For decades Savannah, Ga.’s most popular tourist destination has dead-ended in an aging power plant. Thanks to one hotelier’s epic vision, that’s about to change.Destination 2018: San AntonioDestination 2018: Washington, D.C.
About 100 years ago, when electricity was still a fledgling technology, what would become Savannah Electric and Power decided to build a power plant on the south side of the Savannah River. The company hired a Boston-based firm named Stone & Webster, known for its management of these early utilities, to operate this one. It had a prime location: the intersection of River Street, which runs parallel to the water, and West Broad Street, which had been a hub for shipping and commerce since Savannah was founded in 1733. The plant would be a beautiful building, red brick with massive arched windows facing the river, because in those days nobody knew what a power plant was supposed to look like except that it was a symbol of local pride and progress. If it weren’t for the smokestacks, Savannah Electric’s new building could have been a Gilded Age concert hall.
Up and running in early 1913, the plant would be expanded and updated several times over the next five decades as the regional demand for electricity—air conditioning and nearby military bases had a lot to do with it—grew exponentially. Two additional buildings, more utilitarian than beautiful, would be tacked on to the original. But after Savannah Electric merged with utility behemoth Southern Company in 1988, the aging plant’s usefulness began to wane. In 2005, it was taken out of service. A handful of workers remained to remove asbestos and dismantle the massive turbines. By 2010, the once proud symbol of Savannah’s embrace of electric power was abandoned.
And there it sat—until 2012, when Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, put the now landmarked building up for sale and an idiosyncratic, determined hotelier named Richard Kessler bought it for $9 million. Kessler wanted to make what he called Plant Riverside his greatest project—one that would transform Savannah and help define his legacy. “This is a culmination of everything I’ve done,” he says. “When it gets done, it will be something like you won’t find on the East Coast of the United States.”
“When it gets done, it will be something like you won’t find on the east coast of the United States.”
A salesman and a builder, a dreamer and a persuader, Richard Kessler is the kind of person you sometimes think could only happen in America. He was born in 1946, the son of a plumber and a homemaker, in Savannah, but the family moved to nearby Effingham County, a sparsely populated rural area that’s part of the Savannah metropolitan area. Kessler went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering and operations research from Georgia Tech, and at age 23 he started working with real estate developer Cecil B. Day. The two would launch the Days Inn hotel chain, the first of which was located on Tybee Island, about 18 miles east of Savannah. At 29, Kessler became the president and CEO of Days Inn. When the chain was sold in 1984, he branched out on his own, launching the Kessler Collection of hotels and partnering with Marriott as a founding member of that company’s Autograph Collection. The Kessler Collection now includes nine hotels, mostly in the Southeast, two of which—the Bohemian and the Mansion on Forsyth Park—are in Savannah.
Child of a blue-collar family, Kessler is now a very wealthy man, and he has pursued interests that it’s unlikely he could have imagined as a child. He knows his wine with meticulous detail; he hunts big game in Africa; he collects art—mostly paintings—and fills the walls of his hotels with things he likes. He also collects fossils and rocks. A descendant of Lutheran immigrants, Kessler for years collected Reformation imprints and manuscripts, until he donated his collection to Emory University in the form of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection. The collection contains more than 1,000 publications by Luther himself—the largest in the country, according to Emory.
Kessler has come far from Effingham County, but he keeps returning to Savannah. “Richard, he busted out,” says Savannah mayor Eddie DeLoach, who grew up not far from Kessler. “I guarantee you, he can go back right now and help pick peanuts. If you wanted a watermelon, he could go find you that watermelon in the field right now, thump and know which one’s ripe.”
In the hotel business, he has a history of making unorthodox choices. In 2001, for example, he opened the Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando, Fla., a time in Orlando’s history when it wasn’t clear there was much reason for a downtown, much less a fancy hotel just across the street from city hall. “Everyone thought I was absolutely nuts,” Kessler recalls. “I thought during the week we could generate enough business, but I was really concerned about the weekends.” But Kessler’s confidence that you had to lead the market rather than follow paid off. “It turned out that once we opened, all of a sudden, the thing filled up.” As the hotel proved an anchor for a growing downtown, the experience taught Kessler a lesson that would serve him well going forward. “For most people, it was a risk they weren’t willing to take. But it gave us a benchmark: If you really believe in something, it will transform an area.”
Kessler’s next example of that was the 125-room Mansion on Forsyth Park, which, before Kessler acquired it and opened it as a hotel in 2005, had been the home of Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors (“Serving Savannah faithfully since 1882”). That wasn’t the only potential strike against it; at the time, the 30-acre Forsyth Park verged on the seedy. But the hotel worked, and the area started to pick up. “Why did he put this thing way out in the middle of town?” Mayor DeLoach says. “But he made that a destination, and it has been great.”
Then, in 2009, came the Bohemian, perched over River Street and the Savannah River; from its windows you can watch the enormous shipping tankers head upriver to the Port of Savannah. Its rooftop bar, Rocks on the Roof, became an instant and enduring hit—and that taught Kessler another lesson. “The Mansion does well, 85 percent occupancy,” Kessler says. “But the rate on the river, at the Bohemian, was always about 25 percent more than the rate on Forsyth Park. That alerted me to the power of the river.”
Both hotels were game changers for Savannah’s tourism market, which, with about 14 million visitors a year, is one of the most powerful drivers of the city’s economy. “With the Mansion, Richard introduced the idea of boutique hotels to a city that was built primarily on historic inns, charming bed and breakfasts and big-brand hotels,” says Joe Marinelli, the president of Visit Savannah, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “And then he developed the Bohemian and put an energized rooftop bar on it. Not only did that become the place to go for locals, but word quickly got out with visitors. Having the most expensive hotel in town underneath the most popular rooftop bar in town set Savannah on a tear. That was not our product, our customer, our bar scene. And all of a sudden, it was. Developers and landowners started paying attention.”
One of them, of course, was Kessler himself, who, then in his 60s and having brought his children, daughter Laura and son Mark, into the company, was starting to think about the end of his career. He was drawn to that one-of-a-kind site at the intersection of River Street and the former West Broad Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—although not everyone saw its potential. For one thing, transforming a century-old power plant would be no simple matter. For another, River Street itself was a challenge. More than a mile of cobblestoned road with the river on one side and shops and restaurants on the other, River Street had once been an industrial area. But as the commerce faded, the street became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a little bit seamy, and after that, well, a little bit cheesy. “All of it was nothing,” says Mayor DeLoach. “This was back in ’68 to the early ’70s. It was where the marines from Parris Island used to go. They had some dives down there that they would go to and get in a scrap, and that’s when you read about what was happening on River Street.”
Adds city councilwoman Carol Bell, “There were a few stores, vacant properties, warehouses. You might walk along it, then leave.”
In the following decades, city officials worked to spruce the place up and turn it into a tourist attraction. They succeeded almost too well. Buoyed by its representation in the movie Forrest Gump and the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, fueled by a law that permits open containers of alcohol in public and with an influx of tourists lining up to get into Paula Deen’s hit restaurant the Lady and Sons, Savannah became the go-to place for drunken weekends, ghost tours, trolleys around the historic district and bachelorette parties. And River Street, with its ubiquitous bars, candy stores and tchotchke and T-shirt shops, was the rowdy, rambunctious, slightly tacky heart of it.
Kessler, however, had seen what a great hotel can do to transform a neighborhood. So when he heard that Georgia Power was ready to sell the power plant, he flew to Atlanta to meet with an executive there. “I said, ‘Look, I’m the one to buy this property,’” Kessler recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve made an offer but it’s not enough.’ I said, ‘Add a million to my offer.’ He said, ‘Won’t do it.’ I said, ‘2 million,’ then ‘3 million—and we’ll close in 45 days.’ He said, ‘Send me the contract.’”
The deal closed on December 31, 2012, and Kessler instantly started planning. “People ask, ‘Richard, how in the world did you envision making a hotel out of a power plant?’” Kessler says. “That’s a darn good question. We had no specific plans at that time of the internal layout of the power plant. I had just walked through it two or three times, thinking about how we might configure it.”
Kessler held a meeting with local politicians, businesspeople and community leaders to ask what they would do. Later, he held a follow-up with a group of architects and planners. He credits all the participants for having good ideas—some “brilliant”—but you can’t help but get the feeling that Kessler knew exactly what he wanted to do all along. His vision was not just for a hotel, but what he calls an “entertainment district.” At 670,000 square feet, the Plant Riverside District would encompass three hotels that all operated under JW Marriott—the Three Muses, the Atlantic and of course the Power Plant—13 food and beverage operations, three rooftop bars, a performance space, 20,000 square feet of retail and a plaza for open-air concerts. Adding a quarter mile of river walk would transform the west end of River Street, long the corridor’s lackluster half. Funded largely by Wells Fargo, the budget for Plant Riverside was estimated at $270 million; if there’s been a larger construction project in Savannah, no one can think of it.
Oh, and then there’s the dinosaur. When Kessler toured visitors through the power plant, they kept telling him that the place was big enough to be a museum. So, idiosyncratic as ever, he decided to turn it into one. “I thought, We can tell the story of the origin of power,” Kessler explains. “And that leads you right into the dinosaurs.” Kessler found a guy named Dave Trexler, a paleontologist who helped found the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Mont., who said that he could build Kessler a dinosaur—a 137-foot-long seismosaurus that would hang over guests 10 feet in the air.
“I mean, who’s thinking about a dinosaur?” Mayor DeLoach says. “Richard Kessler’s thinking about a dinosaur. But I was thinking, This is the west end of Savannah, and it’s been a dump forever. And he put $275 million into the corner of a dump, and they’re gonna put a dinosaur in there?
“But,” DeLoach adds, “it’s Richard Kessler, and you knew what he had done here, and you said, ‘Sure.’”
Groundbreaking began in 2016. In mid-2017—Plant Riverside is expected to open in June 2019—I took a tour of the site with Kessler, who reeled off facts and figures as we went along. Workers had removed 1,400 tons of steel from the building and put back even more. To restore the original bricks, they had washed 650,000—yes, 650,000—by hand. Thirty feet under the waterline, they had discovered a bed of timber that dated back to the late 18th or early 19th century—the foundation for some sort of building.
“Nobody could figure out how the heck they did that in those days,” Kessler says. “So we’re dragging out trees that have been buried, hard pine trees, some of these boards are at least three feet wide”—meaning that given how long they’ve been buried and how long they would take to grow to that width, these trees are probably 400 to 500 years old. To preserve and display history, all of it is going back into Plant Riverside.
In the Savannah midsummer heat, Kessler walks me up three flights of iron stairs to the rooftop of the power plant. He’s probably made the walk dozens, if not hundreds, of times before, but he seems as excited as if it were the first, and though he’s 20 years older than his guest, I am more out of breath than he is when we reach the top. The view is astonishing. South is the city of Savannah; north is the opposite side of the river; to the west lies the Port of Savannah and to the east is the panorama of River Street.
Property values are already rising along Savannah’s tourist boulevard, Kessler says. Inevitably, rents will go up. “It’s not going to make a lot of sense to be selling T-shirts in every other store,” he says matter-of-factly. “Over the next five years, you’ll see a noticeable difference in River Street. Over the next 10 years, a major difference. And over the next 15 years, you won’t even recognize it.”
“What does all this transformation mean to you?” I asked Kessler later. “You’re 72. Why work so hard now?”
“I like my motto to be, ‘Leave things better than you find them,’” he says. “And if you do that, it’s a pretty satisfying thing.”
The product of a partnership between SEDA and the city, the Creative Coast is a network and advocacy group for entrepreneurs, especially in the creative industries—a big business here thanks to all of the expertise flowing out of the Savannah College of Art and Design. 2222 Bull St., 912.447.8457, thecreativecoast.org
The historic Georgia Power Plant will be completely renovated to feature 4.5 acres of vibrant entertainment and a 419-guest-room JW Marriot. Richard Kessler’s latest project to revitalize the city will make its grand debut in the summer of 2019. 500 W. River St., plantriverside.com
With connections to the port, city administration and the community’s business leaders, SEDA is the starting point for anyone wanting to invest or build a business in Savannah. 131 Hutchinson Island Road, 4th Floor, firstname.lastname@example.org, 912.447.8450, seda.org
A luxurious offering from hotelier Richard Kessler, Mansion on Forsyth Park is centrally located just off Spanish moss–draped Forsyth Park and done up in an old Southern style mixed with modern touches. A cooking school is available for those interested in experimenting with Lowcountry cuisine. 700 Drayton St., 912.238.5158, mansiononforsythpark.com
Just steps away from iconic Forsyth Park, this luxury hotel allows guests to experience Savannah in style. Amenities include a robust artwork collection to explore, a rooftop pool with 360-degree views of the historic district and in-room spa services. 256 E. Perry St., 912.415.9000, email@example.com, perrylanehotel.com
Built in 1855 by a pair of wealthy cotton merchants for U.S. presidents visiting the city, this widely acclaimed bed and breakfast has long been an essential upscale destination in Savannah’s historic district. The top-notch amenities, Southern charm and proximity to the best attractions make this a great introduction to the city. 225 E. President St., 912.233.1600, firstname.lastname@example.org, presidentsquarters.com
The much-lauded Elizabeth on 37th features local ingredients—wild mushrooms and Half Moon River clams—and a setting, like Savannah’s historic district itself, that’s genteel. 105 East 37th St., email@example.com, 912.236.5547, elizabethon37th.net
Owner Johno Morisano and chef Mashama Bailey reflect their love of the Port City in every aspect of the Grey, from its home in a refurbished 1938 Art Deco Greyhound Bus Terminal to the regional produce, seafood and meats it serves. Guests will experience elevated versions of familiar local flavors organized on the menu by origin: Oysters, Pantry, Water, Dirt and Pasture. 109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 912.662.5999, firstname.lastname@example.org, thegreyrestaurant.com
This restaurant takes the antique seriously, and since its home is the Planters Inn, which resides in a supposedly haunted 18th-century mansion, this is appropriate. The menu comprises Southern classics such as shrimp and grits and braised pork shank with macaroni and cheese and collard greens. 29 Abercorn St., 800.554.1187, plantersinnsavannah.com/olde-pink-house-restaurant
In a city known nationally for its food, the best way to experience it all is at the Food & Wine Festival, held November 5-11, featuring more than 300 vendors and offering master classes, dinners hosted by celebrity chefs and an entire session devoted to Southern barbecue. 912.232.1223, savannahfoodandwinefest.com
Founded in 1869, this private yacht club offers tennis, swimming, dining and yachting services. While the club is not open to the public, you can inquire about joining by contacting them directly. 730 Bradley Point Road, 912.644.4100, savannahyachtclub.org
As one of the preeminent art and design schools in the world, SCAD has a permanent collection that includes key works by African American artists and a fascinating assemblage of 19th- and 20th-century photography. At any time it has visiting exhibits by more than a dozen leading modern artists. 601 Turner Blvd., email@example.com, 912.525.7191, scadmoa.org