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Savannah Business Then & Now: From Habersham to Hyatt at 2 West Bay Street

Category: Historic Businesses "Then & Now"

Special to SBJ.com

From her front porch overlooking the Vernon River on Savannah’s south side, Laura Lawton recounts a bit of family history. Her ties to this ground go back eight generations. The vestibule walls of her comfortable low country home are lined with family portraits. Closest to the ceiling is the first generational layer, a solitary picture of James Habersham. Laura refers to her great-great-great-great grandfather as “Mr. Habersham.” It’s a matter of respect.

Lawton continues. “Mr. Habersham was an early leader in the economic development of Savannah.” That is an understatement. When James Habersham was convinced to cross the Atlantic with his good friend, the Rev. George Whitefield, it was to engage in Whitefield’s plan to build an orphanage. (Known today as Bethesda Academy, it is the oldest orphanage in operation in America and remains on its original acreage on Ferguson Avenue.) From the year of his arrival, 1738, the young Habersham both supervised construction of Bethesda and served as its first teaching master.

By 1743 the orphanage was in trouble financially. The farm was not self-sustaining. Habersham had begun an apprenticeship with his Uncle Joseph, a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, before the age of 13. He now looked to that experience for a solution. Habersham resigned his position at Bethesda. He and fellow entrepreneur, Francis Harris, became Savannah’s first successful merchants, importing goods from England. Habersham became the major benefactor of the Bethesda orphanage.

But, there were no facilities to handle trade on the Savannah River yet. Georgians had to rely on Charlestown (Charleston) for imported foodstuffs and clothing, which had proven very expensive. A transshipment charge was added to the cost of importing provisions from England to bring them on to Savannah.

Habersham and Harris built Savannah’s first wharves, warehouses and offices on a parcel of land in the heart of the village on the river. With these facilities in place, products could be exported directly to England for the first time, bypassing the expensive Charleston connection. The stone, brick and wooden complex of Habersham and Harris stretched from the river up the bluff to Bay Street and from the head of Bull Street west the full block to Whitaker.

Habersham and Harris had set in motion a plan that would move a stagnant, dependent and foundering economy, thereby assuring the survival, growth and success of the colony. But there was a catch. The charter establishing the Colony of Georgia in 1732 prohibited slavery. For export to be profitable, a huge number of workers would be required to produce sufficient quantities of the labor-intensive crops that grew so well in the Lowcountry. And they’d have to come cheap. The powerful merchant made it happen. Habersham secured the colony’s future through the export of large quantities of rice, indigo and cotton. But, it came at the high price of lifting Georgia’s ban on the importation of slaves. Little more than two decades after James Edward Oglethorpe had claimed this land as England’s 13th colony when he stepped from the good ship Ann at the very same address – 2 West Bay St. – both Georgia’s economy and the slave trade began to grow.

Today 2 West Bay St. is the address of Savannah’s downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. Local developers, Merritt W. Dixon III and H. Mitchell Dunn Jr., built the long, box-like, unadorned 351-room structure in 1981. Emma Adler, a voice of the preservation and restoration effort in Savannah’s Historic District since the 1950s, recalls nearly a decade of heated debate over plans for the project. “Two brick, Victorian-era warehouse buildings had been demolished by the city,” she said, “and many believed construction of a hotel on that lot would be a wise economic move that would increase the number of visitors coming to Savannah. Developers submitted a proposal for a building of site-appropriate height and size, with a façade of Savannah grey brick. It would have fit in nicely.”

But critics of the design envisioned development on a much larger scale and submitted a plan for a structure that would have 14 floors and a massive tower. Adler attributes serious consideration of this grandiose proposal to self-interests of the developers and revenue potential seen by a group of power brokers in town. “It would have been totally out of proportion with existing buildings and would have dwarfed City Hall next door,” she explained.

Preservationists were horrified by such a violation of aesthetics and lack of sensitivity to the history of Savannah. A compromise plan was finally approved that reduced from 14 to six the number of floors of the second proposal, but extended the building horizontally over River Street, creating the tunnel of dead space that exists over a stretch of River Street today. The exterior was altered from brick to painted stucco.

Time and recent improvements have softened the distraction of the Hyatt. Mature live oaks mercifully stand between Bay Street and the hotel, camouflaging the urban eyesore. A recent renovation included painting the unsightly pink façade a soft tan that blends with the sand-colored limestone of City Hall next door.

The time of James Habersham was separated from that of Merritt Dixon III, H. Mitchell Dunn and the preservationists by more than two centuries. But all have targeted and played crucial roles in Savannah’s economic growth by what they envisioned for this little piece of land – 2 West Bay St. – on the river. No reference to their contributions is found today on the property.

However, on the north side of the Hyatt Hotel, down on the river walk, a circular inlay informs visitors of the precise spot where Savannah’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, first stepped foot on Georgia soil in 1733 to begin the business of settling the 13th colony. And on the south side of the Hyatt, in the small park on Bay Street preserved since Savannah’s early days, sits the gracefully curved stone bench placed in 1906 by the Colonial Dames of America to honor the place where Oglethorpe pitched his tent upon landing.

The first entrepreneur, the most influential of all in the economic development of Savannah, who might most properly be referred to as “Mr. Oglethorpe,” still is remembered at 2 West Bay St. Laura Lawton and Emma Adler would agree it’s a matter of respect.

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