Though Savannah, Georgia is a city filled with antique charms, a new development is sparking fresh excitement, making it one of the South’s most talked-about destinations for 2021. Centered around a power factory that went into service in 1912, the Plant Riverside District is a visionary project encompassing no less than three hotels, myriad dining and entertainment options, and even science exhibitions incorporating a 135-foot chrome-dipped dinosaur. The $375 million district is the brainchild of Savannah native Richard Kessler, a longtime hospitality executive whose holdings include the Kessler Collection of luxury hotels, which range from Grand Bohemians in Asheville and Charleston to Colorado’s Beaver Creek Lodge to another two here in Savannah (the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront and The Mansion on Forsyth Park).
In many ways, the Plant Riverside District is the culmination of Kessler’s experience, history and interests. “I realized the power of what the river offers,” Kessler says. “And so when the plant went up for sale, I made a very deliberate attempt to acquire it—and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” The old plant serves as the centerpiece of the mixed-use entertainment and hospitality complex, a towering brick monolith that powered the city during its boom in the early 20th century. It was decommissioned in 2005, and Kessler bought it in 2012, spending years restoring it and adding new elements such as 1,100 feet of riverwalk. Before doing anything, however, he convened panels of local residents: “I asked them two questions: ‘What would you do with this property if you owned it?’ and ‘What does Savannah need that it does not have?’”
He took their answers to heart, and working with architect Christian Sottile—dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design—has created a destination for a variety of pursuits. Two hotels are currently operating under the J.W. Marriott brand: The Power Plant—an industrial-themed space occupying the restored structure, complete with signature smokestacks—and the fine-art-oriented Three Graces, which features elaborate paintings and furniture. Kessler’s own nautical-themed Atlantic hotel will open later this year.
“The Power Plant is all about energy, and the origin of power” he says. The lobby—named Generator Hall—contains what is basically a museum of natural science, housing (in addition to the dinosaur) fossils, geodes and an Ice Age bear, as well as exhibits on electricity and the area’s history. Each weekend the hotel hosts an Ultimate Dinosaur Adventure, which allows kids to search for fossils and learn about the massive namesake attraction, including programs that explain how it was assembled. Naturally, this—and a Splash Pad fountain (one of three water features on the property)—attracts not only visitors but also local families.
“Every time I go there, people I don’t know will come up to me and start gushing with compliments,” Kessler says. “One woman, who lives over the river in South Carolina, told me it was her fourth day in a row there. Her daughter keeps asking to ‘go back to that place with the fountains and the dinosaurs.’”
The Three Muses, meanwhile, offers a romantic, elegant vibe, highlighted by the Myrtle & Rose rooftop lounge, with sweeping views of the river. The soon-to-open Atlantic, a modern boutique property, will contain Powerhouse Live, featuring major acts presented by Live Nation. Other performances will take place at the Plant Riverside Amphitheater, adjoining the new riverside Martin Luther King, Jr., Park. The area also hosts a weekly Cirque du Soleil-style circus show, Streetmosphere, every Saturday night.
Throughout the development is a collection of curated boutiques and food venues. “We handpicked the best high-end retailers in Savannah because we wanted it to be very city-oriented,” Kessler says. Among these are Byrd’s Cookies, founded in 1924 and famous for its Key lime coolers; Graffito, offering what Kessler says is the town’s best pizza; Savannah Square Pops, renowned for its handmade frozen treats; and the fine-clothing shop J. Parker, which has outfitted swank Savannahians since 1972.
This mix of classic and contemporary is key to the allure of the burgeoning Plant Riverside District. “Savannah has fabulous architecture from the 1700s and 1800s, lots of stories—including ghost stories—and a very livable, walkable quality,” Kessler says. “Add to that the Savannah College of Art and Design and its 12,000 students, and we’re a growing and alive place. Now, we can bring all kinds of experiences to the Plant Riverside District.”