A Year Like No Other

- by

Davenport House turns 200 — with uncanny connections to today

IT WAS A YEAR that shook Savannah to its very foundation. An election year and a census year beset by racial tensions and economic hardship, ravaged by fire and a deadly virus; a year that made Savannahians ask, “What’s next, 1820?”

Yes, 1820. As Shirley Bassey once told us, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

Such déjà vu is also why, for Davenport House’s bicentennial, its director, Jamie Credle, decided to showcase the watershed year in which it was built. “As 2020 went on, the parallels grew and grew,” she says. “It’s interesting to see how others [in history] have maneuvered through crises.”

The Davenport House, on the northwest corner of Columbia Square at 324 E. State St., is a stately, Federal-style home completed by master carpenter Isaiah Davenport in 1820.

(More than a century later, its looming demolition was the catalyst for the creation of the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955. This humble start began Savannah’s preservation renaissance, and today, HSF has gone on to national prominence as a preservation leader. HSF still owns Davenport House.)

Davenport was moving his young family into this new home — featuring 2.5 stories, 6,800 square feet and one hallmark spiral staircase — just as Savannah’s year of turmoil began.

Davenport House, Savannah G.A.
The famous spiral staircase at Davenport House
Photography by John Carrington

On January 1, 1820, the Davenport family’s beloved spiritual adviser, the minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church, Henry Kollock, was laid to rest. Kollock was someone the community looked to for leadership through hard times, and they grieved his loss deeply, Credle shares.

Then, just 10 days later, around 1 a.m., a fire broke out in a livery stable behind a downtown boarding house. A strong wind spread the fire to Bay Street and City Market, where it met with kegs of gunpowder, setting off a massive explosion.

The casualties were miraculously low, but Savannah was leveled from Bay Street to Broughton Street between Jefferson Street to the west and Abercorn Street to the east — the entire center of the city at the time. All told, 463 buildings burned to the ground, and two out of every three Savannah residents were left homeless.

Savannah was already mired in the nation’s first economic downturn (referred to by some historians as our first Great Depression), one that had seen the value of its exports decrease by 50 percent, a collapse in cotton prices, credit growing tight, and lawsuits over the repayment of large debts between Savannah’s elite. According to one newspaper, the fire, coupled with the downturn, “impoverished the wealthy” and “beggared the poor.”

While Isaiah Davenport and others worked with the city’s relief program to house refugees from the fire, other city government officials sent donations, despite their own economic struggles.

But, with fierce tensions brewing between northern and southern states regarding slavery and the Missouri Compromise, this, sadly, wasn’t as simple as it may sound: New York City, for example, sent a donation of $10,238.29 (more than $225,000 today) with the stipulation that its relief should be distributed “without distinction of color.”

This was refused by the Savannah government, who returned the donation with the following response from Savannah’s mayor, Thomas U. P. Charlton: “You have, sir, politely and delicately conveyed to me this contribution; but it comes fettered by a restriction that renders its acceptance utterly impossible.”

As so many were homeless, Savannahians were thankful for a mild winter. By March, it was warm, with unusually heavy rainfall that continued throughout the summer, pooling up into the empty, burned-out foundations — all perfect breeding conditions for the Aedes mosquito that carries Yellow Fever.

But no one knew this at the time: Yellow Fever was a feared and mysterious virus with unknown origins. Nothing about it seemed to make sense, including the way it was transmitted. Many locals had built up immunity, but those who came from out of town to help rebuild Savannah had no previous exposure, and this was an especially bad year.

In all, 900 people in Savannah died from Yellow Fever in 1820, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the city’s population at the time.

As the year drew to a close, the virus ended with the cold weather. On Dec. 10, 1820, Isaiah Davenport’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to a son named Henry Kollock Davenport — an homage to the late minister. And Savannah itself continued to rebuild.

The Davenport House is a timely symbol of resilience, Credle says. “We want visitors to know that people in the past weathered hard times and had years like 2020.” davenporthousemuseum.org