By Scott Graber
It is Friday and I’m in the quiet lobby of the Marshall House Hotel in Savannah.
The lobby features a non-working fireplace flanked by bookcases with actual books. But selections like “Conjugations of Russian Verbs” and “One Currency for Bosnia” are unlikely to be read by anyone I know.
There are two leather sofas, four antique tables with inlaid checker boards and an adjacent bar where one might order a martini or — in earlier, less complicated times — smoke a TeAmo cigar.
Many years ago Savannah became a destination because it happened to have a Chinese restaurant. Beaufort had three restaurants but none of them had Moo Goo Gai Pan on its menu. Then there was the Crystal Beer Parlor where one might take on a basket of pulled pork chased with a Pabst Blue Ribbon. On occasion my wife and I would make the Wonton- or barbecue-seeking trip with Pat Conroy and his then-wife, Barbara.
Beyond the Peking Duck, there wasn’t much happening in Savannah. Yes, Jim Williams sold exquisite antiques just off Monterrey Square and River Street was accessible by almost vertical, hip and shoulder shattering steps. But there wasn’t much reason to linger downtown.
Now, even in the midst of Covid-19, that has changed.
These days, thousands of tourists surge along River Street, Broughton Street and then this flood tide pours into the Historic District. Last night my wife and I did a reconnaissance of what is called the Plant Riverside District.
Some of you remember the power plant that operated just to the East of the Talmadge Bridge. This 4.5-acre parcel has been transformed into a cornucopia of hotels, rooftop restaurants, child-friendly water fountains and a Pantheon-scaled lobby that resembles the British Museum.
Flying through its atrium is a stainless steel velociraptor flanked by a squadron of pterodactyls. Eventually we ended up in bar just off the lobby — Baobab.
Baobab comes with animal heads, masks and an aggregation of animals — the most fearsome being a freestyle-swimming crocodile looking exactly like the killing machine we read about as children. There is also series of portraits that stare down from the brick walls.
I’m not talking about the typical hotel/motel art that adorns every Safari Lounge between Savannah and Seattle. I’m talking provocative, penetrating, close-up portraits of African men and women.
As I sat at the bar I watched young families step into the room, stop in apparent confusion, then wander into this exciting space looking first at the enormous crocodile doing his laps. Then moving to the antelopes, zebras and warthogs. Finally, everyone finding their way to the portraits.
As I sat in Baobab last night I was transported back to Senegal where I did some traveling in the early 1990s. I spent little time in Dakar where I was unable to make contact with the President, soon traveling north to the port city of St Louis — yes, I understand St Louis doesn’t sound all that African. But it was in St Louis where I found the Hotel de la Poste.
Hotel de la Poste was so named because the mail planes from Paris once landed on the nearby river. From here they crossed the Atlantic Ocean eventually ending up in Brazil. So Hotel de la Poste was where Air France refueled and where the crew and passengers rested.
Hotel de la Poste came with a bar and the bar came with a wall of dusty, desiccated antelope and warthog heads. There were yellowing elephant tusks, fading masks and, importantly, cold beer.
The bar also came with a self-appointed king — a white man who proclaimed himself the King of Bifeche.
The King came with a Mercedes — small flags on the fenders — and a cohort of female advisors. All these advisors were young and attractive and anxious to prove their King’s legitimacy — in the bar they would show me letters from heads of state; and well-worn photographs of large crowds gathered to hear their King.
The Baobab is the creation of Richard C Kessler who owns several other hotels in town including the nearby Bohemian and the Mansion at Forsyth Park. Kessler has invested his money, his collection of African Art and his remarkable, push-it-to-the-limits imagination in Plant Riverside. And there has been push-back.
Some think Kessler’s rendition of Jurassic Park is too extreme for those seeking diversion in Savannah. Others talk of “cultural appropriation.”
But, for me, it was a one-way ticket to the Hotel de la Poste.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.