Historic Telfair Square

Telfair Square and Heathcote Ward were the last of four squares and wards that were laid out in 1733, before James Oglethorpe returned to England for a visit. Oglethorpe originally named the square St. James Square, but the name was changed in 1883 to honor the Telfair family and their contributions to early Savannah history and culture.

Indeed, several Telfairs were noted for their role in Savannah’s history. Edward Telfair, arrived and prospered during the Crown colony period, leading up to the Revolutionary War. He acquired large land grants near Augusta. He established a successful export business in Savannah with a business partner, Joseph Clay, a relative who had come to Savannah from England to establish his fortune. Edward Telfair married into a prominent former South Carolinian family, which enhanced his power and he ultimately became Governor of Georgia. His wealth eventually made it down through the generations to Mary Telfair, the last descendant, who used the family wealth to help fund religious, cultural and social causes to care for the needs Savannahians in all walks of life. Mary’s brother, Alexander, built one of the beautiful and notable mansions, at 121 Barnard Street. Upon his death, the home was left to his two sisters, one of whom was Mary Telfair. This home was deeded to the city upon her death and opened as the Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1886.

The historic Trinity Methodist Church is located at 127 Barnard on Telfair Square. This Greek Revival style church was designed by John B. Hogg and built in 1848. Hogg also designed the First Bryan Baptist Church at 575 West Bryan Street, dating from 1873. In 1812, the predecessor of the Trinity Methodist Church, known at the time as the Wesley church, was established by John Wesley. He and his brother lived in Savannah in the early 1800s. John returned to England after his short residence in Savannah. He is considered to be the founder of the Methodist church.

On the east side of Telfair Square, on the two trust lots, sit two federal government buildings, which are faced in tile. Directly across the square on the west side sits a larger coordinating building. These buildings have been a source of divisiveness in historic Savannah’s past. They were built after concerned Savannahians were unable to save the old three story, red brick Helmly Building which occupied part of the site. The Government Services Administration, which built the office complex, believed they would enhance the vitality of the city. However, the tile exterior led Savannahians to call them the bathroom buildings and there has been talk, from time to time, of tearing them down. However, like them or not, they did represent a return, at least on Telfair Square, to the concept of using trust lots for public buildings. The buildings, however, reflect the scale and detail of the Regency style Telfair building and the Greek Revival Trinity Methodist Church across the street.

These buildings also represent and continue the propensity the builders had of holding a design competition, which resulted in hiring an architect from outside to design the buildings and oversee the work. In this case, Hugh Jacobsen won the competition, designed the buildings and stayed on to build similar buildings throughout the city.

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