A house tied to the sea

Before “Museum in the Moonlight” and art exhibits like “Gestalt,” the William Scarbrough House on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., was a scene of privilege and prejudice.


By the 1970s Scarbrough House faced near catastrophic decay.

Not long after the British had been burning down American buildings during the War of 1812, a young English architect named William Jay arrived in Savannah and started putting up some of the most prominent houses in town.

William Scarbrough was president of the Savannah Steamship Company, which in 1819 sent the first steamship, Savannah, across the Atlantic. Scarbrough had commissioned the 26-year-old Jay to design what Scarbrough would later call his “castle” on fashionable West Broad Street in 1818. One of the earliest examples of domestic Greek Revival architecture in the South, it was hurriedly completed to celebrate in grand style the launch of the ship and the visit of President James Monroe. Some planned architectural details may have been sacrificed in the rush to completion, according to Mills Lane IV in “Wm Scarbrough’s House: History and Restoration”.

As was the story with other original owners of grand houses in Savannah, including another Jay design, the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House, Scarbrough went bankrupt not long after construction of his mansion. The steamship was not a commercial success and the city’s economy was being battered. In 1820, Savannah experienced a yellow fever epidemic that killed more than 600 people and a great fire that consumed more than 400 buildings and stopped only a few blocks from Scarbrough House. In November at age 44 Scarbrough was declared an insolvent debtor.

Fortunately, in-laws purchased the house and furnishings, and it stayed in the family until 1851. Scarbrough’s wife, Julia, and their children continued to live in the house while he spent most of his time in Darien pursuing other adventures. Godfrey Barnsley married daughter Julia (named after her mother) and they eventually folded their family into the Scarbrough household. An amateur architect, Barnsley, added decorations, structural elements, and a third floor.

As business and health took the family elsewhere, the house was sold to the Dominick O’Byrne family who lived there until 1865. The house was vacant for a few years after the Civil War ended at the same time that Georgia started grappling with public education for all children.

The Roman Catholics in Savannah first set up a day school for black children and a night school for black adults in Scarbrough House. After the Catholics left, the public school system started moving children into Scarbrough House in 1873, and by 1875 had enrolled more than 200 students. In 1878 philanthropist George W.J. DeRenne acquired the house and gave it in trust to the local public school system for the children of African descent.

An industrial staircase was added in the entrance hall, and Scarbrough House continued as West Broad Street School for 84 years. Underfunded and overcrowded with as many as 800 students some years, the school system was required to desegregate and stopped using the building as a school in 1962. For a few years it was used as storage and then returned to the DeRenne heirs.

“By now the mansion, battered by several generations of school children and painted neck-high with institutional green paint, was a mouldering ruin, blackened inside and out by decay and isolated on what had become a noisy commercial street,” Mills wrote.

The Lane family would soon get involved with saving the house, but it was years away from smooth sailing.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

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