William Jay (c1793-1837) was one of Savannah’s most notable architects, and is recognized nationally as one of the best of the Regency period. A native of England, he was active in Savannah for only a few years, from 1818-1822. Jay was among the first professionally-trained architects to work in America, and also one of the earliest practitioners of the Greek Revival style in Georgia.
His architecture is regarded as some of the most outstanding in Savannah. Several of the buildings he designed survive to this day, including the Telfair House (later remodeled and redeveloped as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences); the Owens-Thomas House; and the Scarbrough House, now the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.
See below: List of Jay’s architectural works
William Jay was born in Bath, England, in the early 1790s (most probably, argues his biographer, Hanna Lerski, in 1793). He was the second child and first son of the well-known non-conformist cleric William Jay and his wife, Ann Davis.
After a childhood spent at the family home on Percy Place, in Bath, Jay moved to London. There – still in his early teens – he began his architectural training under the tutelage of architect and surveyor David Ridal Roper, who was most likely an acquaintance of his father.
Jay spent around a decade in London, during which time he developed his technique, participated in design exhibitions, and obtained his first commission, for a Greek Revival church.
Greek Revival was the preferred style of the later Georgian (early 18th to early 19th century) period of architecture. It first became popular around 1800, employed in many public and institutional buildings. London was an important locus for the development and refinement of that style, which became William Jay’s strongest influence and would remain so for the duration of his career.
Late in 1817, at the age of around 24, Jay emigrated to the United States, sailing from Liverpool on November 5.
Jay arrived in the US with the intention of settling in Savannah, not entirely a leap into the unknown. When he made his trans-Atlantic voyage, Jay had already undertaken at least two works in connection with the city, secured through his family connections.
Jay’s brother-in-law, the husband of his sister Ann, was Robert Bolton of Savannah. Bolton’s sister Frances had herself married the influential and well-connected Richard Richardson, who offered Jay, while he was still living in Britain, his first commission in America.
Around the same time, Jay also produced a design for the construction of the new Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, most likely encouraged through this same connection (his design was not selected for the project).
William Jay spent only a short time in Savannah, during which time he produced the majority of his significant works.
Jay’s design for Richardson’s house (today the Owens-Thomas House), on Oglethorpe Square, was extremely well received, and he began to receive commissions from other of Savannah’s wealthiest citizens, many of whom were friends or associates of Richardson.
Early in 1820, a devastating fire tore through Savannah, destroying hundreds of buildings. The houses Jay had built for his clients, located around the periphery of the city and away from the path of the fire, were spared. Fire-proof construction, of which Jay himself became an early advocate, would help to protect Savannah from future major conflagrations.
The economic impacts of the 1820 fire were severe. Its timing was particularly bad, coming alongside a national recession precipitated by the Panic of 1819. Many of Savannah’s most prosperous businessmen – Richard Richardson among them – were plunged into financial ruin. New work for Jay dried up.
In early 1820, hoping to secure additional employment, Jay turned his focus to nearby Charleston. He established an office in that city, thereafter dividing his time between it and Savannah, where several of his earlier commissions were still in progress.
While in Charleston, Jay was appointed architect to the South Carolina Board of Public Works, and served as one of the founding directors of the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts. He also produced designs for several substantial homes.
However, in Charleston as in Savannah, Jay’s attempts to establish a consistently successful architectural office failed, that city too feeling the effects of the nationwide depression. By 1822, construction in both cities had stalled. In debt and unable to obtain sufficient work to sustain himself, Jay left the United States.
In the later part of 1822, after a sojourn in Paris, Jay returned to his native England. Over the next few years, he mostly worked in Cheltenham, Gloucester, roughly 50 miles from his home town of Bath.
Without his connections, Jay was unable to obtain the more prestigious sorts of commission that had formed the bulk of his work in Savannah and Charleston. During the later phase of his career, his main source of employment was instead the production of designs for speculators’ residential developments.
Despite these commissions, Jay’s finances remained in poor state. In 1827, he married Louisa Coulson. Only two years later, in 1829, he was declared bankrupt.
Jay struggled to recover from his financial predicament, finding little suitable work in England. In the mid 1830s, he was obliged to accept a low-paying government architectural and civil engineering post in the then-British-colony of Mauritius.
The Jays and their several children sailed for Mauritius in 1836, arriving on May 12. During the family’s first few months on the island, Jay drew up designs for a prison and chapel, but tragedy soon struck. By April 17 1837, less than a year from his arrival in the colony, William Jay was dead, the victim of a tropical fever.
1815-1816 – Albion Chapel, formerly in Moorfields, London. This Greek Revival Church was Jay’s first known commission. It was demolished in 1879.
1816-1819 – Owens-Thomas House, 124 Abercorn Street (open to the public). This house was built for Richard Richardson. It was William Jay’s first major work in Savannah, and is considered to be one of the best examples of Regency architecture in the United States.
1818 – Telfair House, 121 Barnard Street, currently the Telfair Academy (open to the public). This house was built for Alexander Telfair. It was substantially modified in 1883 (according to a design by Detlef Lienau) during its conversion to an art museum.
1818 – Savannah Theatre, formerly on Chippewa Square. The Savannah Theatre, still in operation today, is one of the oldest continuously-operating theaters in the country, but Jay’s original building was entirely destroyed by fire. The present, art-deco-inspired, theatre was reconstructed on the same site.
1818-1819 – Archibald Bulloch House, formerly on Orleans Square. This mansion was one of several structures demolished around 1915 to make way for the new City Auditorium, itself destroyed during the construction of the Civic Center in the 1970s.
c1819 – Scarbrough House, currently the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. Jay designed this house for William Scarbrough, a chief investor in the SS Savannah, which was the first ship to cross the Atlantic under partial steam power. The house was completed just in time to receive a visit from President James Monroe during his tour of the southern states.
1819 – Temporary pavilion and ballroom in Johnson Square, erected for the reception of President James Monroe.
c1819-1820 – City Hotel, 21 West Bay Street, currently the Moon River Brewery. The design for this former hotel, constructed for Eleazer and Jane Early, is attributed to William Jay, though its exterior is not typical of his style. The hotel would become one of the most prominent in Savannah.
1820 – Savannah Free School, formerly at Whitaker and Perry Streets. Destroyed by fire in 1852.
1820-1821 – Wayne-Gordon House, 10 East Oglethorpe Avenue, currently the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace (open to the public). This house, the design for which is attributed to William Jay, was built for James Moore Wayne, former mayor of Savannah. An additional story and side gallery are late-19th-century additions, the work of Detlef Lienau.
1821-1822 – Bank of the United States, formerly on East St Julian Street. Commissioned by Richard Richardson, this imposingly-porticoed building was of national note, reproduced in many engravings of the period. It was demolished in 1924.
c1816 – James Nicholson House, 172 Rutledge Avenue, currently the Ashley Hall School For Girls. The design of this mansion, constructed for Patrick Duncan, is loosely attributed to William Jay. It was purchased for a school in 1909.
1820-1822 – William Mason Smith House, 26 Meeting Street. This three-story Regency home was built for the Right Reverend Robert Smith, rector of St Philip’s Church.
1821 – South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts, formerly on Broad Street. This building was intended to house a new art institution for Charleston, but the venture, like several similar projects of the time, failed due to a lack of interest during the financial turmoil of the 1820s.
1822 – Joseph Turpin Weyman House, formerly on Meeting Street. Demolished in 1948 to make way for a post office.
1822 – Duffield and Weller’s Public Library, formerly in Cheltenham. Not a public library by the modern-day understanding but instead a “literary saloon,” this building was put to a wide range of subsequent uses prior to its eventual demolition in 1954.
1823-1825 – Paragon Buildings, Bath Road, Cheltenham. This group of large terraced houses was completed over the following decade, one of several speculative row house developments for which William Jay produced the designs during his time in England.
1825 – Columbia Place, Winchcombe Street, Cheltenham. Another development of row houses, built by Thomas Thompson, these with a distinctive columned facade.
1825-1827 – Watermooor House, Cirencester. This house was built as a single-family residence for Joseph Mullings. It is now a residential care home for the elderly.
c1826 – Two houses in Pittville Parade, Evesham Road, Cheltenham. Jay himself may have purchased a house in this development, in 1827.
1826-1829 – Remodeling of the 1719 Independent Chapel, Henley-on Thames, now known as Christ Church. If the attribution of this work – consisting of side galleries for the chapel and a later extension of the manse – to William Jay is accurate, this was his last known work in England. The chapel, not incidentally, was then under the ministry of Jay’s brother-in-law, Robert Bolton.
Oliver C Bradbury, ‘William Jay’s English works after 1822: recent discoveries,’ Architectural History 43 (2000), pp187-194.
Hanna Hryniewiecka Lerski, William Jay: Itinerant English Architect, 1792-1837. University Press of America, 1983.