Historic Preservation Returns Savannah Hotel to Its Original Grandeur

historic preservation

Broughton Street in Savannah, Ga., was the city’s original downtown retail “Main Street.” Like many similar downtown corridors, it went through a mid-century period of significant decline as suburbs and malls drew shoppers and residents away from historic downtown. Many of Broughton Street’s historic façades and interiors were covered up or torn down in favor of “modern” designs for lesser retail establishments.

During the last quarter century, however, Savannah has experienced a rebirth of its downtown and retail components, and Broughton Street again is thriving. It remains the main retail corridor in the downtown historic district and is an important link to the city’s past.

The Marshall House hotel was an existing grand hotel on Broughton Street that had seen periods of grandeur, decline and rebirth. The original hotel structure occupied approximately 65 percent of the south side of one city block. Built in 1851 by James and Mary Marshall, the hotel went through generations of different ownership before closing in 1957 because of financial troubles. By the mid to late 20th century, its surroundings had become transitional and mediocre at best. In fact, the Marshall House no longer resembled itself; its ornate veranda had been torn off, and the upper stories of the façade had been completely covered with a stucco curtainwall.

In the mid to late 1990s, Savannah’s tourism industry was surging and the historic district became a destination for tourists from all over the world. The need for upscale retail and hotel space, coupled with renewed interest in the historic district’s central corridor, made the possibilities for a hotel, like the Marshall House, evident and attractive to investors/developers.

historic preservation Marshall House hotel

A vintage photo of the Marshall House hotel shows the wrought-iron veranda that was replicated by metal workers. Photo: The Georgia Historical Society

Putting Plans in Motion

Although the Marshall House was not formally on the market, The John Hardy Group, an Atlanta-based developer, was interested in opening a “boutique” full-service hotel and recognized that a location placing visitors in the heart of the historic city corridor was ideal. The Marshall House had a couple operating retail stores at ground level, but the rest of the building had been boarded up and closed.

Because of the potential for tax and façade-improvement investment credits, The John Hardy Group believed it was worth everyone’s attention to investigate further. A real-estate broker was brought in to determine the possibility of a sale, and a structural engineer was hired to assess the structural integrity. The developer soon was interested in restoring the hotel to its original use as a grand hotel. Its location on Broughton Street would give visitors a centralized location with easy access to the historic district and city squares. The hotel also would provide the experience of staying in a historic structure, grounded in the heritage and charm of Savannah. The John Hardy Group hired Savannah-based Hansen Architects P.C., a firm with a long reputation in the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties, to lead the project team.

The historic research, assessments, documentation for tax credits and maneuvering through local administration were challenging but rewarding. Because the building had been closed and covered with a stucco curtainwall, an effort to achieve designation as a historic property had never been attempted. Historical research was completed by Hansen Architects, securing newspaper clippings and documents from the Georgia Historical Society. The team also took photos of existing conditions and submitted them with an application to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. National Park Service.

historic preservation Marshall House hotel

The Marshall House hotel today.Photo: John D. McManus Photography

The building ultimately received historic designation; the U.S. National Park Service recognized the building as a contributing structure to the Savannah Historic District. With this designation in place, tax credits could be applied for and the property was successfully purchased. Tax incentives were available through the city’s revitalization plan for Broughton Street redevelopment.

Plans to return the 1851 structure to its original use and stateliness were immediately set in motion.

The government tax credits made façade improvements and restoration of the historic property more financially viable. Preservation is expensive because original materials have to be replicated, located, etc., and older buildings often require extra care, whether in structural work or code upgrades. However, the central location, marketability of a historic hotel and the approximate 20 percent added value from tax credits made this preservation project attractive. In addition, because Savannah is a historic city, design and construction professionals are fortunate to have many resources for millwork, hardware and metal work, as well as salvaged materials from other historic structures, on which to rely.

Work Begins

Peeling back the 1960s stucco curtainwall facing Broughton Street revealed another era, exposing the original Philadelphia pressed brick façade. The façade was surprisingly well maintained. Original granite Greek Doric pilasters were also discovered and replaced where necessary.

The building appears rectangular along Broughton Street with two rear wings projecting back to the alley forming an overall U-shape. The sides and rear were constructed of a local Savannah grey brick, which was maintained and became a feature of the restoration. Exterior walls are load-bearing with wood beams. The wood floor joist and wood truss roof systems were maintained and restored.

First-floor retail shops were removed, exposing a courtyard space that had originally been a turnaround for horses and carriages, as well as for unloading guests’ luggage. The courtyard was enclosed with a domed skylight to create a casual dining conservatory, highlighting the original Savannah grey brick walls.

historic preservation Marshall House hotel

A courtyard, once used as a turnaround for horses and carriages, was enclosed with a domed skylight to create a casual dining conservatory. Photo: John D. McManus Photography

The historic windows in the brick façade were in restorable condition. Double-hung windows, transoms and casing were retained and repaired or replaced where necessary with replications. Replicas of the original operable louvered shutters were manufactured and reinstalled on the restored structure.

The wrought-iron veranda discovered in historic photographs was replicated. Metal workers consulted old photographs and utilized historic molds from other restoration projects. For example, the mold used to forge the columns and bracket casings came from the 1837 St. Andrew’s Hotel in Selma, Ala., and proved to be a remarkable match. Recreating the veranda was a costly addition for the developer
but was important to maintaining the hotel’s architectural integrity. In addition, the first-floor storefront, columns, railings and roof structure were recreated to match the original design found in 1880s photographs.

The second, third and fourth floor plans remained surprisingly true to the original hotel plans. The historic stairs, room configurations, molding details and heart pine floors were largely maintained, which helped maximize available tax credits. The interior walls, originally wood stud with wood lath and plaster finish, were in poor condition and were reworked to incorporate modern utilities.
The plaster was replaced with gypsum wallboard.

It was imperative to maintain the room configurations for income potential, though private baths and closets had to be installed. Solid-core 13/8-inch-thick doors were maintained or replicated. Flooring in the upper levels was refinished or replicated in areas where it was missing.

historic preservation Marshall House hotel

The Marshall House hotel’s lobby. Photo: John D. McManus Photography

Modern with Vintage Flair

The biggest challenge was to effectively incorporate modern necessities, such as an electrical system, phone and data systems, as well as keyless entry and security systems, while maintaining the historical space plan. A basement was excavated underneath the main structure to accommodate the new electrical, mechanical and data systems. The basement addition enabled the team to maintain the original room configurations and provide much needed storage.

Structural assessments were performed prior to underpinning and construction of the new basement. Foundation piers created the perfect solution for running and housing the closed-loop mechanical water system. Variable-air-volume units in each guest room and all public spaces with individual controls were now possible while allowing the original plan to remain unaltered.

Antique bottles, keys, horseshoes, pottery and glass pieces were uncovered during the restoration and salvaged for display within the new hotel. Several original iron claw-foot bathtubs were saved and reused. There was strong community support for the project, and many locals brought historic artifacts now on display in the hotel. For example, an original 1837 oil painting of Mary Marshall, photographs and furnishings were loaned or donated by area families excited to be a part of the re-emergence of a piece of Savannah’s history.

The extensive press coverage of the project resulted in George Howard, a former doorman, wanting his job back. Howard began his career at the hotel in 1943, opening doors and greeting visitors. He lost his job when the hotel closed in 1957. Since that time he worked for other hotels and the Washington-based U.S. Postal Service, but no place was home to him like the Marshall House had been. Howard once again works as a doorman at the hotel and regales visitors with tales about guests from his earlier years as a doorman at the Marshall House. He remembers salesmen, sailors and high-society clientele who had a reputation for their ability to “down their liquor.” Howard even witnessed a Boston bank robber being arrested in his hotel room by the Washington-based U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

historic preservation Marshall House hotel

The hotel’s room configurations were maintained for income potential. However, private baths and closets were added. Photo: John D. McManus Photography

The rebirth of the grand hotel created a sense of place again for nearly an entire city block along Broughton Street. A significant piece of Savannah’s heritage was infused by the restoration and the removal of blight from this important retail corridor. The accomplishment received a Historic Savannah Foundation Preservation Award and a Historic Preservation Award from The Georgia Trust, Atlanta.

In addition, the revitalized structure increased interest in Savannah’s historic district. It provided a catalyst for the resurgence and revitalization of Broughton Street, which grows stronger every year. With its 68 charming rooms, the Marshall House today is home to a very popular local restaurant, jazz bar and gift shop. It continues to operate as a prominent quality hotel, luring visitors from all over the world.

Retrofit Team

Developer: The John Hardy Group, www.jhgi.com
Interior designer: Newmark Diercks Design Inc., (303) 740-7409
Electrical engineer: Sebring Engineering, (912) 234-3686
Ironwork: Allen Architectural Metals, www.allenmetals.com

About the Author

J. Paul Hansen, FAIA, NCARB
J. Paul Hansen, FAIA, NCARB, is principal of Hansen Architects PC, Savannah, Ga., a role in which he directs all architectural services and manages all phases of project development.

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