Spanning the Gap with Names

One of the ways we tell our stories is by the way we choose to name our children, our places, our monuments.

One of the reasons behind this blog and the resulting book is to describe the men named Mills Bee Lane and some of their family legacies. To recap, the first was a banker from Valdosta who expanded his banking expertise into Savannah. Mills B. Lane Jr. extended the bank’s empire into Atlanta while also using time and resources to rebuild and rehabilitate his hometown of Savannah. Mills III was a nephew who became famous as a boxer and TV judge. Mills IV, son of Anne and Mills, Jr. took his parents’ legacy to a new level with restorations and recreations throughout Savannah’s landmark historic district, became an author, publisher and philanthropist, and is the ultimate focus of these narratives.

Mills Bee Lane IV named his pride and joy the Beehive Press, a play on his own name Bee IV. But for the most part, the Lanes were not interested in having their name in lights or attached to monuments. Mills Jr. liked to joke that each morning he would read the newspaper to see what illegal activity had occurred on the street named for his father, Mills Bee Lane Boulevard. He might have liked it better now that the street also offers fine art for sale.

The Talmadge Bridge is visible from the recently constructed North Garden of the William Scarbrough House. New perspectives add to the discussion of Savannah’s history.

Former City Manager Michael Brown told me that he had discussed with Mills IV naming the new bridge across the Savannah River after his father. Mills IV wanted no part of it. More’s the pity, but that ship has sailed.

The “Savannah Bridge” seemed to register as a favorite of the audience at a recent Span the Gap forum held to discuss the renaming the current Talmadge Memorial Bridge opened in 1991. It is burdened with the namesake of Eugene Talmadge which was the name of the old bridge built across the Savannah River in 1953. Talmadge used white supremacy as a pillar of his political strength as Georgia governor in the 1930s and 40s.

The Savannah Theater was a fitting location for the lively and well-attended discussion. The building was originally designed by William Jay, that name behind some of the most important buildings in Savannah: the Scarbrough House, home of Ships of the Sea Museum and former home to West Broad Street School for African-American children; the Telfair Academy, now an art museum that was originally built as a home for Alexander Telfair, son of another former governor; and the Richard Richardson-Owens-Thomas House with its well-preserved housing for enslaved workers. The moderator, Otis Johnson, Savannah’s second African-American mayor, said he wasn’t allowed in the Savannah Theater when he was a boy.

Mills IV had talked with the Historic Savannah Foundation about trying to restore the Savannah Theater to a state that William Jay would have recognized, but Mills decided the project was too costly and complicated for the turn of the current century.

Panelist and SCAD Professor Robin Williams gave examples of how historical priorities and politics have changed the names of streets in Savannah: King Street is now President Street, Duke is now Congress and Prince is State. Even the road that leads up to the new bridge has changed from South Broad Street to Oglethorpe Avenue.

Williams talked about how the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House “was a symbol of white wealth.” Expanding the discussions of the role and quarters of enslaved people “is not negating history but understanding the complete picture.” Williams and another panelist, community activist Pamela Oglesby, talked about how now is a teachable moment as people consider changing the name of the bridge.

Panelist and newspaper columnist Dr. Mark Murphy said, “We are not rewriting history but reinterpreting it.”

Minister and former state NAACP leader Francys Johnson drew a gasp from the audience when he said from the stage that his grandfather was named after Eugene Talmadge. He explained later that his grandfather was one of 12 children and the midwife delivering him on Millhaven Plantation could have picked the name from a vegetable bag since Talmadge was involved in Georgia agriculture long before he was governor. Johnson was not random with the names of his own sons: Thurgood Marshall Joshua Johnson, Langston Hughes Elijah Johnson, and Frederick Douglass Caleb Johnson.

People “are branded by the eras they were born in,” Francys Johnson said. While he loathed the politics of the man whose name is on the bridge, Johnson said, he is more offended by the people who are compelled to live under it.

In my last blog I promised to continue our stroll around Warren Square, so we’ll head back to Congress Street, or Duke Street if you really want to walk through history. Since the Lanes were responsible for renovating or recreating all of the houses around the square, we will concentrate on a couple at a time.

As Savannah started to grow, a new ward and square were named after General Joseph Warren who died in the American Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Laid out 16 years after his death, Warren was part of the Sons of Liberty but didn’t seem to have any direct connection to Savannah.

Schroder House, 32-34 Habersham Street, restored by Anne and Mills Lane, Jr., c. 1965

Between the recreated Dennis Tenement and the John David Mongin House that we mentioned in the last blog post, the Harry Schroder House was built on the corner of Congress and Habersham in 1898, much later than others on the square.  Anne and Mills Lane Jr. restored it circa 1965. They were especially busy during that period working with landscape designer Clermont Lee on renovating squares and gardens for the houses.

North of the John David Mongin House (his father was David John Mongin) on the adjacent trust lot sits the George Spencer House. Built circa 1791 with an addition in the 1830s, it was renovated in the 1980s and Mills Lane IV restored the house in 1993.

George Spencer House, early to mid 20th-century views (left and right)

George Spencer House, 22 Habersham Street, after its restoration by Mills Lane IV in 1993

The earliest front rooms of the house now constitute a five-bay center-hall clapboard frame house. Architectural clues indicate that the narrow center hall may have been the result of modifying what was a hall-and-parlor plan or that the front rooms were built at different times. The portico and rear addition date from the early 1830s.

Parlor of George Spencer House embellished with a panelled overmantel and chimney piece with projecting corner blocks

When Mills IV restored the house in 1993, he wrote that “balusters were copied from Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, a handbook used by many builders in the 1790s to suggest that pieces from an old porch might have been salvaged for use in the 1830s portico.”

Taking the latex paint off of the main floor mantel showed original faux marbling of black and gold paint.

The original builder of the house is a little more complicated to uncover. Some records show the house was built by George Basil Spencer, but he died in February 1791. Records place the building being built between 1790 and 1804, one of the oldest still standing in Savannah. Some records indicate the builder was his brother William H. Spencer, who lived until 1817. Some call the house the Spencer-Woodbridge House, since William Woodbridge became the next owner.

Mills usually used the first owner’s name, so in his books, the name is the George Spencer House. Mills also referred to the Richard Richardson House although the Owenses and Thomases used it longer. Surviving family members can strongly influence the names edifices continue to carry. The Talmadge family has emphatically made their wishes known about the bridge name through the years.

History may be exact, but our records and memories aren’t. We curate our lives and times. We choose what we want to display and what we want to call it.

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

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

 

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