In a city peppered with rich history, idiosyncrasies can be overlooked, often in favor of the sensational and the legendary.
Such is the case with the Andrew Low House in many regards. Situated on the southwest corner trust lot of Lafayette Square, and surrounded by earmark historical edifices like The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Pinkie Masters and the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, the Andrew Low House might not get its fair share of attention.
The carriage house, facing Drayton Street, probably draws most visitor’s attention as the original meeting place for the Girl Scouts of America. On the whole, the house itself and the history of its occupants reveals an integral archive of life in Savannah from the vantage of a spectrum of class and race spanning over the boundaries of time.
The first comprehensive book to be publicly released on the Andrew Low House was published earlier this year. Built around a framework that took years of diligent research, “The Andrew Low House” imparts a wealth of stories that include famous names of history, as well as a detailed look at the objects that now occupy the historic house museum.
Authored by Tania June Sammons with help from Virginia “Ginger” Connerat Logan, “The Andrew Low House” is a short, but abundant read that is accentuated by exquisite photographs and fascinating anecdotes.
Commissioned by The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA), and published by The University of Georgia Press, “The Andrew Low House,” began at the behest of Logan. Logan spent years constructing a book called the “The Andrew Low Legacy,” which focused on a first-person look at the house. It was published internally for the Dames.
Looking to have the book distributed to a larger audience, Logan and the Dames approached the UGA Press. Editors for the press, which has published a number of historical books about Savannah, wanted a more objective, academic look at the history of the house. They suggested Sammons, whom they had worked with in the past, take on the project.
A seasoned museum curator, who spent 17 years at the Telfair Museum, several years at the Owens-Thomas House, and two years at the Andrew Low House, Sammons has written books on those museums and on other subjects related to Savannah’s history. Sammons approached the project with a blank slate, but wanted to include Logan’s work, as well.
“Given my background with the Andrew Low House, I was a natural fit,” Sammons said. “We all wanted to include Ginger's work in this book and decided to incorporate some of her text as sidebars. Her sections are highlighted in blue and have her initials V.C.L. I think her first-person accounts make a wonderful touch. Her love and enthusiasm for the house comes through in her writing.”
The publication also acted as a celebration of the 90th year the NSCDA has owned the Andrew Low House. The book was also sponsored by the Savannah Town Committee, the J. Robert Logan Jr. Foundation, and the Georgia Society’s Ways and Means Committee.
“What I hope people will learn from ‘The Andrew Low House’ book is why and how the Andrew Low Museum House is considered one of the best in the U.S.,” Logan said. “Also, for people to understand in the 90 years of NSCDA-Ga. ownership, the house has undergone a transition from a headquarters, meeting facility, site for members' social activities, to now an extraordinary museum house. None of this would have been possible without the Georgia Dames donating countless hours of time, energy, and money collecting and preserving 19th century furniture and objects d'Arts, as well as having Low family members donate original pieces back to the house.”
Built in 1848 for cotton factor Andrew Low, one of Savannah’s wealthiest merchants at the time, and designed by John Norris, the mini-mansion was modeled on a Greek Revival design style. Norris, a New Yorker, was originally commissioned to design the U.S. Custom’s House on Bay Street. The Andrew Low House was his first private contract. He also designed the Mercer-Williams House, the Green-Meldrim House and the Universalist Unitarian Church.
The somewhat tragic, yet opulent, life of Low and his family plays out in the opening of the book. Typically, when Sammons approaches a historical homes project, she focuses on the objects and architecture first.
The Andrew Low House was a remarkable exception in that Sammons had a wealth of information concerning the occupants. She chose instead to focus the first part of the book on the people who lived there, saving a detailed examination of the objects for the latter half of the book.
“When they approached me they (UGA Press) wanted me to focus on the interiors and the collections,” Sammons said. “In my experience, working with historic house museums and talking to people, people really want to know about the people who lived there. So for me, while I personally love objects and find them of interest and like to study them and go real deep, my approach with this was to first talk about the people. The stories of all the people involved in this house are really quite fascinating. They really bring the house to life.”
The individuals Sammons chose to focus on range from family to friends and famous to infamous. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was a Low family friend and stayed in the house. A quote from writer William Makepeace Thackeray about his stay in the house opens the book. Writer Ogden Nash spent some of his childhood there. Girl Scouts founder Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, wife of Andrew Low’s son Willie, of course, is a key occupant and prominently featured in the book.
Sammons also took care to discuss the enslaved and free people of color who lived in the house at various times. From census records Sammons found the names of free people of color who were listed in a pre-Civil War record with full names and their own personal property value, a rare historical find from the antebellum south.
“The idea behind doing this book is to flesh out the story of slavery,” Sammons said. “I was conscious about this. There’s so much. They known the names of some of the people here. The story of Tom Milledge and his wife. To have a picture of enslaved people is amazing. They were slaves and then they were free. This is an example of a family of people who decided to stay with their masters after the end of the Civil War.
“Thinking about slavery, I think a lot of people have this idea that it’s black and white,” Sammons said. “White people owned black people. Some people might know about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, and if they do, they might have this perception of plantations. They think it’s just about the South, but all of America was involved in this. It was so complex that we can’t wrap our brain around it. That’s where I think places like the Andrew Low House and the Owens-Thomas House can bring to life these stories and hopefully help people get a little bit of how complex it was. Every possible scenario there was probably existed.”
There is only one remaining piece in the house that was believed to have been there during Andrew Low’s time. A writing desk in the front, northeast room was believed to have been used by Thackeray. The room is now named after him. The rest of the furnishings were added at various times over the past 90 years by different curators associated with the Dames. Sammons focused on the current objects that had held importance to the occupants history in the book.
“When I was writing this book, I tried to emphasize those pieces in the house that had a connection to the family, the extended family, then Savannah, then Georgia,” Sammons said. “I tried to emphasize those and I tried — some of it is more dry for some readers. I tried to pepper little stories throughout, to try to make it of more interest to a general reader."
Together, the objects and occupants of the Andrew Low House weave a rich story of old Savannah, where the factual history of a place becomes far more interesting than the sensationalized tropes and fictionalized anecdotes often associated with the Hostess City and its history.