The Heart Of Savannah

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Even without wholesale demolition, old Savannah was slowly but surely disappearing. Since its inception in 1933 the Historic American Buildings Survey — a joint project of the Library of Congress and the American Institute of Architects, under the direction of the National Park Service —has honored fifty-six Savannah structures; in that same time fourteen, or 25 per cent, of the honored structures were demolished.

There was no organized attempt to counter this attrition until 1955, when a lost battle to save the city’s historic market from razing for a parking garage convinced an ad hoc coalition of seven Savannah ladies that if they did not move to protect the historic district as a whole, they would lose it piecemeal. Under the leadership of Mrs. Anna C. Hunter, the group became the nucleus of Historic Savannah Foundation, Inc., just in time to buy the Isaiah Davenport House (photo page 60), one of the finest houses in the city, a last-minute reprieve. The once-elegant mansion, divided into six tenement apartments with a common bathroom in the classic entrance hall, was only hours away from demolition.

In the following years the foundation was successful in saving several more buildings, but it was not until 1959 that the organization was ready to undertake the systematic effort that was the only hope for saving old Savannah. For it was clearly a losing game to be forever racing the wreckers to one threatened masterpiece after another, responding to each new alarm like firemen.

Instead, Historic Savannah undertook a two-way information program: in one direction they worked to increase public awareness of the irreplaceable heritage at the heart of Savannah and its value to the city both as a tourist attraction and as a source of tax revenue. At the same time the organization commissioned a ward-by-ward, street-by-street, house-by-house survey of the historic area to provide a detailed and qualified evaluation of the district’s surviving structures. The 2,500 building units in the 2.5-square-mile area were individually indexed, researched, and judged for architectural merit and historical importance by a complex point system. Eventually, 1,100—more than 40 per cent of them —were “rated” as worthy of preservation and eventual restoration.

The foundation made a crucial decision not to undertake on its own the endlessly expensive and exhausting task of restoring the neglected, decaying buildings. Instead, it elected to purchase buildings only in order to resell them for restoration by others, who were legally bound not to alter a building’s exterior without foundation approval, to begin restoration within six months and complete it within eighteen, and to give the foundation the first option to repurchase a property if it were offered for sale again.

Keeping its finances fluid by short-term commitments—on the average, buildings are held by the foundation for six months or less—and using mortgage loans to gain leverage, the foundation has been able to multiply the effectiveness of its limited funds far beyond face value. A revolving fund established in 1964 with $200,000 has so far directly saved over 150 structures, and resold them to individual restorers who have in turn invested more than $12,000,000.

Inspired by the foundation’s success, private citizens have taken up the cause, and restoration has become the rage in Savannah. Powerful Georgia banker Mills B. Lane, a Savannah son, has sponsored more than twenty restorations, as well as the landscaping of several squares. Almost as many restorations are credited to James A. Williams, a Savannah decorator, while two tireless women, Mrs. Stella Henderson and Mrs. Alida Harper Fowlkes, have at least a dozen houses apiece to their names. Already, more than three fourths of the 1,100 rated buildings have been restored. A cornerstone of Historic Savannah’s philosophy is that its properties be restored not as museums but as living, useful structures. Their goal is a vital central city, not a Colonial Williamsburg.

So far, almost everything that has been accomplished to save and restore historic Savannah has been done with private funds and private initiative, a fact that sits well with the city’s conservative instincts and sidesteps the commercial interests whose early antipreservation prejudice had inspired them to deride Historic Savannah from its start as “Hysteric Savannah.”

The foundation’s striking success in its most pressing and visible program, the salvation of decaying and disappearing historic buildings, has in large part obscured some other needs that may be impossible to achieve without the participation of government at one level or another. The most obvious of these needs is for cash to support projects that are not self-liquidating, such as the restoration of squares that have fallen derelict and the purchase of buildings for which no buyer or tenant is in sight—buildings that the foundation must now pass over for fear of tying up a large part of its revolving fund for an indefinite period.