Savannah Morning News
Feb. 22, 2015
Some days in Savannah you might have to reach for a pen and paper to draw all the arrows to make all the connections – and then you still might be wrong. You still may have questions. But no matter where you start, there are a lot of relationships here, tangentially, directly or obliquely, which might explain the warning I got when I first got to town: be careful what you say, everyone knows everyone.
Then there’s Percival Cohen. No one is quite sure about him, who he is related to, who he was or what his title – president of the Savannah Compress Co. – meant. First, the compress business. After five phone calls, I have deduced, “compress,” accent on the second syllable, relates to cotton as in compressing or squeezing it into bales, a job this industry-starved country no longer knows anything about but something that makes sense since Cohen died in 1927.
Next, Cohen himself. Now that Cohen’s Retreat, that odd and curious mélange of businesses on Skidaway Road, is starting to make waves, a lot of people want to know. Who is that guy? From the oil painting Savannah artist Bellamy Murphy produced from a photograph, the one that hangs in the lobby, we know what he looks like: stern, a bit grim, disciplined. From the name etched in the stately two-story brick building set back from the road we know how he spelled his name. From the bits and pieces new owners and/or partners, Karen Langston and Colleen Smith, have been able to cobble together we know he was compassionate. He was generous. In his will Cohen, a bachelor, left money to the Bethesda Home for Boys, the Fresh Air Home on Tybee Island and $50,000 for the construction of a home “so men would not die old and lonely.” He also donated money for a water fountain for horses. Years ago the fountain was moved to the middle of Victory Drive, just east of Bull Street.
We know he is buried in Laurel Grove North (home to Savannah’s white people) in the Jewish section. He rests next to members of the Minis family and across from a grouping of 1,500 tombstones of Confederate soldiers (including eight generals). An ornate iron fence surrounds his brick vault that sits on the corner of Sycamore and Pine streets. Before Interstate 16 sliced through the cemetery, this dirt road used to continue south to Laurel Grove South (home to Savannah’s African-American population).
George Cohen, a Realtor and a wag around town, does not claim to be related to Percival, but he does remember gazing at the stained glass window an earlier Mr. Cohen donated to Congregation Mickve Israel. Was it Percival Cohen? George is not sure. What George does remember is working with Cohen’s Retreat’s Karen Langston at Lady Jane, a well-known, upscale women’s apparel shop on Bull Street back when George’s father, A.J. Cohen, the fourth-generation owner of the shop, kept everyone entertained and ran a pretty good business. The man, who died a year ago at 93, could tell a story.
Karen’s connection with partner Colleen goes back to the days they both went to Armstrong State College when the school was downtown. That was before they formed Savannah Plush Textile, a company the women used to operate from their homes.
“That’s why we bought the building,” Colleen said. “We needed more room.”
Be careful what you wish for. This five-acre property is perfect for dreamers like Karen and Colleen. There is a restaurant they rent out to Chef Kirk Blaine, who made his reputation at Driftaway Café, down the road on Skidaway. There are rooms of merchandise grouped under the Brown Dog Market, including lots of art for sale on the walls.
There are sixteen 500-square-foot cottages in the back; 12 are residential, four are offices. There’s a room for weddings, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and bridal showers and room enough for Savannah’s Martha Nesbit to give cooking classes.
But no one, not even the respected Rabbi Saul Rubin who wrote the comprehensive book of Savannah Jewry from 1733 to 1983, “Third To None,” knows anything more about Percival Cohen.
Will the real Percival Cohen please step forward.