The Owens Thomas House – Our First Bad Experience in Savannah

We had been excited to get into the old homes of Savannah, especially after our experience at the Scarborough House. So it was with high expectations that we visited the Owens Thomas House on Oglethorpe Square. Unfortunately, our high expectations weren’t met, this time.

Owens Thomas House Savannah

Let’s start with the good. This house built by architect William Jay house is a masterpiece, with design elements I’ve never seen before, such as a bridge connecting the two halves of the upper floor. It was one of the first houses in America with running water, and every room has been designed with timeless elegance. Plus, the house has been remained in excellent shape. The price is initially shocking, at $20 per head, but when you consider that it includes entrance to the three sites of the Telfair Museum for a week, it becomes less outrageous.

Moving onto the bad. The first, and least understandable, problem was the unfriendliness of the ticket sellers, who treated us with an attitude that approached open contempt. It wasn’t just us; they were equally rude to the group behind us. “There are NO pictures inside!” Fine, okay. “I mean it, absolutely NO PICTURES! Not even with your phones!” I was shocked that we were being yelled at before we’d even done anything wrong.

Our tour began in the carriage house with a little history, and then we moved into the main residence, were we encountered Problem #2: our group was sandwiched between two other groups. The people ahead of us were moving too slowly, and those behind us was advancing too quickly. Our guide often became flustered, not knowing what to do with us, and we were repeatedly shoved through rooms before having a chance to properly admire them.

Savannah Owens Thomas House

Problem #3: the guide, while pleasant enough, was obviously not an expert in the history of the Owens-Thomas House. As long as she stuck to the script, she was fine, but when (god forbid) we had a question, she was almost always at a loss. For example, this was an actual exchange:

“Please admire the fine engraving on the fireplace, which was based on a famous myth.”

“Interesting! What myth is that?”

“You know, that’s a good question. I have no idea, but it is a very famous myth”.

While we were waiting on the group ahead of us to move on, she would just stand there in uncomfortable silence, having exhausted the four factoids she had about, say, the kitchen. Even when we’d prompt her (“Who is that a portrait of?”), her awkward responses made us feel bad. Eventually we stopped putting her on the spot.

The worst moment came while we were viewing the balcony from which the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolutionary War, once gave a famous speech. She described how he spoke “of liberty and freedom, and these things that…” And now, she turned her attention to Jürgen, whom she knew to be German. “As an outsider, you have to understand that the concepts of Freedom and Liberty are very important to us Americans.” I almost died, although Jürgen was able to answer with a grin. “Liberty? But vas ist das, mein Fräulein?”

The Owens-Thomas House could offer a rich experience, but the staff needs to get its act together. The docents should study up, the ticket ladies should take an etiquette course, and customers who’ve just paid $20 should not be rushed through. From reading online reviews, I don’t think our experience was a fluke. It’s a missed opportunity for the city.

Buy your tickets online: Visit the Owens Thomas House

More Photos from our visit to the Owens Thomas House in Savannah:

  • 03 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3984
  • 04 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3985
  • 05 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3986
  • 06 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3987
  • 07 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3988
  • 08 Owens Thomas House Savannah IMG 3991

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Avatar of Jean

    Oh, Bummer!!!

    I am so sorry. Does this weather make up for any of that experience! (Actually, we need rain.)

    Saw that you made it to Tybee. Is that not a neat place! Sundies is a great place to eat. So is Fanny’s on the Beach/Marlin Monroe and the other dives on Bulter are always fun. Try the Oyster Bar on Wilmington and Wiley’s Bar-B-Q on Whitemarsh. Have you been to Thunderbolt yet?
    Tubby’s is there. And make sure you to the Bonna Bella Yacht Club. If you could arrange for someone to take you by boat, that would be best but if not, easy to drive to.

    We live east of town and have not found any need to go other than downtown or the islands for eats! Most often downtown places are full of tourists but it is fun to meet them and tell them how great it is to live here.

    Hope that tour was the only bad experience you ever have here and that the many friends you make and places you visit make up for it!

  2. Avatar of Kristin

    Damn shame about how y’all were treated during the tour. 🙁 Echoing Jean above me when I say I hope that’s the only bad experience y’all have! Though I have to say, Juergen’s response to the tour guide was fabulous!!

  3. Avatar of byrdiegyrl

    Ditto!!! There are several other historic homes that I have toured and had a wonderful experience…I hope you try some others while here!!!! The Mercer-Williams house was great! And Jurgen….I agree about the Wonderbread!!! We Americans have NO idea how to eat properly!!!! Everything must be fast fast and easy….I would love a bakery on every street!!!!!

  4. Avatar of Dave

    My experience there was the polar opposite; in fact, I have continually recommended this place because of my experience. Had a great tour guide (she actually knew WAAAAAAY more information than I cared to know!) and thought the house was beautiful. Of course, that was about 2 years ago. I sure hope what happened to you was a rarity. Would hate to think they’d allow morons like that to work there on a regular basis!

  5. Avatar of Telfair Museums
    Telfair Museums

    I am sorry that you had a bad experience at the Owens-Thomas House. We strive to offer our visitors educational, interesting tours led by trained interpreters. We frequently receive compliments about our tours and our tour guides, so I am surprised to hear about your experience. With nearly 60,000 visitors a year, we do our best to offer a positive, informative and memorable experience. I would like to invite you back to the house for another visit with a personal guide. It is important to us, and the city, that you do not have a bad experience in Savannah. I hope you will give us another chance.

    1. Avatar of Mike

      @Telfair Museums –

      Thanks for the note. Though our experience at Owens Thomas wasn’t great, we did have an excellent time at the Telfair Academy, a week later. And we’ll be posting that (very positive) review in the coming days. We appreciate your response.

  6. Avatar of Suzanne

    Telfair — great initiative. Thanks, from a Savannah resident.

  7. Avatar of MzVikkee

    I had a similar experience at Owen Thomas. I enjoyed it but you could definitely tell the guide did not want to get off script. If you asked a question, she seemed confused. The best deal to see this house is through Old Town Trolley. You can get the on/off for 2 days plus the Owen Thomas & Telfair Museums for $42 or you could when we took the tour in 2010. The other tour companies probably have similar deals.

  8. Avatar of Diane

    I was a docent for awhile at the Owens-Thomas house, so I do know that the quality of the docents varies. There are some truly amazing docents you could follow around all day and never get the same tour. They have so much knowledge of the history of the house, architecture, and period decorative arts, but it is the luck of the draw, and it sounds like you were there on a busy day, and may have had a new docent. The price truly is fair when you consider that this includes the architecture of the Telfair, a building also designed by William Jay, the Telfair permanent collection, period rooms and whatever show is on, as well as the Jepson Center, the most beautiful and architecturally important contemporary building in Savannah, and its permanent collections, shows and sculpture on the balcony. The way the light travels through that building is amazing. And if you really look, and compare it to the Owens Thomas house you start to see how Moshe Safdie, the architect reinterpreted some of Jay’s famous elements, such as the bridge and the curved walls. It is one of my favorite buildings in Savannah. Did you go there? I don’t see mention of it at all, but perhaps I missed it.Best to you. Your links here are fun!!  

  9. Avatar of Sheri

    We missed this exhibit (had e-tickets and ran out of time).   We do plan to go back and trust me, based on your review I will be looking for someone knowledgeable.
    Part of the lure of the city (for our family anyway) was to get lost in the history.   
    When I read “But vas ist das, mein Fräulein” I cracked up.   I wish I could have been there to see that lady’s face when you said it.     That would have been a picture to post!

  10. Avatar of Bob Stephenson
    Bob Stephenson

    Best to wear one’s non-dual thinking cap when visiting Savannah. Living in the moment is the path to appreciating the city’s love for the past.

  11. Avatar of Donna

    Savannah is a lovely town, Moat of The Golden Isles are.Amazing in view and run by the good old boysI live an hour away on St Simons Island , everyone is lost in this place…if you ask directions, you will probably be told you can’t get there from here.Your Docent is probably you had a bad experience.I just chalk this place up to being a former penal.colony….well.former may not be accurate,lol

  12. Avatar of Claude Williams
    Claude Williams

    Was looking forward to visiting until reading numerous reports of rude treatment…I can stay home and be abused…thinks I will skip it and save my money

Leave a Reply