Savannah Morning News
Savannah Cotton Exchange about to open for public tours
With damage from a 2008 car crash almost repaired, Solomon's Lodge plans to make the historic building accessible for first time in almost 40 years
April 3, 2010
By Lesley Conn
A spectacular Labor Day 2008 wreck damaged the entry way and destroyed the iconic winged lion in the fountain at Bay and Drayton streets.
View photos of the damage to the Savannah Cotton Exchange and the terra cotta fountain.
Those structural scars are slowly being repaired, and within a few months, the building is expected to enter a new chapter.
By the end of April, leadership at Solomon's Lodge No. 1 expects about $35,000 in repairs from the car accident to be finished. Well by the end of the year, for the first time in almost four decades, the building will be open to the public. Scheduled visits by outsiders previously have been allowed at the discretion of the lodge.
"It's never been open for tours, but we feel this city needs to see it," said Ron Weiner, a past master and senior warden of the lodge, which acquired the lease on the building in 1974. "It was a big part of Savannah's history."
Robert Porter II, the lodge's historian and curator, said the city's decision to replace the destroyed lion with a replica prompted the masons to do more than fix the damaged entry. The lodge just spent $80,000 on hurricane-proof windows to protect an original stained-glass window overlooking the Savannah River, and will repaint and refurbish every room inside before tours begin.
Porter, whose father was historian for 40 years until his death in 2008, is a walking encyclopedia of Savannah and freemason's history, which are intricately linked. The tours will share much of the lodge's history, which is the oldest continuous mason's lodge in North America.
View SpottedŽ photos of the Cotton Exchange lion.
The ornate terra cotta building was finished in 1887 and was the new headquarters for the Cotton Exchange, which became a world leader in setting prices on cotton bales shipped around the globe.
"We will open the doors," Porter said. "It's the jewel in the crown of Georgia masonry and it's the jewel in the crown for the city of Savannah."
Even as repairs were under way this week and sawhorses and safety tape ringed the entrance, tourists stopped to snap photos. On Friday, a bride and groom posed for photos in front of the building.
Across the street at the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, also the offices for the Convention & Visitors' Bureau, employees have gotten used to answering questions about the building. Erica Backus, the bureau's director of public relations, welcomes the tours as another opportunity to feature local history and architecture.
"It's such a focal point of our history," she said. "It's always sparked a lot of interest and questions from people who come to Savannah. Our receptionists are kind of trained to give a mini history of the building."
Will Green has owned Old Savannah Tours for 31 years, and in that time, his standing as a tour operator got him inside the building only once or twice.
"I think it would be great for the tourists and locals," he said. "We have a trolley stop right at the Exchange bell. I know my people would love to go in and peek around."
Not much of the original Exchange operations remain, but there are photos inside that show the building at the height of market business. In what was once the trading room floor, the masons have added a few artifacts of their own, including the lodge master's chair in which George Washington once sat. On a pillowed pedestal, rarely left on open display, is a bible that Savannah founder Gen. James Oglethorpe, also a mason, presented to the lodge in 1734.
Because the building lies within the Savannah Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historical Places, materials needed for exterior repairs had to be as close to the original as possible, Weiner said.
The Exchange's massive front pocket doors, which had been red oak and weighed about 450 pounds, were replaced with Spanish cedar, project manager Robert Sellers said. They still weigh about 300 pounds, and on newly refurbished tracks, they roll more smoothly. The original doors have been kept, and Porter said the lodge hopes to have them re-milled.
All the exterior windows, window sashes and wood around the doors had to be replaced, too. Savannah Architectural Supply has handled the search for authentic materials, including heavy glass for the windows.
After the car crash in 2008, city workers found pieces of the shattered lion's head inside the building and on the roof.
"Every bit of it (the damage) is where the lady hit the (lion)," Weiner said. "It just flew through all the windows. If it hadn't have been for a lamp post just offset from the fountain, she would have gone through the building and ended up on River Street."
The driver, Donna Haddock of Savannah, pleaded guilty Jan. 13 in Chatham County Recorder's Court to a charge of driving under the influence. She was sentenced to 12 months on probation, ordered to pay a $500 fine, served 24 hours in jail and was ordered to complete 40 hours of community service. She also was ordered to attend a victim impact panel and a risk reduction program, Recorder's Court records show