Savannah’s Master Builder

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Historic builder Isaiah Davenport was the man of honor during the inaugural Historic Savannah Foundation Preservation Fest. Allison Hersh explores his legacy.

No photographs or portraits exist of Isaiah Davenport.  The exact details of his life remain somewhat vague.

However, this master builder made a lasting impact on Savannah’s cityscape—and not just because his own home’s impending demolition led the charge for historic preservation city-wide. Davenport constructed a number of homes in the early 1800s that continue to enrich Savannah’s urban landscape.

The Places

Laura’s Cottage, the first known dwellingDavenportconstructed inSavannahafter arriving fromNew Englandin 1808, serves as a testament to the craftsmanship that led to his future success as a builder.

In an era long before electricity and power tools, theRhode Islandtransplant set a standard for excellence and demonstrated a remarkable commitment to quality. Over the years,Davenportconstructed a number of stately homes inGeorgia’sFirstCity, including his own.  The 1820 Federal-style Davenport House onColumbia Squareis widely considered to be one of the nation’s finest examples of Georgian architecture.  During his tenure as a builder and carpenter,Davenportpopulated much of Columbia Ward and Greene Ward with his creations.

“Isaiah Davenport built homes for successful people in Savannah—the merchants and the factors,” says Jamie Credle, director of the Isaiah Davenport House Museum in Savannah.  “He’s part of the tradition that built Savannah.  It’s a testament to the builders who worked with their hands that these buildings are still here and speak to another time.”

The Work

Expert craftsmanship definedDavenport’s projects.  Using a combination of skilled tradesman and hired laborers, he helped shapeSavannah’s architectural identity in an enduring way.

“He was working in the spirit of the time and at a high level of craft and skill,” says furniture maker and carpenter Greg Guenther, owner of Guenther Wood Group Inc. inSavannah.  “He used the traditional skills that were handed down in the building trade to create some ofSavannah’s most cutting-edge homes.  They were built to last.”

According to Guenther, the Northern transplant quickly adapted to the materials available inSavannah, using localGeorgiapine to frame houses and lay wood floors.

“He was working in a new environment but using indigenous materials that would last,” Guenther says.  “He worked to build homes tightly and correctly.  We should tip our hat to the high standards he maintained.”

The Man

Born in Little Compton, R.I., on Nov. 3, 1784, Isaiah Davenport apprenticed as a carpenter inNew Bedford,Mass., before moving toSavannahin 1808.  He first appears on the city’s tax records in 1809, the same year he married Sarah Rosamund Clark at Independent Presbyterian Church.  He and his wife had a total of 10 children, four of whom tragically died in childhood.

In addition to building a number of private homes,Davenportserved as a popular contractor with the City ofSavannah, which enlisted his help to restore squares, build wharves and erect temporary housing in the wake of a devastating fire in 1820.  The federal government even contracted him to build the well-fortifiedMartelloToweronTybeeIsland, which was originally designed to defend againstEnglandin the War of 1812 and has since been razed.

Active in city politics,Davenportwas elected as a city alderman and served in this capacity from 1817 to 1822.  Over the years, he also acted as the firemaster for Greene andColumbiawards and as a constable for Columbia Ward.

When President James Monroe visitedSavannahin May 1819 to witness the launch of the steamshipSavannah—the first steamship to achieve a transatlantic voyage—Davenportwas present as a local dignitary, delivering a welcome toast.  He also served on a city council committee overseeing the laying of oyster shells alongBay Streetto prepare for the president’s arrival.

The accomplished builder ultimately died of yellow fever at the age of 43 on Oct. 16, 1827, during one of the city-wide epidemics that ravagedSavannah.  At the time,Davenportwas in the process of constructing a mill onHutchinsonIslandfor the Savannah Steam Saw Mill Co., which may be where he contracted the disease.  Originally buried atColonialCemetery, his body was eventually moved to Laurel Grove.

“To a large extent, Isaiah Davenport professionalized the building industry in Savannah,” says Historic Savannah Foundation president and CEO Daniel Carey.  “He didn’t just roll into town and move on.  He brought professional practices that became the benchmark or the standard.”