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The Heart Of Savannah

July 2024
15min read

An aging southern belle fights for a new lease on life

Savannah: the name begins with a whisper and ends with a sigh, inciting dreams of a nevernever South, of belles and balls, soft accents and gentle courtesy, magnolias and Spanish moss, and all the rest. If all that ever existed, it doesn’t any more; not anywhere, not in Savannah.

On first acquaintance Savannah belies the romantic suggestion of its name. When the wind is wrong, which it often is, the aroma of Confederate jasmine in bloom mixes with the stink from the Union Camp paper mill —the largest of its kind in the world and Savannah’s biggest taxpayer, biggest payroll, and most obvious nuisance —to make an essence known as “Savannah Perfume.” Savannah’s namesake river suffers Savannah’s raw sewage added to its heavy burden of upstream waste, and it is claimed with only the slightest giveaway smile that ships anchor in the river to have the barnacles poisoned off their bottoms.

Restrained by the river to the north, Savannah sprawls to the south, east, and west in nondescript imitation of the commercial slums, suburban subdivisions, and roadside disaster areas that commonly affect urban America today.

What gives Savannah an advantage against the epidemic urban disease is that at heart—in the two and a half square miles that include its nineteenth-century city limits—Savannah preserves almost intact from its establishment in 1733 as salubrious a scheme for urban settlement as this country has ever seen. An even more hopeful sign of the city’s resurgent health is the fact that its unique old district is being defended and lovingly restored to life by determined citizens who refuse to admit that the best of the past is irrelevant to the future.


The virtues of Savannah resist description in words and photographs, but a walk through the old district quickly makes apparent what is unique and good in Savannah, and how close it came to being lost. The leitmotif is the park square: twenty of them, each individually landscaped, march in regular formation across the area. They provide a centerpiece for each ward, the irreducible modular unit of old Savannah. In that sense, each ward is self-sufficient in Savannah’s special amenity: quiet, green open space close at hand, for many people right at the front doorstep. In New England terms each ward is a residential village with its common, or village green, surrounded by three- and four-story buildings in a variety of styles and materials harmonized by common dignity and restraint.

The perambulatory visitor perceives the pattern of squares, monotonously regular on the map, as a series of variations on a theme, a progression of oases in the urban landscape. The modulation of space from narrow streets to open squares is constantly refreshing, making Savannah that rarity among automotive-age cities, a pedestrian’s delight.

The eminent urbanologist John W. Reps, attesting to the unique importance of Savannah’s plan in The Making of Urban America , notes that “the basic module—ward, open square, … and local streets—provided not only an unusually attractive, convenient, and intimate environment but also served as a practical device for governing urban expansion without formless sprawl.” Reps’s colleague Edmund N. Bacon, the planner responsible for the renewal of Philadelphia, celebrates the Savannah scheme as “a plan so exalted that it remains as one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence.”

Unlike the ad hoc plans of most American cities, the diagram of old Savannah is not the product of historical chance or commercial necessity. It is the enduring inspiration of one man, James Edward Oglethorpe, who established Savannah in 1733. If the plan is “exalted,” it may therefore owe something to the spirit of the planner. The poet Alexander Pope noted at the time that Oglethorpe “will fly from Pole to Pole, driven by strong benevolence of soul.” But the original purpose of the plan, and the colony it prefigured, was more mundane.

Savannah was, in truth, founded as the capital of England’s last and poorest foothold in the New World, Georgia, the thirteenth of the thirteen colonies, a southern bulwark for the Carolinas against the threatening Spanish in Florida. At the same time the Georgia colony was conceived as a convenient and profitable repository for the swelling population of England’s peculiar institution, the debtor’s prison.

Oglethorpe became the founding father of this New World social experiment because of his sensational and successful attack on the system under which financial unfortunates—who could be, and often were, men of spotless character, suffering some purely temporary pecuniary embarrassment —were imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions on the flimsiest pretext. Oglethorpe, appointed to head an investigating commission in 1728, led his colleagues in full finery from the House of Commons to hold hearings in Fleet Prison. Oglethorpe’s research was so thorough and his report so convincing that it resulted in legislative reform, the Debtors Act of 1730, which corrected the worst abuses.


Fresh from this signal success, Oglethorpe was a natural candidate for the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America, chartered by King George II “for the settling of the poor persons of London.” Almost half of the twenty-one trustees were former members of Oglethorpe’s prison reform commission.

Though nothing might have been more predictable than that Oglethorpe would be a trustee of the new venture, it is somewhat surprising that he would elect personally to lead the first shipload of settlers from England to the New World. He was, at thirty-five, in his prime: the head of a wealthy and prominent family, with a prosperous estate, Westbrook, 30 miles southwest of London; and, with his reputation for enlightened social concern, one of the brightest stars in the Parliamentary firmament.

But, whether from a sense of responsibility to the trustees and the Crown, or a compelling interest in the social purpose of the colony, or a sense of military duty, or some purely personal consideration, Oglethorpe was on the deck of the 200-ton frigate Ann as she sailed out of Gravesend Harbor on November 17, 1732. In his charge were forty “sober, industrious and moral” families—114 souls—”all of whom had their creditors’ leave to go, and none of whom were deserting wives or families.” After two months at sea, the Ann arrived in Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina.

He reported back to the rest of the trustees in England: “Went myself to view the Savannah River. I fixed upon a healthy situation about ten miles from the sea. The river here forms a half-moon, along the south side of which the banks are about forty foot high, and on the top flat. … Upon the riverside in the centre of this plain I have laid out the town. …”

That simple declarative, “I have laid out the town,” is all we know of the genesis of the city plan for Savannah that persists today as a paradigm of urban design. There is no mention by Oglethorpe of the plan’s derivation or even whether it was brought from England and simply projected on the paper-flat landscape (as the plan’s draftsmanlike regularity and rectilinearity suggest) or decided upon by Oglethorpe after a look at the lay of the land.

Without any evidence from the founding father, historians differ: one commentator asserts, “The plan… had been textbook procedure for two hundred years.” Savannah’s archadmirer, the aforementioned Edmund Bacon, tends to the opposite extreme. As though anything he loves quite so much must have an admirable pedigree, Bacon, in an intriguing speculation, traces Oglethorpe’s inspiration back to the first century B.C. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, via a sixteenth-century Venetian named Pietro di Giacomo Cataneo.

However he came by it, Oglethorpe took great pains to make sure that his plan would be faithfully superimposed on the Georgia landscape. Operating from his tent pitched at the edge of the bluff, at the head of the steps built up from the river and within sight of the derrick used to raise heavy supplies, he personally oversaw all aspects of construction and communitv life, from dealing with the resident Creek tribe—Oglethorpe befriended their chief, Tomochichi, learned their language, and later presented a delegation of Creeks at court—to land clearing, construction, fortification, and lawmaking.

If some of the settlers responded bycalling Oglethorpe “Father,” others complained: “Under the influence of our Perpetual Dictator, we have seen something like Aristocracy, Oligarchy, as well as Triumvirate, Decemvirate, and Consular Authority of famous Republics which have expired many years before.” Under Oglethorpe’s purposeful if stern direction, men, women, and children were assigned to appropriate tasks. The townsite was cleared and the first house begun less than a month after the settlers began work in February, 1733.

By July 7 things were far enough advanced to permit a pause for formalities. The South-Carolina Gazette reported the occasion: ”… the Inhabitants were assembled, on the Strand Prayers were read, by way of Thanksgiving. The people proceeded to the Square. The Wards and Tythings were named, each Tything consisting of ten Houses, and each Ward of fourty things. An House Lott was given to each Freeholder. All the people had a very plentiful Dinner. … Some of the People having privately drank too freely of Rum are dead; and that Liquor which was always discountenanced here, is now absolutely prohibited.” (Prohibition remained on the books until 1742, when it succumbed to reality.)

The house lot each settler received was a precise 60-by-90-foot rectangle. Two ranks of five side-by-side lots made up a tything, and two pairs of tythings faced each other across each 270-by-315 foot square. Thus, forty house lots made up each ward. (See illustrations, page 54.) The remaining two sides of the squares, to the east and west, were kept as “trust lots,” for public buildings, stores, churches, etc.

In addition to a house lot, each family was assigned a five-acre garden plot in the city common just south of the residential section and a farm of almost fortyfive acres just beyond that, for a total of fifty acres per family. To prevent land speculation and concentration of capital—land—these grants were nontransferable. More privileged colonists, called “adventurers,” who came to the New World on their own impulse and their own cash, were given discretionary title to five-hundred-acre plots on the outskirts of the settlement.

Although the precise rationale for this design is lost to us, its military geometry probably signals the fundamental consideration. Each house was required to contribute one armed man to the local defense forces, and the open squares undoubtedly served as drill grounds, as well as safe refuges for outlanders and livestock that would be driven into the city in case of enemy attack. The pattern for Savannah’s inner city was set by the original four wards laid out by Oglethorpe, to which he added two more before 1736.


Oglethorpe sailed home to England land for good in 1743 after ten years of colonizing, treating with the Indians, fighting the Spanish, and serving as legislator and lobbyist for the Georgia settlement. He lived to sympathize with the American Revolution, and died in June, 1785, after welcoming to London John Adams, the first American ambassador.

For the first sixty years of its existence Savannah struggled along as a military outpost for the more prosperous colonies to the north. Without any great economic function in the colonial scheme and overshadowed by nearby Charleston, Savannah’s fortunes rose and fell according to military necessity and political chance. By the time of the Revolution, which the city lived through almost from beginning to end in the hands of the British, suffering one abortive and very destructive French-American liberation attempt, Savannah could claim only about three thousand citizens. A member of the British occupying forces noted that “the Houses lie Scattered and are poorly built mostly of wood —in Short, the whole has a most wretched miserable appearance.” One Ebenezer Hazard, in 1778, dismissed Savannah as “a small Town, situated on the Top of a Sand-Hill.”

(By 1791, things had evidently improved somewhat. President Washington, on a visit that year, failed to record his impressions of the terrain or the architecture, but he did note “about 100 well dressed and handsome ladies.”)

The success of Savannah remained doubtful until 1793, when it was decided for the next century. The year before, a young New Englander arrived to visit a plantation near Savannah after an unpleasant boat trip during which, he reported home, “I was very seasick for six days, in which time I ate nothing that I did not puke up immediately.” After his recovery, young Eli wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Whitney back home, “I heard nuch said of the extreme difficulty of ginning cotton. … I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck at a plan, a machine with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way… .”


Savannah had found its true vocation and its salvation: cotton. Total U.S. exports of the white miracle fiber increased from 200,000 pounds just before Whitney’s invention to 64,000,000 pounds little more than a decade later. Much of it passed through the factoring houses that rose along the Savannah river front. In 1794 exports from the port totalled less than $500,000; by 1819 they had risen thirtyfold to $14,000,000, and Savannah was the sixteenth largest city in America, launching the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic, bearing the name of her home port proudly on her bow.

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.

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.

But in the view of most experts the critical need ever since the restoration movement began has been for enactment of a strong historic zoning law that would control or disallow the many inappropriate eyesores—auto body shops, small industries, and the like—that infiltrated the historic district during its decades of decline. Such a law would also provide guidelines for new construction within the district, to assure that the increasing attractiveness of the area and the rising property values would not bring in new buildings incompatible in style with the historic restorations.

It is precisely this kind of protective zoning, sanctioned in case after case by the courts, that has fostered effective restoration in other cities. But not in Savannah, although the city has had special permission from the state and an overwhelming mandate from the voters to write such special legislation. While the city council failed to act, plans were set for a high-rise luxury building that will compromise the unity of Factor’s Row, the long, low series of old buildings that extends along the riverfront and provides a vital axis for the whole district.

As destructive and frustrating as such delays are, the movement to restore the heart of Savannah to life has gained too much momentum to be easily stopped. It seems inevitable that Savannah’s government will enact historic zoning, if not now, then in the near future. Meanwhile, the citizens who are deserting the suburbs to return to the central city are young and enthusiastic, the kind of middle-class family people who make up a vocal and influential constituency. They are not about to desert their own commitment and the style of urban life they have rediscovered. In addition, Savannah’s government and business leaders have discovered the hard-cash benefits of reviving a moribund inner city: the tax assessment of a typical house has tripled or quadrupled with restoration, according to the Foundation’s Executive Vice-President, J. Reid Williamson, Jr.

In fighting their own local battle the people of Savannah may be performing a soul-saving service for the rest of urban America, which has yet to find a way to make cities that reflect a human image of mankind. As the Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon notes, “The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.”

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