Travel: The Mystery on Forsyth Park
As early as may, shade becomes a precious commodity on the humid streets of Savannah, Ga. After several hours walking the city’s historic district, taking refuge in the shadows of antebellum buildings and moss-draped oaks, I stepped into a riverfront hat shop to purchase permanent protection from the sun. “And where are you staying during your visit to Savannah?” asked the clerk in a polite yet distant drawl as she assisted me with my selection. My response, as it was to the many others who put forth the same question during my trip, was the Mansion on Forsyth Park.
“Really?” she replied before calling to another clerk. “Say, Ann, this lady’s staying at the Mansion!” She turned back toward me conspiratorially. “What’s it like in there, honey? They say it’s decadent.”
After a few such encounters, I realized that I had become a character in Savannah’s latest mystery. “The Mansion,” as the property is known around town, had been generating talk—gossip, even—ever since plans were announced to expand the 117-year-old structure, formerly a funeral home and a private residence, into Savannah’s first luxury hotel. In a city known for bed-and-breakfasts, news of a hotel with butlers who would prepare your bath with salts and rose petals almost was more than the locals could bear.
The Mansion’s staid public facade only serves to heighten curiosity, my own included when I pulled into the circular driveway for the first time. Set directly across the street from Forsyth Park’s fountain, made famous by John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the Mansion is a Victorian-Romanesque structure accented with brick turrets and arches. It possesses neither the beauty nor the historic significance of Savannah’s pre–Civil War structures, but once inside the lobby, you encounter a shocking setting that seems intended to brush aside everything else in town.
Throughout the 126-room Mansion, which opened in April, classical Roman elements abut overstated contemporary pieces, all placed under sparkling chandeliers. In the entry hall, a gallery of bold Expressionistic oil portraits is mounted against silk-draped columns in saturated colors. Decorative items in the restaurant and gathering areas range from contemporary glassworks to a trio of Grand Bösendorfer pianos. The effect is the macabre visual drama of a masked ball: eye-popping rather than restful, challenging rather than reassuring, but above all else, decadent and fun.
Decadence, as a style, can be a sign of a culture on the verge of decline after a period of greatness. Savannah’s classical architecture, most of which survived the Civil War unscathed, represents that single delicious moment in time when opulence peaks, but the Mansion on Forsyth Park redraws the boundaries of excess. In the courtyard pool area, large pink spiral columns support nothing. Oversize white scalloped headboards contrast with red crushed-velvet drapes and chairs in the guest rooms.
Decadence also entails indulgence, and the Mansion’s black-tied butlers step up smartly. For guests in suites and the second-floor Bohemian rooms, butlers will prepare your evening attire or tie back the draperies that enclose the tub area before drawing your bath. With permission, they will enter your room in the morning and tap you on the shoulder to spare you the shock of a noisy alarm clock.
Tales of such indulgences no doubt will be shared with curious locals, many of whom will experience the Mansion’s service themselves. With its restaurant and cooking school, the hotel aims to become a social center for Savannah residents and to solve for them firsthand the mystery on Forsyth Park.
Mansion on Forsyth Park