Orange Hall is a superb example of a Greek Revival mansion from the antebellum era. The original home dates from 1830, with expansion done into the mid-1840s. It sits on St. Mary’s Main Street–Osborne Road–and it is now a museum.
We stopped at Orange Hall to photograph a row of scarecrows that had been tied to the property’s fencing. Mr. B. wandered away and found that the house was a museum that was open for another 15 minutes. Did I want to go in? he asked.
Sure, I said, but it’s closing in 15 minutes.
They’ll let us in, he answered.
Not only did they let us in, but “they” turned out to be an extremely congenial and knowledgeable docent by the name of Estelle Lewis. Our tour began with Estelle explaining that she would like to say a few words about the house, after which we would be able to explore the rest of it on our own.
The few words turned out to be many more than that.
I am not sure which history was more interesting, the house’s or Estelle’s. The few words about the house turned into a quarter hour of local history, all of which was fascinating. More words concerned Estelle and her family, who, like many other area families, came to St. Mary’s in the 1940s to work at the Gilman Paper Company, known locally as “the mill.” Estelle grew up in this southeastern corner of Georgia and she knows it well. She answered a question we had about an odd “park” we’d just visited across town, one that had as a centerpiece a gorgeous and abandoned mid-century Modernist home that was undergoing renovation. It turned out that the abandoned house–which sits on a prime piece of riverfront real estate and has a private boat dock–had belonged to the Gilman family and had been used for entertaining out-of-town clients. Now, it belonged to the city.*
Estelle knew the history of Orange Hall inside and out and she asked that if I were to capture any ghosts on camera–ghost-hunting being a big activity in the old house–that I forward the picture to her.
Estelle led us around the ground-floor level, pointing out the original Italian marble fireplaces and the original chandeliers and window shutters. She stopped by a 1940s record player/radio console and demonstrated it for us, as she did an 1850s sewing machine whose lock still functioned as if brand new.
We toured the upstairs on our own; this was four large bedrooms furnished in period style, albeit a bit sparely. We then walked down to the basement, which was the former servants’ quarters and kitchen. Here, Estelle confessed, donated furniture that didn’t quite fit with the house was kept, like a long and gleaming dining room table that was out of place both in servants’ quarters and in the main house upstairs. Also downstairs was an enormous grand piano.
We ended up feeling as if we had visited an old friend, a very gracious friend who had taken the time to show us her prized possessions. We were encouraged to admire the sour orange trees out in back and to take our time wandering the grounds, even though Estelle’s shift had been over an hour before. We watched as she came out to her car and drove home (“three blocks away!”). I had the feeling that if we’d hung around a bit longer, she’d have invited us over for coffee and a couple more sweet slices of that Georgia accent. St. Mary’s is that kind of place.
ORANGE HALL: ***** (Highly recommended)
*The photos of the Modernist house will run tomorrow as a pictorial essay.