Old Savannah: Renewed Purpose

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Courtesy Historic Savannah Foundation

Preservation and progress revitalize historic Kennedy Pharmacy

Referring to World War II, Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors.

In the case of building preservation in Savannah, that couldn’t be more true — although the conquerors in our case aren’t decorated war heroes, but a group of seven refined matrons who refused to let the wrecking ball of progress destroy the city’s storied past. At a time when downtown’s exquisite mansions and commercial buildings were being bulldozed for modern replacements, these legendary “Seven Ladies” — Anna Colquitt Hunter, Lucy Barrow McIntire, Elinor Grunsfeld Adler Dillard, Nola McEvoy Roos, Jane Adair Wright, Katherine Judkins Clark and Dorothy Ripley Roebling — incorporated themselves as the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955, wielding social influence and political power to protect, preserve and restore foundering architectural marvels.

Broughton Street’s Kennedy Pharmacy building is one example of the ladies’ legacy. With its rich wood surfaces and sun-filled spaces, it currently serves as a popular meeting room and event space, hosting wedding receptions, concerts and the Davenport House Museum’s annual spooky living history program of the yellow fever epidemic of 1820. Now, the former apothecary will be bestowed a new purpose as the home of HSF’s new Historic Preservation Center, a permanent, interactive installation that celebrates the Seven Ladies and others who have contributed to the continuing narrative of historic preservation in Savannah.

HSF’s first victory was saving the 1820 Federal-style Isaiah Davenport House in 1955, and its footprint expanded when HSF received an anonymous donation for the former pharmacy across the lane that same year. Built in 1890 by local Harbor Master Robert Kennedy as an income property, the bottom floor storefront’s first tenant was the Anti-Migraine Company; the pharmacist and his family lived upstairs. The building continued as a drugstore through the 1940s, falling slowly into disrepair as it was used for various professional offices and storage in the decades that followed. It was restored by a two-year partnership between HSF and SCAD beginning in 2007 — during which more than 80 historic preservation students helped strip paint, repair mantles and reverse antique marble floor tiles to reveal brand-new surfaces.

“We know that Savannah has tremendous history, but how that history has been preserved in its buildings is a story of its own,” says Sue Adler, HSF interim president and CEO. “It’s going to give context and emotion to what we do here at HSF.”

With plans for new renovations and additional construction helmed by local architect and HSF board chair Brian Felder, the pharmacy’s inviting entrance on Broughton Street will now open to a finely appointed gift shop, featuring books, souvenirs and other objects associated with historic Savannah. A contemporary glass structure at the rear of the building will house multimedia displays, and a meeting room upstairs will be accessible by an outdoor staircase.

New occupants are also upstairs: The staff of the Davenport House Museum, who have operated out of the basement of the historic home since the inception of the foundation, will move into the upper floor of the pharmacy building. (HSF’s offices are headquartered across Columbia Square in the historic Abraham Sheftall House, built circa 1818.)

“The hope has always been to move over to Kennedy Pharmacy, and this planning phase has allowed us to dream big dreams,” says Jamie Credle, who has served as the Davenport House Museum’s executive director since 2002. “People can cross the lane to link the house with the bigger story.”
That bigger story — told by the $1.4 million preservation project — will also include the Davenport House Museum’s basement, which won’t stay vacant for long. An installation preserving the narrative of the house’s 13 enslaved people is in the works, to be overseen by world-renowned museum designer Doug Mund, who also created the award-winning slave quarters exhibit at the Owens-Thomas House.

The Historic Preservation Center is the legacy of HSF benefactors Murray Perlman and his late husband Wayne Spears. Renowned for their commitment to historic preservation in the city, the couple ran successful antiques and property management businesses and married in 2015 after almost 50 years together. Among other buildings, they lovingly restored the circa-1810 Scribner House, just a stone’s throw from Columbia Square and the Kennedy Pharmacy.

Before Spears passed away in 2017, he and Perlman decided to speed up the HSF donation they had already included their estate plans, putting $250,000 toward the project — the “gamechanger” that turned the wish for a dedicated historic preservation center into a reality.

“I believe it is the single largest gift the foundation has ever received,” recalls Daniel Carey, who served as HSF president and CEO for more than a decade.

“Their work in preservation is emblematic of how people can have a tremendous effect. They’ve been such good friends and neighbors, and at their heart of hearts, dedicated preservationists of Savannah.”

Now 87, Perlman continues to live in the Scribner House, surrounded by loving caregivers as well as a tremendous collection of antiques, artwork and photographs. Asked how he feels about the legacy that he and his husband have left to Savannah, he sums it up in two words: “Very proud.”
The story to be told at the Historic Preservation Center is one of those who saw value in the past and fought to preserve it — Perlman and Spears included. The battle for historic preservation in Savannah continues, and HSF will launch a campaign at the end of this year to give the public an opportunity to meet the fundraising goals of the center and be part of the HSF mission.

“We see this as a resource for residents and visitors to engage in the history of Savannah,” Adler says. “Per our mission, we’re going to keep telling the stories and share the importance of historical preservation in this beautiful city of ours.”