Renaissance Man, Richard C. Kessler, Renews a Renaissance Revival Landmark

Staff Report From Savannah CEO

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

Luxury hotelier, Mr. Richard C. Kessler, brings the most prominent, and largest, historic mansion in Savannah back to life as a private residence.  Having assembled an all-star team of architectural, design, and restoration professionals to bring the mansion back full-circle to its original glory, Kessler is restoring the Armstrong-Kessler Mansion as his legacy project to honor his beloved city of Savannah.  This will bring new grandeur to the iconic Forsyth Park at the corner of Bull and Gaston Streets.

George Armstrong, of Savannah, Georgia, had a vision to design and construct one of the most prominent Italian Renaissance Revival mansions in the nation when he commissioned renowned American architect, Henrik Wallin in 1916.  The Armstrong Mansion is the only Savannah home to be listed in the Italian Renaissance Style in the authoritative A Field Guide to American Houses as a national best-in-class example of its style.

The classical structure has lived a few incarnations, from Armstrong’s private residence, to the original site of Armstrong College in 1935, to a holding of the antique dealer of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame, Mr. Jim Williams, to the law firm of Bouhan, Williams & Levy.  It is now in the hands of Mr. Richard C. Kessler, of Kessler Collection hotels, which includes The Mansion on Forsyth Park, Bohemian Hotel, and the forthcoming Plant Riverside District on the Savannah River, a dramatic reclamation of the site of the historic Georgia Power Plant.

Kessler, a prominent patron of the arts, states, “The vision for the project is to make this, once again, a private residence, for myself, and my art collection.  I also intend to open the mansion to an exclusive roster of guests along with a few high-end events, including special occasions and executive retreats.”

Lead architect, Christian Sottile, who also leads the design of the Plant Riverside project, is a recipient of over 50 awards including the American Institute of Architects National Young Architect’s Award, in 2014, and as Kessler points out, “There are more than a few architects in this country.”  His thoughtful repurposing of a historic railway depot into the SCAD Museum of Art has placed a prominent spotlight on his abilities to honor the past while designing for today.

Mr. Chuck Chewning, Savannah resident and former Creative Director for Donghia, is leading the interior design efforts.  His most well-known accomplishment is leading the stunning renovation of Venice’s Gritti Palace.  His vision is aligned with Kessler’s to be as faithful to the original interior decoration as possible.  Original water-colored room renderings by Henrik Wallin are informing his direction.

Landcape architect, Sheila Wertimer, of Charleston, S.C., is designing and executing the gardens.  At the time of the construction of the Jenkins Hall auditorium building on the current parking lot site in 1936, there were pre-existing plans for Italianate gardens. Wertimer and her team have been commissioned to design and install Neo-Roman gardens on the order of those at the 16th-century Villa d’Este, known as the Tivoli Gardens, outside of Rome.  Features include tall Cypress privet hedges, a pool, fountains, sculpture, an expanded loggia off the carriage house, and garden designs that extend to the street-side tree beds to include bright red azaleas, new canopy trees, and other plantings. 

The exterior and interior renovations are commanded by the Choate firm, whose team of expert craftsmen is painstakingly restoring the structure, including the removal of modern drop ceilings and other inauthentic elements, to cleaning and repairing the unique marble-glazed brick and glistening granite, and stripping and refinishing the many custom ironwork features of the exterior.

Among the many unique components to this massive undertaking is the state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems being installed.  Huge quantities of non-historic ducts that had previously lowered ceilings and obscured ornate plaster detail have been removed.  The new systems are being replaced with a multi-unit variable refrigerant technology which has been used in Europe extensively in historic buildings.

Completed in 1919, Armstrong held the grand opening gala for the mansion on January 1, 1919, and bookending this event, 100 years later, Kessler’s grand re-opening gala is currently slated for January 1, 2019. 

“The mansion was clearly designed for entertaining,” says Christian Sottile, lead architect.

Sottile notes the grand cantilevered Italian marble staircase, which greets all at the end of the central hallway and speculates that this is where musical performances may have been staged in the past and will be in the future.