Richard Kessler is the Face of 2020
If there is one thing that will define the city of Savannah in the year 2020, it is a steadfast march into the future, one that pays tribute to the richness of Savannah’s history.
With that in mind, it’s clear that Richard Kessler’s many contributions to our city make him the personification of that ideal. The projects Kessler develops – an empire of boutique hotels, a 4.5-acre riverfront district, a retreat and conference center built in the image of the original 1700s township it occupies, to name a few – certainly contain wonders and surprises at every turn. All his properties are designed around a theme and feature pieces from his vast personal art collection including a wall of antique hats at the Mansion on Forsyth and vintage maritime artifacts at the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront. A Savannah native, Kessler bestows some of his best gifts on his hometown, but at all Kessler properties, guests are treated to exceptional service, richly appointed rooms and world-class dining. For Kessler, true luxury means an escape from the ordinary, and it’s a gift he keeps on giving in Savannah and across the South.
Richard Kessler and the properties he develops have done much to contribute to Savannah’s success and preserve its history. “Our focus as a company is quality development. Certain things are worth saving and preserving. Unless you make a real effort to do that, it’s not going to get done,” Kessler said. The inaugural recipient of the Historic Savannah Foundation’s “Historic Savannah Spirit Award,” Kessler is an entrepreneur, collector, historian, curator, conservationist and philanthropist – truly a renaissance man at heart.
He restored the 100-year-old Armstrong Mansion to its original opulence, ripping up aging carpet to uncover grand marble floors. “I peeled back the corner, and there it was – white marble,” he marveled. Through the restoration, he also discovered heated bathroom floors and a central vacuum system, both astonishingly original to the house built in 1916. Located on the corner of Gaston and Bull at the head of Forsyth Park, the house is a centerpiece of Savannah for tourists and visitors.
“People take pictures of this house and say, ‘This is Savannah,’” Kessler remarked. The project is his largest private residence restoration. Curious passersby often stop to stare and wonder if it’s a museum. It’s not a museum, but anyone who knows Kessler knows of his dedication to collecting and restoring art and artifacts in his personal homes and his hotel properties.
“Meeting artists and looking for art that we can use to enhance our projects is always on the agenda anywhere we go,” Kessler explained. Kessler cultivated that love for art on his own. It was not something instilled from a young age, although his parents appreciated the finer things. “My father and mother had good taste. Dad, with no education in art at all, was very particular and enjoyed good art. He had a sense for it,” he said. Kessler’s innate curiosity is what drove his pursuit of collecting and educating himself about his finds. “If you have the opportunity to get a bit of education in it and some experience collecting it, you learn by doing,” he explained. “When you start buying things, you want to learn about them. It’s organic.”
Prior to the Armstrong-Kessler mansion, he transformed the historic Kehoe homes into a private residence and a hotel. He renovated Savannah’s old Coca-Cola bottling plant on Bay Street to become the Mulberry Inn (now the Bryce Hotel). In the restoration process, he made a memorable find. “We were standing there for the dedication. I happened to look down, and there was a Civil War bullet right in front of me on the ground,” he said in awe. He’s always been a supporter and lover of arts, history and culture, amassing a collection that fills an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and some 12 shipping containers with relics, art and antiques from his travels.
As a philanthropist, he instituted multiple scholarship programs, granted more than 3,600 rare books and archives to the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University and established the New Ebenezer Retreat and Trust – a full reconstruction of a settlement built by Lutheran Salzburgers that had been destroyed during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.