Bustling, picturesque River Street is a mecca for shoppers, diners and sightseers. It’s easy to forget that at one time, it was little more than a collection of tired, dilapidated buildings in a somewhat unsavory part of Savannah.
Fortunately, photographer Robert Heriot was there as the cranes rolled in and the transformation of River Street began.
A specialist in portrait, commercial and industrial photography, he photographed Savannah and its residents for more than 50 years. Heriot meticulously recorded the renovation of the historic cotton warehouses, providing a valuable historical record of before and after shots to show what once was and how it became what it is today.
In 1947, Heriot opened the Savannah Camera Company at 143 Bull St. Twenty years later, he moved the business to 307 Bull St. and renamed it Heriot’s Photography Studio. Even later, it became simply Robert Heriot, Photographer.
After Heriot’s death, his widow donated the collection to the Georgia Historical Society. Recently, the GHS opened the collection for research.
“He specialized in studio photography, but also did community photography as well,” says GHS Senior Archivist Lynette Stoudt. “The collection consists of a lot of passport photos, wedding photos, individuals and groups, as well as buildings in Savannah and the surrounding area.”
Stoudt is delighted the collection has come to the GHS. “We don’t have a large studio photograph collection from this time frame,” she says.
One other large photo collection at the GHS, the Cordray Foltz Collection, ends in the 1950s. Many of Heriot’s photographs were taken as Savannah was beginning to transform into the treasure it is today.
“There are buildings, a lot of buildings,” Stoudt says. “There are pictures of the Thunderbolt Blessing of the Fleet. There are St. Patrick’s Day parades.”
The oldest photographs in the collection were taken at the 1908 Savannah Races, although not by Heriot. Stoudt believes someone probably took negatives of the photos to Heriot to develop, and he kept copies.
“Some of the photos in the collection have been published, others haven’t,” she says. “There are aerial photos, photos of the new DeSoto Hotel under construction.”
Before and after photos of the Isaiah Davenport House show the meticulous work that went into the renovation project. There also are photographs of plantations, including some that no longer exist, including The Hermitage.
“There are more than 54,000 negatives in the collection,” Stoudt says. “We only have prints of 1,300. That was funded by a grant.”
The arrangement, description and preservation of the Heriot collection was supported by the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board and the Georgia Archives through funding from the Office of Secretary of State. Matching funds were raised by GHS members.
The latest photos in the collection date to 1986. Heriot died in 1990.
“This is a really important group of photographs,” Stoudt says. “Some of them, such as the River Street renewal project, we didn’t have before.”
To utilize the collection, you will need to show GHS staff a picture ID and fill out a research form. If you are not a member of the GHS, there may be a $5 research fee. “Then you ask to look through the collection and we’ll pull the box,” Stoudt says.
If you want to join the GHS, memberships start at $50 a year for individuals. Membership forms are available at the GHS, which is located at the corner of Whitaker and Gaston streets, or online at www.georgiahistory.com.
“Along with the membership, you will receive publications in the mail and access to the material in the reading room,” Stoudt says. “You’ll also get 10 percent off photocopies and some merchandise.”
There are many amazing collections at the GHS. “We have rare books, and more contemporary books,” Stoudt says. “There are artifacts, including the second draft printing of the U.S. Constitution, one of our most prized documents.”
A display of Revolutionary War artifacts includes the dueling pistols used by Button Gwinnett, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, Revolutionary War hero. Gwinnett was wounded in the duel and died several days later. He and Gwinnett are buried not far from each other at Colonial Park Cemetery.
“We have Cherokee land documents,” Stoudt says. “There are family papers, personal papers.”
The GHS itself has a long history. “It was founded in 1839 as sort of a library society,” Stoudt says. “The building was finished in 1870.”
Hodgson Hall was built by Margaret Telfair in memory of her husband, William Hodgson. It’s open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and the Heriot photographs can be viewed at those times.
“The River Street photos are my favorites,” Stoudt says. “It’s something we haven’t had before. It really puts it all into perspective. I had no idea so much work went into restoring River Street.”
The Georgia Historical Society is in Hodgson Hall at Whitaker and Gaston. Hours are Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. To utilize the Heriot collection you’ll need you will need to show a picture ID and fill out a research form. If you are not a member of the GHS, there may be a $5 research fee.