Savannah’s Enduring Charm Lives at its Landmark Hotel
Known simply as “Savannah’s hotel,” The DeSoto is, in many ways, a microcosm of the city itself. It is a new structure, in Savannah time, but everything in Savannah has a story, and the hotel’s site, on Liberty Street a couple of miles inland from the Savannah River, has a two-fold tale. Its first use was as General James Oglethorpe’s Barracks, constructed in the early 19th century at the petition of the City of Savannah and named for the founder of the Georgia colony and the settlement of Savannah. Used for meteorological observations before and after the Civil War, the army left Oglethorpe Barracks in 1879, and the War Department sold the parcel to Savannah Hotel Corporation.
That’s when the second chapter began: Construction began on the original DeSoto hotel in 1888. Opening its doors on New Year’s Eve, 1890, the five-story, mostly-brick structure featured two-hundred and six rooms, a solarium, a barber shop, a drug store, a restaurant, and later, an outdoor swimming pool. This grande dame of Savannah was the South’s real version of Gatsby’s fictional mansion during the jazz age. Over the years, it played gracious hostess to celebrities like Elvis Presley, BB King, Katherine Hepburn, and Gregory Peck, as well as dignitaries, authors and several US presidents.
Unfortunately, even though this city has a remarkable knack for preserving its buildings, the DeSoto’s original structure eventually became unrepairable. Treasured design details like its terra cotta tiles and iconic crystal chandeliers known as “sparkling clusters” were saved and a new structure was built in its place in 2004 – the current hotel.
The DeSoto stands today as a stately, modern facade of stone. Situated on a busy, yet pedestrian-friendly, street in the heart of the Historic District, it is surrounded by boutiques, galleries, restaurants of all kinds, and Savannah’s beloved landscaped, monument-laden squares. When you walk inside the hotel, the gleaming, light-toned marble interior is warmed by the aforementioned surviving period details in a seamless, timeless fashion. This thoughtful juxtaposition between history and modernity is accentuated by the contemporary art found throughout the lobby, lending color and curiosity, and stretching the building’s story into the present in a stylish and very Savannah way.
Our late February visit starts here, in the gorgeous lobby, where we explore the space and its artwork even before checking in. Signage tells us that this is The Sotherly SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design) Gallery, “… where creativity and inspiration conspire to enrich our community through the celebration and support of local art and culture.” Sotherly Hotels owns The DeSoto, along with other hotels located mainly in the southeast (including the Doubletree Jacksonville Riverfront), though they do bring ‘Sothern’ hospitality to a few northern destinations as well. The entire first floor of the hotel features custom-curated SCAD student and alumni work, with photographs and paintings hung and lit with the care and mass of an exhibition, rather than interior decoration, and sculpture installed in an exciting, eye-catching manner. The gallery is part of the Sotherly Annual Scholarship and partnership with SCAD, and the signage continues: “Sotherly Hotels is proud to invest in local arts by providing SCAD students and graduates a canvas upon which to inspire our guests and communities through their dynamic work and incredible talent.”
Also eye-catching at check-in are the doors to the hotel’s two new restaurants, both part of the most recent hotel update, in 2017 — Edgar’s Proof & Provision, a cocktail bar and gastropub with an award-winning mixologist, and 1540 Room, a chef-driven restaurant with dishes that are Italian- and Latin-inspired, infused with locally-sourced southern ingredients and techniques. We will visit both the next day, so we grab a snack from the lobby’s coffee bar, Buffalo Bayou, and head up to our room.
As with all two-hundred and forty-five guest rooms, ours is spacious and tasteful, with photographs of the historic district on the walls, hardwood floors and a marble bath. We are on the twelfth floor, with a north-facing view of the historic district and the Savannah River that then stretches to a horizon that is South Carolina. It is truly special to be hovering over this lush, pretty city and its oaks and architecture, and we will be able to appreciate the sunrise through our huge windows the next morning. But first, dinner at Cotton & Rye, just outside of the Historic District on Habersham Street. This relatively new spot is set in a former 1950s bank and serves creative cooking with a southern slant. The food is delicious, soulful and surprising (my favorite is our appetizer of Butternut Squash Hummus with House-baked Rye Bread), and the space is interesting in its modern reuse, all of which set the perfect tone for our Savannah weekend.
We start our full day with breakfast at Edgar’s Proof & Provision, seated outside to enjoy watching Liberty Street as it awakens. The restaurant is named for Sotherly Hotel’s founder, Edgar Sims, Jr., and offers barrel-aged cocktails, many made with their private label Edgar’s Truth bourbon, locally-sourced charcuterie, and casual, updated southern comfort food. We are happy with the savory, design-your-own omelette filled with local vegetables, a cold quinoa salad with fresh mint, and the Savannah Bee Parfait featuring local honey atop Greek yogurt and granola with almonds and ginger.