Savannah’s Amazing Grace

PrintPrintEmailEmail

I had planned to spend four days in Savannah last April and wondered if that might be too long. After all, the Historic District is only two and a half square miles (at that, one of the largest such districts in the nation). Surely I could walk it in a day. In the end the city’s attractions took up every bit of the four—and there was plenty left over for a future visit.

In Savannah, two and a half square miles means more than 250 years of history set along a working waterfront, a nearly mile-long alley of oaks, twenty-one shady squares, and a feast of museums, churches, and restored houses. The city’s colonial history began in 1733, when Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe—member of Parliament, philanthropist, and shrewd promoter—sailed up the Savannah River with a group of 114 English colonists to a site he’d previously secured by agreement with Tomo-chi-chi, chief of the Yamacraw Indians. When Oglethorpe set up a temporary home in a damask tent on the river bluffs on February 12, 1733, Savannah was born.

“I chose the situation for the town upon an high ground. . .… ,” Oglethorpe reported in a letter on February 20. “I pitched upon this place, not only for the pleasantness of the situation, but because … I thought it healthy. … An Indian nation who knew the nature of this country chose the same spot for its healthiness.”

Although Georgia’s founder made his reasons for selecting the site perfectly clear, to this day no one is certain from where he derived his distinctive plan for the town: a grid broken by twenty-four parklike squares (over the years four were destroyed, and later one was restored). Some say cities in China formed the inspiration; London’s West End is another candidate. Under Oglethorpe at least four of the planned squares were built; by the time of the Civil War, all were in place. “If four-and-twenty villages had resolved to hold a meeting, and had assembled at this place, each with its pump, its country church, its common and its avenue of trees, the result would have been a facsimile of Savannah,” wrote a visitor in 1859.

A newcomer to town might be torn, as I was, between the waterfront and the city stretching south of it. For a first glimpse, I chose to temporarily turn away from the river and walk along Bull Street, a broad thoroughfare with five greens strung along it. The first, Johnson Square, furnished with two splashing fountains, a regal canopy of oaks, and banks of azaleas in full bloom, became my instant favorite. In the middle of the square, named for Robert Johnson, Oglethorpe’s ally and the governor of South Carolina, is buried the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. (It was at his nearby plantation in 1793 that Eli Whitney shaped the fortunes of the South with his invention of the cotton gin.)

Savannah today reflects its past as the Atlantic’s major cotton port. When the wealthy mercantile classes raised small palaces for themselves, they often turned to experienced architects and craftsmen from Boston, New York, and even England. Although fire destroyed most of the eighteenth-century city, virtually all of the architectural styles of nineteenth-century America are represented in Savannah. But by the 1940s Savannah had fallen prey to many of the problems of much larger cities. After the central area was abandoned by its wealthier inhabitants, the great homes became boarding houses and slum dwellings. Other homes were demolished so that new suburban houses could be built of venerable Savannah Grey brick, which is actually colored a soft, dusty rose.

In 1954 Savannah’s beloved icon, the Italianate marketplace on Ellis Square, was torn down to make room for a parking garage, and the square went too. At this outrage a group of seven local women launched the Historic Savannah Foundation to fight back. The following year they won their first victory, less than a day ahead of the wrecking ball. The stay against demolition preserved the 1820 Davenport House, a fine example of the Georgian and Federal styles combined. It is now open as a museum and filled with period furniture. The battle continued, the troops gained force. Eventually at least a thousand important buildings were saved, sold at minimal prices to homesteaders, renovated, and lived in once more. There was a side effect too. The city’s destroyers had always scoffed at the notion of a tourist industry, but Savannah’s annual revenue from tourism rose from one hundred thousand dollars in the 1950s to two hundred million today.

More recently, the city’s leading preservationist, Leopold Adler II, took on the problems of the adjoining Victorian District, which by the 1970s had essentially become a run-down ghetto. Adler’s artful combination of government and private funding supported an innovative scattered-site rehabilitation program. Today, people who have always lived in the neighborhood continue to do so, their rents partly subsidized. Meanwhile, private owners have joined in the restoration effort. The visitor now sees a truly distinguished assortment of Victorian frame buildings—redeemed, along with a community’s life.

In his scheme for the colony, Oglethorpe banned rum, lawyers, papists, and slavery. All four crept in before long. The founder’s edict against slavery wasn’t based on idealism, as some suppose. One biographer, Phinizy Spalding, calls him a “Negrophobe” who was fearful of slave insurrections. Despite the initial prohibition, Georgia’s black population grew rapidly, reaching nearly 50 percent of the total by 1880. The earliest black congregation in North America was founded in Savannah in 1775 and named the First African Baptist Church. Its present quarters, dating from 1859, are well worth a visit. The finely proportioned gray stuccoed brick building seemed closed when I approached. I had started to walk away when the door opened and the deacon, Harry James, invited me in. Upstairs, in the balcony, Mr. James pointed out original pews carved by slaves, each signed with a faint wavy mark that, it is thought, represents the maker’s African tribal name. Throughout, the church is eloquent with a spirit of calm and purpose that must have served its congregation well in stormy times.

When I mentioned that I was going to Savannah, a friend damned with faint praise. “It’s spotty,” he said. “There are lovely old buildings, and then next door is a garage or a boxlike bank.” It’s true enough. Sometimes there’s even a distinctive smell from the nearby paper mill, although a multi-million-dollar cleanup is planned. Oddly, none of this detracts. Instead, “spotty” creates an edge, reminds us of what’s at stake—what can still be lost, or won.

At least a thousand major buildings were saved, sold to homesteaders, renovated, and lived in once more.

What the seven women of Savannah and their allies fought to save for all of us is a city of uncommon grace. By all means, follow the walking-tour maps or sign up for bus tours. But leave time too for the small discoveries.

The guided tours go past Pulaski Square. It was the city’s first full-scale neighborhood restoration, and it is gorgeous. Absent from the bus tour is West Jones Street, one block south. Here some of the best of Savannah came together for me accidentally, during a stroll in search of lunch. (The Crystal Beer Parlor turned out to be an excellent recommendation by a street-side gardener.) West Jones seems to linger in the 1850s and 1860s, its brickwork and stucco a soft blend of peach and rose. Its exuberant cast-iron railings throw arabesque shadows against old walls and flowering hedges of pink and white grow thick and tall. The trees almost meet overhead. And in the quiet there is birdsong. To an astonishing degree this is the town William Makepeace Thackeray saw in 1855: “a tranquil old city, wide-streeted, tree-planted ... no tearing Northern hustle, no ceaseless hotel racket, no crowds.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP