The Heart Of Savannah

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With brief pauses for fluctuations in the international cotton market, fires, epidemics, wars, depressions, adverse tariff policies, and the like, Savannah’s economy soared for a century. By 1848 Savannah was so deeply in thrall to cotton culture that slaves, who were not even permitted in the colony until 1750, made up 41 per cent of the population.

Savannah’s commitment to cotton undermined even its Confederate zeal. When Sherman approached the city on his scorched-earth march through Georgia and the Confederate garrison fled, the mercantile powers not only surrendered without resistance but proposed to “lay aside all differences” and “bring back the prosperity and commerce we once enjoyed.”

One of them, Charles Green, offered his new mansion to Sherman for a headquarters, supposedly with the understanding that his cotton inventory would be spared. Sherman took both the mansion and the cotton and sent his famous telegram to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas Gift, the City of Savannah with 150 guns and plenty of Ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of Cotton.”

After the war the city resumed its economic surge. Cotton exports, which totalled half a million bales per year before the Civil War, reached two million bales per year after recovery. By 1887 an average of three ships were entering or leaving the port per day, exchanging the world’s goods for cotton.

Euphoric from success, Savannah never stopped selling cotton long enough to broaden its base, to diversify its economy. When cotton prices collapsed disastrously after 1895, Savannah’s fortunes, with nothing to fall back on, plunged with them. Savannah’s Golden Age was over, leaving as its legacy the empty embellishments that a century of prosperity had bought.

During those hundred heady years the plan that had served the needs of a colonial military outpost had come to serve even better the tastes of a rich mercantile capital. Savannah’s six original wards, each with its central square, were sufficient at least until 1770; by 1818 they had spawned nine imitations; in 1837 three new wards were added; and by 1856 the total reached twenty-four, exhausting the city’s common land available for planned expansion and so marking the furthest possible extension of Oglethorpe’s original scheme.

Meanwhile, the squares were transformed from cleared, dusty open spaces into individually landscaped parks. Fountains were installed, lawns, trees and flowers were planted, and well-known sculptors were commissioned to add statues. Around the squares and along the tree-shaded streets the simple colonial houses gave way to more elegant wooden structures, and as the years went by and wealth and taste permitted, these in turn were supplanted by stone mansions befitting the new merchant princes of Savannah. Gifted and prominent architects were enlisted along with Savannah’s own master builders to transform the simple village into a stately seat for King Cotton and his court. William Jay came from England in 1817 to lend his columned classicism to the city, followed by the Irish architect Charles B. Cluskey, John S. Norris from New York, and others, to answer an almost insatiable demand for private monuments equal to the ambitions and achievements of their owners. A century of prosperity underwrote a procession of architectural styles: Federal, English Regency, classical revival, Italian villa, Gothic revival, romantic revival, Second Empire—Savannah supported them all.

After Savannah’s fin de siçcle decline, decades of genteel semipoverty preserved and prolonged what years of prosperity had built. Three of the twenty-four park squares were sacrificed to Route 17A; another was surrendered for a parking garage. Otherwise, the essence of old Savannah survived.

No twentieth century “renewal” plans came along to bulldoze the old district into rubble, as has happened in many more prosperous modern cities. If there were people in Savannah with an appetite for that kind of commercial blitz, they lacked the capital and the assurance of profit to pull it off. The city simply persisted as a quiet anachronism, especially in the context of the emergent New South exemplified by the Georgia state capital, Atlanta; and perhaps Savannah came not only to accept but even to enjoy, with Confederate perversity, its somewhat shabby, slow march to a different drummer. Even when prosperity returned to the newer parts of Savannah, after World War II, the historic heart of the city slumbered on.

 

While old Savannah was saved from the more sweeping ravages of success, it was nevertheless nibbled at by decay and predation. Property values in the area sank, and even the stately homes around the squares, degraded into slums, became worth more dead than alive. The only profit in them was to sell them literally brick by brick to suburban builders, who paid ten cents apiece for the instant antiquity that the distinctive “Savannah Greys,” once produced at the nearby Hermitage Plantation, could lend to nondescript suburban development houses. The Hermitage itself was sold to the acquisitive Henry Ford, to be carted away.