Saturday, February 16, 2013

Guests and Ghosts on Columbia Square


Davenport House
324 East State Street

Kehoe House
123 Habersham Street
Savannah, Georgia

Savannah has worked hard to promote its ghosts. Perhaps it may be one of the more, if not most, active cities in the South. Its huge historic districts are just crawling with spirits, some strolling through its parks, stalking its streets and alleys, lingering in its gardens and cemeteries, residing amongst the living in private homes, floating between the tables of restaurants and bars and staying on past their reservations in the city’s hotels and inns. Savannah has no end of beautiful hotels and inns for guests and ghosts to haunt. From historic hotels like the Marshall House, 17Hundred90 Inn and the East Bay Inn to bed and breakfast inns like the Foley House Inn and the Hamilton-Turner House, ghosts and guests have quite a bit to choose from. Perhaps one of the grandest among these is the Kehoe House on Columbia Square.

Savannah was laid out by James Oglethorpe, the founder of the Colony of Georgia, in a style used initially by the ancient Romans for laying out their military encampments. This style consists of broad avenues punctuated by squares. Over time the strict lines of this plan have been softened by the many live oak trees planted along the streets and in the squares. The oaks provide a verdant canopy over the still vibrant historic streets and squares. Columbia Square is one of more peaceful and less bustling squares while two of its structures anchor its historic character: the Isaiah Davenport House and the Kehoe House. The ghostly reputations of both these houses also anchor them in the annals of the paranormal world

Built in 1820, the Isaiah Davenport House was built almost 70 years before the construction of the grand Kehoe House just across the street. Isaiah Davenport was a master builder from New England who used his family’s home to demonstrate his building skill; while William Kehoe was an Irish immigrant who climbed his way up the ladder in the iron industry and eventually bought the iron foundry where he began as an apprentice. In building his home, Kehoe sought to demonstrate the beauty and flexibility of his iron products which were used in the window and door frames, railings and balustrades. Both the Federal Davenport House and the Queen Anne Kehoe House reflect the progress of the American Dream in the 19th century.

The fates of both homes took similar paths. Both remained residences until the early 19th century when Savannah’s fortunes changed and the neighborhood declined. The homes were both converted to boarding houses, but the newer Kehoe House eventually became home to a funeral home. Its basements where servants had once toiled to support the family saw embalmers draining the blood of the dead to be replaced with formaldehyde. The parlors on the first floor that once buzzed with the excitement of society’s graces were filled with weeping and sorrow as family and friends stole one last glance upon their loved ones in the Viewing Room. The perfumes and colognes of the living throughout the house were replaced with the perfume of flowers for the dead.

The Kehoe House remained as a funeral home for some decades until it was sold to a group of investors including football star Joe Namath. Intending to turn the grand house in a gentleman’s club, the investors were rebuffed by the residents of Columbia Square and the rest of the neighborhood. In 1990, the house was sold again and began a restoration to transform it into a historic inn.

Meanwhile the Davenport House remained a boarding house of the lowest order through the first half of the twentieth century. In 1955, the shabby structure was purchased by the step daughter of the owner of the Goette Funeral Home across the street. It was intended that the eyesore would be demolished and replaced with America’s contribution to historic preservation: a parking lot. History-minded citizens in the city created the Historic Savannah Foundation with an eye towards saving the derelict house. On several occasions they tried to purchased the home but their advances were spurned. With just hours until the home was to meet its fate, the owner relented and sold it to the Foundation. The home underwent years of restoration and once again held her head proudly among the historic ladies of Columbia Square as a house museum.

Isaiah Davenport House, 2009. Photo by Cybersquire79,
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
While now the Davenport House is devoid of living residents, there are spiritual residents remaining. One of the first stories told of the house dates to its days as a boarding house. Among its diverse residents were a number of Chinese families including Robert Chung Chan whose daughter reported this story to Margaret Wayt DeBolt who included it in her magisterial Savannah Spectres. The simple story tells of Chan encountering a large yellow cat as he entered the house one day. The cat followed him up the stairs and bolted through the front door and disappeared down the hall. A subsequent search of the house did not reveal the yellow feline.

From source to source the description of the cat changes, perhaps from witness’s unfamiliarity with cat breeds. James Caskey describes the cat as an orange and white tabby, though he notes DeBolt’s description of a large yellow cat while Robert Edgerly notes the same description. Dr. Alan Brown goes further afield in describing the cat as a large Persian. Regardless, guests visiting the Davenport house have seen and felt the large cat on the premises. Some may have the same experience as Mr. Chan with the cat scurrying up the front stairs and disappearing in the hallway. Others see the cat following them into the gift shop. Robert Edgerly reports a guest standing on the second floor felt a purring cat rub against his leg, though when he looked down, there was nothing there. It should be noted that the museum does not allow pets on the premises, though they have adopted the spirited feline as part of the museum family and they now sell a plush version in the gift shop.

In addition to the scurrying, four-legged spirit, the Davenport House also plays host to a two-legged spirit as well. Guests have seen a small girl playing with toys on the second floor. She was spotted at one point by two tourists who were touring the house near closing time. Concerned that the girl seemed to be unsupervised, they mentioned her presence on the second floor to the cashier in the gift shop. The concerned cashier thoroughly searched the house to no avail. Tour groups passing the house have also observed the little girl peering from the upper windows of the house. Alan Brown ventures that the child may be the spirit of Laura Davenport who died after falling down the stairs of the home.

With guests staying longer at the Kehoe House, there’s more of a chance for run-ins with the resident spirits there. One of the more prominent spirits is that of a woman in white. She has been known to enter rooms, possibly checking in on the guests. The late Nancy Roberts, the author of numerous books on ghosts of the South, stayed in room 201 and encountered the Lady in White during her stay. Her first night in the inn she stayed up expecting something to happen. Exhausted, she closed her eyes around 1 AM but was awakened around 2 AM by the sound of a key in the lock of the door.
I was still half asleep when I heard the sound in the door. Then I heard a sharp crack as if the door was opening, followed by the sound of the door closing with a resounding crash.

I immediately opened my eyes and sat up in bed. In the far corner of the room, I could see a tall woman with long, dark hair. The woman’s floor-length gown was a luminous white. With trembling fingers, I turned on the bedside light and looked again, only to find that she was gone.

The following night, the nocturnal visitor did not return, though Roberts and her husband did note a cold spot in the room and her husband complained of the strong scent of roses that permeated the room. Oddly, his wife did not notice the odor.

Kehoe House, 2009. Photo by rjones0856.
Released under a Creative Commons License.
Robert Edgerly mentions an event that was related to him by hotel guests in 2004. A couple staying in the same room, 201, were awakened at 12:01 AM by a woman scream followed by the sound of someone falling down the stairs just outside their room. Rushing to the door and throwing it open, the couple found no one but the couple from room 203, just across the hall, who had been awakened by the same sounds.

These two rooms on the second floor seem to attract the most spirits. Ghost tour guide James Caskey surmises that at least some of the activity in these rooms may be caused by the spirits of a pair of twins who legend holds may have died in the home. The progeny of the Kehoe family, these curious twins died while exploring a chimney. As a result, their laughter and footsteps have been heard in the hall of the second floor. Additionally, a guest of room 201 was awakened by a young child caressing her face. The child quickly disappeared as the startled sleeper awoke.

However, it seems that the activity is hardly confined to the second floor. Recently, one of my best friends (who has been previously mentioned in this blog), Troy Heard, and his wife, the ever lovely Kady stayed in room 101 of the inn. Troy knows well the stories of the Kehoe House and the rest of Savannah, having conducted ghost tours of the city while studying for his masters at SCAD. Kady, who has an abiding interest in ghosts, was most happy to hear her husband’s stories. While Kady does not consider herself to be sensitive, she stated that her entire stay in Savannah she could never quite get comfortable and relax.

Their stay in the Kehoe House was also not that uneventful. One night around 3 AM, Kady was awakened by an odd scratching at the window. While this may not be odd, she soon heard the sound of footsteps in the hall. The jingle of keys soon followed and she heard the door to the room across the hall being opened. The next morning, the couple was surprised to see the door to the room across the hall still propped open (the rooms are opened when they’re not occupied). They inquired at the desk to find that no one checked into that room late at night.

While the phantom feline at the Davenport House is seen quite regularly, it seems the Kehoe House may be more active. There’s also mention made of a light being seen in the cupola of the house as well as the voice of a small boy inviting passersby to come play. The Kehoe House pays homage to its ghosts on its website and many authors have noted that the front desk takes notes on the experiences of guests. Should you pass by Columbia Square late at night, don’t be startled to see or hear playing children or a large, yellow cat, they’re just very permanent residents.

Sources
Brown, Alan. Haunted Georgia: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Peach
     State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
Caskey, James. Haunted Savannah: The Official Guidebook to the Savannah
     Haunted History Tour, 2008. Savannah, GA: Bonaventture Books, 2008.
Conversation with Troy and Kady Heard, 12 February 2013.
DeBolt, Margaret Wayt. Savannah Spectres and Other Strange Tales. Norfolk,
     VA: The Donning Company, 1984.
Edgerly, Robert. Savannah Hauntings. Savannah, GA: See Savannah Books,
     2005.
History of the Kehoe House.” KehoeHouse.com. Accessed 15 February 2013.
Isaiah Davenport House. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 15 February
     2013.
Our Institutional History.” Davenport House Museum. Accessed 15 February
     2013.
Roberts, Nancy. Georgia Ghosts. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair,
     1997.

3 comments:

  1. Who could Laura Davenport be? The Davenport (Isaiah and Sarah's) children were Susannah, Sarah and Thurston - who all died before moving into the home. The other children Isaiah,Jr. Benjamin Rush, Archibald, Henry Kollock, Hugh McCall, Cornelia Augusta, and Dudley -- all survived their residence in the Davenport House. No Davenport family member ever died falling down a flight of stairs in the home at 324 E. State Street.
    Jamie Credle, Director, Davenport House Museum
    www.davenporthousemuseum.org

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey there! Thank you for the information. Like so many legends of hauntings, this just seems to be a story that has evolved. Maybe the spirit of one of the girls who died before the family moved into the home stuck with the family and remains in the house? Perhaps this was a child from a later family or boarding house resident? If the story of the little girl being seen isn't fiction all together. Ghost stories are like that. Sometimes family trees end up with extra branches added by overzealous tour guides or writers. The fact that there is no Laura does add yet another twist to the multi-faceted story of this remarkable home.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I worked weekends at the Davenport House ... managing the shop in the basement and opening the upstairs for tour groups. I had a horrifying experience in the basement shop on Sunday morning in September 1990. I was alone, no other staff, no tour groups, just straightening merchandise displays, stacking books, etc., when I heard a rushing wind noise. I looked up from my work and saw a tall, black cloud-like vision move from the back hallway and around the bottom of the stairs. It moved toward the back door out to the garden, and vanished in the back hallway. I was so shaken, I spent the next hour standing on the corner outside the museum shop and could only reenter when tour groups arrived.

    I had another experience in the upstairs room behind the main parlor, the main floor room which overlooks the back garden. We called it the Map Room as there were several framed antique maps in that room in the late 1990s. I admit, I had no work in that room, but was snooping through drawers in a chest in the room. I was looking at maps I found in the top drawer along with some old candles and other paper. All of a sudden, the wood floor under me vibrated or bounced, like wood floors do when someone of some weight walks on them. The vibration gave the sense of someone quickly walking up behind me to catch me rummaging through the drawers. I though for sure one of the docents or manager had come to catch me snooping around. When I turned around with a gasp and a scream, there was no one there. Needless to say, I never snooped in the Map Room again.

    ReplyDelete