plans. Our initial vision was to keep the front part open and as accurate as it can be to the 1850s and make the rest of the house very comfortable.
We were fortunate to have had Sam Carroll of Carroll Construction recommended to us as the general contractor. He and his team were super easy to work with and they have a very sensitive eye toward historic preservation. Our friends John and Susan Thompson from Kitchen Living in Tryon, North Carolina, made all the kitchen and bath cabinetry. They also drove it down to Savannah and installed it.
Washington: We identified with some of the lifestyle of the 19th century, when the house was built with a nice generous living room and a generous dining room. We tried to have good entertaining spaces. Our idea for our sitting room is two [comfortable] chairs and a stack of books. And then good couches and places where somebody can put a drink and sit down and settle in and really chat.
We like a room or space that has some depth to it, that’s more than just a couch, a table, and a chair. You want it to have items that are meaningful. There’s a couch that we bought together. There’s a chair we got from when we lived in North Carolina, and there’s a lamp that came from my mother’s house.
Litchfield: We like the association with items. My sister was doing some work on her house and had taken a chandelier down. It is beautiful and was in her garage. She asked if we wanted it, and we hung it in the dining room because it was perfect for the space. In the kitchen we have lights we got from a fellow in Spartanburg, South Carolina, who salvages things from old shipyards. He had these cool old searchlights used for unloading the ships at night so that the stevedores could see. We bought a couple of those and hung them as lights in the kitchen.
Washington: We fell in love with Savannah from a history standpoint. It’s so rich in history. Then we had an opportunity to own a piece of history and preserve a piece of the town. That was impossible to pass up.
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