Bellwether House

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Discover the Bellwether House, which was once two beautiful Gilded Age townhouses owned by the prominent Palmer and Dresser families.

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The Bellwether House, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2021, dates back to 1876.

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The businessmen who originally built the two townhouses that would become the “Bellwether House” were a couple of New Englanders: Samuel Palmer and Henry Dresser. Both men would travel south from their respective home states in order to find better economic opportunities in Savannah. Samuel Palmer—who resided on the left side of the home—was born to a Rhode Island family whose ancestors came to America onboard the Mayflower. But in the early 19th century, his family moved to Bulloch County, Georgia, before finally settling in Savannah. Along with his father and brother, Samuel opened one of the most significant hardware stores in the city at the time that they called “Palmer and Sons.” The Palmer family subsequently lived at their brilliant downtown manor—the “Bellwether”—for the remainder of their lives. On the other hand, Henry Dresser—who resided in the other townhouse—hailed from coastal Massachusetts. In fact, his own family were integral in founding both the communities of Salem and Boston back during the colonial era. But unlike his neighbor Samuel Palmer, Henry Dressed had moved to Savannah as an adult in the wake of the American Civil War. Dresser himself specifically desired to become a “cotton factor” and reinvested heavily into reviving defunct plantations surrounding the city. (Cotton factors essentially operated as wholesalers that specialized in transporting cotton on shipping cotton from port.) Henry and his family lived in Savannah for just a couple of decades, though, and soon took their newfound wealth back north. Nevertheless, the two structures continued to operate as residential structures for generations thereafter, until they were joined together to form a brilliant boutique hotel called the “Bellwether House” in 2021. Now a member of Historic Hotels of America, the future of this fantastic historic site has never looked brighter.

  • About the Location +

    In 1733, a group of English colonists led by General James Oglethorpe departed from their ship, the Anne, and came ashore at a landmark called the “Yamacraw Bluff.” (The bluff is currently enclosed by downtown Savannah.) Upon making landfall, the settlers were greeted by the Chief Tomochichi and his fellow Yamacraw Indians. With the natives were John and Mary Musgrove, a couple of traders who often served as interpreters for the Yamacraw. The two camps quickly established friendly relations, and Oglethorpe began constructing a colonial outpost with the blessing of Tomochichi. The new town that Oglethorpe hoped to construct was to be the first official settlement for the new Georgia Colony, which he himself would govern. The general specifically intended for the community—and Georgia as a whole—to serve as a refuge for English subjects imprisoned for debt and other petty crimes. But the British Crown had an ulterior motive for granting Oglethorpe the right to create a colony in the “New World.”

    Given its location at the southern end of British America, the royal government saw the nascent settlement as a buffer against any potential encroachments by either the Spanish or French against the more prosperous colonies to the north. Nevertheless, Oglethorpe—and his colleague, William Bull—began creating a town grid near the Yamacraw Bluff that loosely resembled London’s layout. Yet, the prospective community differed in that it featured more wards and central squares. Calling the settlement “Savannah,” it functioned as Georgia’s official capital for the next five decades. It also grew as a commercial port, second only to Charleston in its economic importance to those living in the southern colonies. Savannah’s vibrant harbor even made it a strategic target early on during the American Revolutionary War, with the British seizing the city in 1778. Despite the combined efforts of American and French soldiers to recapture Savannah, it remained in British hands for the duration of the conflict.

    After the war in 1786, the Georgia legislature voted to move the capital several dozen miles away to Augusta. But Savannah continued to be one of the most commercially prosperous communities in the state, especially as its harbor continued to expand during the 19th century. Perhaps the epitome of such a transformation came when a steamboat called the “S.S. Savannah sailed from the city to Liverpool in 1819, thus becoming the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic. Most of the merchants who managed shipping operations out of Savannah mainly moved agricultural products, specifically cotton and other staple crops grown on the many plantations scattered throughout the countryside. Even though James Oglethorpe had originally outlawed slavery in Georgia, subsequent generations of Georgians introduced the practice as a means of economically competing with the already-established planters in South Carolina and Virginia. As such, chattel slavery became immersed into the socioeconomic fabric of Savannah during the first half of the century.

    The institution eventually collapsed, however, when Union soldiers occupied the city and liberated its enslaved population in the American Civil War. Savannah began operating as a major supply depot for the Confederate armies as soon as the conflict erupted, inspiring the U.S. Navy to immediately institute a blockade of its coastline. Soldiers succeeded in taking Fort Pulaski on nearby Cockspur Island in April of 1862, but failed to invade the city outright. Savannah continued to provide men and material defiantly for the next two years, until Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces captured the city at the end of his historic “March to the Sea.” Sherman even notified President Abraham Lincoln of his success in a famous telegraph that read: “I get to present to you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

    Unlike the many other towns that Sherman seized during the campaign, he chose not to burn Savannah to the ground. Savannah had still suffered significantly from the conflict, though, with the naval blockade of its ports greatly undermining its economy. Fortunately, the city recovered rather rapidly over the next several years, becoming a booming port once more by the late 1870s. Cotton returned as Savannah’s primary export, as did naval products like rosin, turpentine, and lumber. But when a prolonged boll weevil outbreak devastated the local agricultural industry in the 1920s, the shipping industry suffered greatly. Many Savannahians began looking to other industries, like food processing and paper-pulp manufacturing. The port eventually nonetheless recovered from the earlier blight, emerging as one of the nation’s most prolific shipbuilding locations by the middle of the century. In fact, Savannah produced dozens of liberty ships to support the national war effort in World War II. Savannah also became central to the Civil Rights Movement, with many non-violent protests occurring across the city to challenge its practice of racial segregation. Among the first protests to transpire happened shortly after World War II, when Ralph Mark Gilbert directed a successful campaign to desegregate the local police force. Today, Savannah is celebrated all over the United States for its immense history. Many across the nation continue to find its heritage and culture among the most fascinating throughout the whole nation.


  • About the Architecture +

    The Bellwether House is a pair of adjoining Italianate townhomes built in the Stephens Ward of Savannah in 1876 for merchants Henry Dresser and Samuel Palmer. The Bellwether House is specifically a prime example of the Italianate Styles second stage, High Victorian Italianate. The features that highlight this style perfectly are the tall and narrow windows topped with a decorative crown, deep cornices adorned with stylized brackets, embellished curved top doorways, and long porches spanning the length of the house. In fact, the Bellwether house boasts the longest contiguous porch in Savannah to date. Italianate-style architecture was once among the most ubiquitous design aesthetics to appear in the United States back during the 19th century. One of the first examples of Renaissance Revival—style architecture, Italianate design principles are some of the most historic ever used in the United States. Despite its popularity in the United States, it was originally conceived by a British architect named John Nash at the beginning of the 1800s.

    Inspired by the architectural motifs of 16th-century Italy, he constructed a brilliant Mediterranean-themed estate called “Cronkhill.” Nash borrowed heavily from both Palladianism and Neoclassicism to design the building, both of which were derivatives of the Italian Renaissance art forms. Soon enough, many other architects began copying Nash’s style, using it to construct similar manors across the English countryside. The person responsible for popularizing the aesthetic the most was Sir Charles Barry, who had his own offshoot called “Barryesque.” By the middle of the century, this Italian Renaissance Revival-style architecture had spread to other places within the British Empire, as well as mainland Europe. It had even crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s, where it dominated the American architectural landscape for the next 50 years. Architect Alexander Jackson Davis promoted the style, using it to design such iconic structures like Blandwood and Winyah Park across New York. Although he was more widely known for his use of another Revival style—Neo Gothic—his work with Italianate helped cement it within the United States.


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