Jones Street is said to be the prettiest street in Savannah. It has a claim to be among the most appealing in the United States too, a reputation that rests upon the picture presented by Jones Street’s characteristically high-stooped mid-19th century homes and its impressively arching live oaks.
Jones Street is a great place for a relaxing stroll, and indeed is best experienced on foot, so that you can take time to admire the details of its architecture and its quaint brick-paved street and sidewalks, and relish the deep shade of the trees.
Although Jones Street has few attractions as such, it is the location of one of Savannah’s oldest and best-known restaurants, Mrs Wilkes Dining Room, outside of which you can often see a long line of hopeful prospective diners forming well before opening time!
Jones Street enjoys a central location in the Historic District, near to many of the city’s other sights and attractions, and is easy to get to on foot. Alternatively, parking should usually be available nearby, and there are also stops for Savannah’s free downtown shuttle service within a block of Jones Street.
The name of Jones Street honors Major John Jones of Liberty County, GA. Jones was an aide to Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh in his command of the Georgia Continentals during the Revolutionary War Battle of Savannah. He was killed in the attack on Spring Hill (at the site of the present Battlefield Park).
Most of Jones Street’s buildings date from the 1850s-1860s. A few pioneer houses were constructed south of Madison Square in the late 1840s, spurred by the establishment of its southern neighbor, Monterey Square, in 1847. The blocks east and west of Bull Street filled in over the decade or two that followed.
The result is a degree of uniformity of appearance, with brick construction and an assortment of single-family, paired and row houses in the frequently conservative and classically-inspired style of the mid century. Porches, where present, are in many cases later additions, constructed to take advantage of Jones Street’s brick paving, which removed much of the dust of Savannah’s earlier, sandy roads.
Like many parts of downtown Savannah, Jones Street entered a period of decline in the 20th century. In the 1960s, it was the subject of one of the Historic Savannah Foundation’s early large-scale restoration projects, which renovated many of the historic properties around West Jones Street and adjacent Pulaski Square.
The restoration came at the expense of poorer residents who were soon priced out of their homes, prompting the redesign of the Foundation’s later projects in the Victorian District and elsewhere in an effort to minimise the impact of regeneration on a targeted neighborhood’s existing residents.
Noah Barnum Knapp was a prominent Savannah citizen, whose harness business and later positions as director of several Georgia banks and then as a judge had made him one of the wealthier men in the city.
At the outbreak of the Civil War Knapp’s personal net worth was in excess of $200,000 (around $5.5 million today). His townhouse on Jones Street was completed in 1857, among the many works in Savannah attributed to the New York architect John Norris, who completed at least two dozen commissions during his years in the city.
Its exterior is a restrained interpretation of the Greek Revival style commonly employed in mid-century Savannah. The interior layout of the house also reflected the mores of the time, with the upper three stories intended for the use of the family and the ground floor, for the people they enslaved.
This house a little off Bull Street is thought to be the very first residence erected on Jones Street. It was built in 1847 for Eliza and Joseph Thompson (and their seven children), as their family residence and the venue for their frequent entertaining.
In 1855, Joseph died. Rather than turn over her late husband’s business interests to a professional who would superintend them on her behalf, Eliza took the then-extraordinary decision to manage them herself, which she did with success and without apparent impediment to her role as one of Savannah’s most active hostesses.
On the corner of Jones and Bull Streets, south of Madison Square, is the substantial 1853 Smets House. Its design, like the Knapp House, is attributed to John Norris. Distinctive features of the house include a freestanding spiral staircase of a style found nowhere else in Savannah.
Alexander Augustus Smets, a native of France, arrived in Savannah in 1816. A banker, philanthropist, and one of the founders of the Georgia Historical Society, Smets is most widely known for his exceptional collection of rare books, said to be among the best in the South.
Smets built his Jones Street residence after his retirement, where he lived and also displayed both his extensive library and his art collection during the final decade of his life.
Smets died in 1862, and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery (his remains were later moved to Bonaventure). After the conclusion of the Civil War, his collection of rare books was shipped to New York, where it was sold at auction.
The Smets House, after a lengthy spell as the home of a prominent social club, was bought by SCAD in 1990. It is currently known as Morris Hall, home to parts of the college’s fashion department.
Diagonally across from Smets’s house, on the southwest corner of Jones and Bull, was the residence of his close friend and one of several collaborators in the founding of the Georgia Historical Society.
Israel Tefft, originally of Rhode Island, was born in 1794, a year older than Smets. He, too, arrived in Savannah in 1816, and soon developed a similar passion for collecting. Tefft was himself an avid collector of books, but he is primarily noted for his vast collection of autographs, which grew to be one of the largest in the United States.
During his lifetime, Tefft amassed thousands of autographs, including those of all signatories to the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, several presidents, and the Queen of England.
He obtained many of the autographs by an ingenious method: sending distinguished persons of the day “honorary memberships” of the Georgia Historical Society, which good manners obliged them to acknowledge with a letter — signed.
Tefft died in 1862 (less than two months after the passing of his friend Alexander Smets) and his family subsequently sold the bulk of his collection, but some of the autographs still remain in the possession of the Georgia Historical Society. He is buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery.
A number of properties on and around Jones Street were constructed by Eliza Ann Jewett, one of several women in 19th-century Savannah active in the real estate business. Jewett is remarkable not only for being a woman in a heavily male-dominanted trade and era, but also for having apparently made a success of herself without the benefit of a substantial inheritance.
Jewett was born in 1779, moving to Savannah at some time in the early 19th century. By 1820 she was twice a widow. She built her own residence on Madison Square from 1834; the house (the present E Shaver Bookstore at 326 Bull Street, a short detour off Jones Street) was completed in 1843.
Additional investment properties were constructed from the 1840s, including two behind her own Bull Street house and several on Jones Street. Jewett’s Jones Street properties include two of the very earliest houses erected on that street, the 1847 residences at 16 and 18 East Jones, a block south of Madison Square.
In the early 1850s, by now into her eighth decade, Jewett built several more houses nearby (predominantly, as were her earlier developments, in the Greek Revival style), such as those at 111-115 and 117-119 East Jones Street (both in Calhoun Ward), and in 1852 a stretch of row houses at 112-120 East Jones (Lafayette Ward).
Eliza Ann Jewett died in 1856, but additional properties were erected out of her estate, including the house at 20-22 East Jones Street, built for her granddaughter in 1861.
The house at 16 East Jones Street, constructed by Eliza Jewett in 1847, is better known for its appearance in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, as the residence of lawyer Joe Odom and venue of his famed open-invitation parties.
In Berendt’s book, Odom later lost his ownership of his home, remaining there as tenant until forced by a fire to move to a new house at 101 East Oglethorpe Avenue. There, the parties resumed.
Joe Odom was one of the most notable personalities in Midnight, but he didn’t live to read it. Odom died in 1991, at the Hamilton-Turner House on Lafayette Square. He is buried beside his family in Claxton, GA’s Bull Creek Cemetery.