For the past few decades, Savannah, Georgia’s riverfront, which runs alongside the namesake body of water, was home to praline shops, souvenirs and bars selling neon frozen drinks to go. But hotelier Richard Kessler, who got his start in the Peach State, changed all of that with a project that took over five years to complete, culminating with the 2021 opening of the JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District. It’s the first of the JW Marriott brand in the city and only the second in the state.
Kessler worked with Cecil Day to open Days Inn before opening his own independent hotels, which partnered with Marriott’s Autograph Collection in 2010. The company’s portfolio includes the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, and Beaver Creek Lodge in Colorado, as well as the Grand Bohemian and Bohemian hotels across the country. Each property has luxury details like world-class art collections, award-winning spas and cooking schools.
Since 2012, the object of his obsession has been the abandoned 1912 city power plant on the western end of the Savannah riverfront. The smokestack towers had long since rusted, and plant life covered nearly every surface.
“The design process was very purposeful, thoughtful and intensive, as we wanted to respect what the site provided us as a canvas and the history of Savannah all while introducing something truly unique,” says Diana Kessler, Creative Director of Kessler Collection Design Studio and Kessler’s daughter-in-law.
It’s gone on to become one of the largest private developments in the city, valued at $375 million. The adjacent Plant Riverside District also expanded the riverfront by a quarter of a mile.
A Museum-Worthy Collection
Savannah’s JW Marriott spreads across three buildings, each with its own theme, and includes 419 guest rooms. The Atlantic Building, opened in August 2021, has a nautical concept with a rooftop pool and bar, a concert venue and meeting space. The Three Muses has a lavish European style with amethyst Swarovski chandeliers and pastel tones. The Power Plant Building is industrial with bursts of color in the carpet and artwork. The original spaces have kept much of the same footprint, thanks to a design by Sottile & Sottile, a Savannah-based architectural firm.
What sets this hotel apart from the dozens of boutique properties and historic inns around town is that it’s stocked with Kessler’s artifacts from around the world. Two massive citrine and amethyst slabs tower above guests entering the lobby. Even more can be found inside, encased in glass and lit from below. A shop has these gems available for sale, should you want to add to your own collection. There’s also a chrome-dipped model dinosaur fossil hung above the lobby, nicknamed Ms. Chromina Joule, and a meteor encased in glass. Custom-made geode woven rugs are set against the front desk, made of sliced pieces of amethyst, and a light fixture inspired by the Big Bang, made of quartz and amethyst.
A scavenger hunt for kids highlights the most interesting of the pieces, spread across two levels. The building’s original switches have been preserved, set alongside museum-quality interactive panels detailing the space’s history. On an upper level is Beethoven’s Terrace, which features a rare Bösendorfer piano, a staple of nearly every Kessler property.
Inspired by Nature
The jewel tones throughout the guest floors and rooms mimic the theme of the buildings, notably the minerals on display in the lobby of the Power Plant and the crystal chandeliers in The Three Muses. The mossy green carpet is inspired by the building’s weathered appearance before renovation and the reflection of water.
“I took a picture of it and thought to myself, this would be a stunning carpet pattern for our guest room corridors and a great way to tie the story of the Savannah River running through the historic power plant before it was decommissioned,” says Kessler. “We are really pleased with how that turned out, a work of art in itself.”
Guest rooms carry over the geode and natural theme with custom-made headboards and desk lamps modeled after malachite. The spaces come with coffee makers, a mini-fridge, plush bathrobes and luxury toiletries. Guests have access to a fitness center equipped with Peloton bikes and can book a treatment at the Poseidon Spa, another fixture of Kessler’s hotels.
Redefining River Street
The JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District hasn’t just added hotel rooms to Savannah’s offerings, but has also created its own entertainment district. Between the hotels and surrounding riverfront space, there are 12 food and beverage outlets, with two more on the way, featuring a wide variety of cuisines.
Stone & Webster Chophouse has classic steakhouse fare, including Japanese Wagyu and the decadent shellfish tower. There’s even private dining inside one of the converted smokestacks. Turbine Market and Cafe is a quick-service market open all day for coffee and sandwiches. Inspired by Kessler’s travels in Africa, Baobab Lounge has a stuffed crocodile above the bar and menu items like biltong and Amarula cocktails.
Within the complex, visitors can also dine on authentic Neapolitan pizza beneath murals by Atlanta artist Greg Mike, sip on margaritas from Savannah Tequila Company or indulge their sweet tooth at District Gelato. Other options include barbecue, seafood, sushi and German fare.
The Plant Riverside District also has two rooftop bars. Electric Moon is a playful space with a slide between levels, games like cornhole and ping pong, and infused shots. Myrtle and Rose resembles an Alice in Wonderland-themed garden party, with giant chess pieces and plants. It hosts weekly Sunday jazz brunch. Live entertainment is often found on the plaza, along with daily yoga classes.
There’s no doubt that the JW Marriott Savannah has changed the River Street experience for visitors and locals alike. The luxury brand’s partnership with the Kessler Collection is perfectly united at the over-the-top hotel.
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