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'Jewel of the South' by Stephen Henkin

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by Stephen Henkin

William Tecumseh Sherman was so enchanted by Savannah that on his destructive march through Georgia during the Civil War he refused to burn it down. Instead, he presented the charming coastal city to President Lincoln as a "Christmas gift." Today Savannah's magnificent architecture is still fascinating Yankees (and lots of others)--to the tune of over five million visitors a year.

Once characterized by Lady Astor of England in 1946 as "a beautiful woman with a dirty face," Savannah has been reborn as one of the Top Ten tourist--and walkable--cities in the United States. During a great reawakening in the forties, neglected squares and a ratty wharf became the target of renewed civic pride. The local government began to stop urban developers from tearing down some elegant old structures and vastly improved the city's considerable landscaping.

Savannah is now a place of intriguing historic architecture complemented by oasis-like squares. There are no Planet Hollywoods or Hard Rock Cafˇs--they just would not fit in. But Mercer House, a comely, red brick Italianate-style structure on Monterey Square where composer Johnny Mercer was born, somehow seems most appropriate.

[2,000 Buildings]

The city possesses not only the nation's largest registered urban-historic district but also the highest concentration of nineteenth-century buildings. This "Jewel of the South" contains about 2,000 structures, 1,100 of which are considered historically significant, in an area roughly 1 mile wide by 1.5 miles long, making it a walker's paradise.

An innovative city plan conceived by founding father James Oglethorpe in 1733 provides for 22 lush squares (originally 24), making rest simple for tourists. Heralded as a masterpiece, the plan earned the city a National Historic Landmark designation in 1966. (The designated area extends from East Broad Street to West Broad Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and from the Savannah River to Gaston Street.) Indeed, Savannah's historic architectural heritage, city plan, and squares are recognized worldwide as civic treasures.

"Savannah is a lovely, gentle, sad old city. You can walk through the shadowy, cobbled streets of the town on a tranquil Sunday morning and feel the atmosphere heavy with the burden of lost greatness and relaxed by quiet decay," writes Mills Lane in Savannah Revisited: History and Architecture (Beehive Press, 1994.) "But now you can also feel a deserved pride and see renewal, with fresh coats of paint and a happy recognition that the city's wealth of nineteenth-century buildings and wonderful town plan must be preserved."

Lane notes that the city remains true to the impressions of Timothy Harley, a minister who visited Savannah late in the nineteenth century: "There are vaster and wealthier cities, but for architectural simplicity, for an indescribable charm about its streets and buildings, its parks and squares, there is but one Savannah. Without a rival, without an equal, it stands unique."

Yes, Savannah's Historic District has its share of McDonald's and Burger Kings, along with trendy upscale eateries housed in authentic period buildings, but it has somehow maintained a quiet dignity and sense of place and purpose through often challenging times. Although Savannah is more than gracious buildings, houses, and squares, certainly the welcoming architecture has defined its character and made it a key attraction over the years.

[Filming Locale]

Popular culture confirms this. In filming Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, based on John Berendt's Savannah-based best-seller, director/actor Clint Eastwood rented Mercer House for $16,000 a day and shot film footage in Monterey Square for a much cheaper rate. In fact, Savannah's memorable squares are available for not only movie shoots but car commercials, weddings, festivals, and parties as well. On a park bench in Chippewa Square, Forrest Gump mouthed the word choc-o-lets for the first time in the film. (The bench is no longer there--it was just a prop.)

The inviting city squares were actually strategic in origin, records Francis Moore in A Voyage to Georgia Begun in the Year 1735 (London, 1744): "The use of [squares] is, in case a War should happen, that the Villages without may have Places in the Town, to bring Cattle and Families into for Refuge, and to that Purpose there is a Square left in every Ward, big enough for the Outwards to encamp in."

Today sojourns in the squares are a more genteel affair. Once rested in one of these well-landscaped city parks, invariably festooned with some imposing historic monument, visitors are free to experience a wide range of architectural styles, ranging from the unobtrusive approach of the Colonial period to the intricate, medieval-type cathedrals and the gingerbread look of the Victorian period.

Interestingly, everyone perceives Historic Savannah in a different way. For Eric Meyerhoff, principal architect in the Savannah firm of Gunn Meyerhoff Shay, Architects, the "visual architectural delight of Savannah manifests itself in three distinct scales, entwined to create a visual fabric unlike any city in the United States."

The first, declares Meyerhoff, is its large scale, which is due to its being built around a grid of parks known as "squares" every two blocks in both directions, and this caters to the pedestrian. "Each square, unique in its landscaping, allows the visitor to view the surrounding buildings from underneath a canopy of trees," he says. "From this openness stream rays of sunlight onto the facades, accentuating the architectural articulation, at the same time providing an oasis for the viewer to enjoy the experience."

['Comfortable Scale']

Meyerhoff says the second scale concerns the buildings themselves. With few exceptions, the commercial buildings, uniquely interspersed with homes, conform to the residential scale in the Historic District, with most buildings being less than thirty feet wide and generally three to four stories high. "The pedestrian feels the comfort of this scale by encountering a different architectural facade every ten paces, without being overwhelmed by the monotony of block-long buildings," he finds.

However, for Meyerhoff, who has lived and practiced in Savannah for forty-two years, it is the third scale--the sheer variety of structures--that is the District's most enticing feature. He points out that Savannah's buildings embrace an impressive variety of architectural styles: Late Victorian, Greek Revival, Regency, Art Nouveau, and American Gothic. In fact, examples of all the nation's prevailing eighteenth-and nineteenth-century architectural styles--except Spanish--are found in the eclectic blend that makes the Historic District a place of such fascinating variety.

"Each of these styles--executed in brick, stone, cast iron, or wood--is extremely rich in architectural detailing," says Meyerhoff, who adds: "This myriad detailing on each building is what truly makes Savannah a delightful architectural-visual experience.

"As one walks from square to square, passing each building, discovering a different nuance of detailing, from the eaves to the railings and stairs, the visual-architectural experience can be as overwhelming to the eye as a symphony is to the ear," enthuses the architect, whose firm is responsible for restoring over a hundred buildings in the Historic District as well as developing the Riverfront and reconstituting Franklin Square.

John Duncan, professor emeritus at Armstrong Atlantic State University, puts the city's architectural delights into perspective by making a comparison with a neighbor 120 miles down the road. "Savannah's sister city, Charleston, South Carolina, has a wonderful collection of eighteenth-century buildings," he notes, "but they are pretty much alike: gable end to the street with two-story verandas on the side and with the front door opening onto the porch."

"Savannah, on the other hand, has the whole spectrum of architectural styles," the professor explains, although pointing out that devastating fires in 1796, 1820, and 1889 destroyed most of Savannah's Georgian architecture. "Only the Habersham House [now the Pink House Restaurant at 23 Abercom St. on Reynolds Square] and a few clapboard cottages remain," says Duncan, who with his wife owns and operates V. and J. Duncan Antique Maps, Prints and Books on Monterey Square.

Another district tradition, he says, is the Federal-style architecture, with its elliptical fanlights and sidelights. Perhaps most noteworthy is the Isaiah Davenport House [324 E. State St.] completed in 1822 and now a house museum.

['Exotic' Influences]

A former teacher who taught local Savannah and architectural history for thirty-two years, Duncan describes Regency architecture, introduced into the New World at Savannah by the young English architect William Jay Bath, as a "combination of Greek and Roman architecture and a touch of the exotic thrown in." Only four Regency-style buildings remain: the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House (124 Abercorn St., Oglethorpe Square), built 1816--19 and now a house museum; the Telfair Mansion (121 Barnard St., Telfair Square), built 1819 and now the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Scarbrough House (41 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), completed in 1819; and the Ships of the Sea Museum.

At the top of Duncan's list of Savannah's most prominent style--Greek Revival columned mansions--is the Champion-McAlpin-Fowlkes House (230 Barnard St. on Orleans Square), built around 1845 and now the home of the Georgia chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati. "But," he adds, "most Greek Revival houses are row houses, for which Savannah is so well known."

As for the Italianate style, Duncan likes the work of New York architect John Norris, who used deep eaves and heavy brackets for his Savannah houses. "The most notable," he says, "being Mercer House, built for lyricist Johnny Mercer's great-grandfather High Weeden Mercer [429 Bull St., Monterey Square, begun in 1859 and completed in 1871]."

In old Savannah, church architecture was almost always in the Gothic style. The Green-Meldrim House (14 W. Macon St., Madison Square), built in 1853 for cotton merchant Charles Green and now the parish house for St. John's Episcopal Church, and Mickve Israel Synagogue (20 E. Gordon St., Monterey Square), the third-oldest synagogue in the United States, built in 1876, are beautiful Gothic buildings, says Duncan.

"The town's most noteworthy example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style is the Savannah Cotton Exchange [100 East Bay St.], built in 1886," he adds. "It is built over Drayton Street and has the distinction of being the first Savannah building built over air rights."

Duncan finds the Second Empire Baroque to be an "amusing, fanciful, and sculptural style," recalling that when he and his wife decided to get married twenty-three years ago, they chose Monterey Square and waited for such a house to come up for sale.

[Money Pit]

"We paid $36,000 for our Second Empire townhouse and have been sinking money down a black hole ever since," confessing that the only intact amenities were the matching marble mantles, gaseliers, gold leaf cornices, pier mirror, and stenciled ceilings. "It has been a labor of love and we do love it--and love downtown living," he says.

Despite the predominance of nineteenth-century buildings in the Historic District, it is the eye-catching ornamental ironwork, a late arrival to Savannah, that is the city's universal architectural feature. Although it was only after the fire of 1796 that ships from Britain and the North brought in ballast ironwork for new houses being built, the same scrolled designs started to proliferate in the squares--around monuments and fountains--and then began to decorate the buildings opposite them.

Likewise, new generations of architectural styles all began to rely on the exquisite cast-iron balconies: in Greek Revival mansions they became suspended, as they did in Gothic villas and Romanesque commercial structures. Meanwhile, stair railings and window guards brought life to the dull appearance of stucco and brick row houses. Magical ironwork seemed to appear everywhere: from iron storks serving as newels and iron dolphins as waterspouts, to iron griffins as foot scrapers. There is even an iron spire atop the Independent Presbyterian Church (1819), perhaps Savannah's most notable building.

It is obvious that developing architectural traditions were restricted by limitations of the widely respected town plan--building sites could measure only 60 feet by 90 feet--and shaped over the years by economics and changing patterns of trade with the major port cities of the Northeast and Great Britain. Perhaps the greatest impact on Savannah's architectural development, however, stemmed from Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin on a plantation outside Savannah in 1793. The sudden growth of the city's cotton business attracted the trade, and varying architectural influences, of wide-ranging places.

From New England came wealthy traders, artisans, publications, and materials, all of which aided Savannah's construction boom. Then a decline in building occurred from 1820 to 1835 when the city suffered a series of economic setbacks, just as the Greek Revival style was sweeping the northern cities of Philadelphia and New York. By the time Savannah's economic fortunes finally reversed, however, the pattern of trade had shifted from New England back to England. Liverpool, with its cotton mills, had developed a voracious appetite for southern cotton, and this led to Georgian England's considerable artistic influence on Savannah in the final twenty years before the Civil War.

[Local Approach]

Since there was a shortage of professionally trained architects, locally trained master builders followed previous architectural traditions. Purely decorative designs were discarded in favor of those that stressed simplicity, practicality, and durability. Building materials were limited to mostly wood and brick and seldomly stone. Since the Old South was mostly agrarian, the height and size of commercial buildings was limited. After the Civil War, the fire laws did much to maintain the architectural unity of the oldest parts of Savannah. While other areas of the city were departing from the somewhat stifling, late-nineteenth-century building styles by constructing elaborate wooden-frame dwellings, fortunately for us today, Old Savannah observed the architectural status quo.

"Historic zoning has been in place since 1973," remarks Beth Reiter, preservation officer for the Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. "The most recent revision to the Historic Distict Ordinance included standards for commercial buildings and buildings with larger floor plates--hotels, and so forth. The standards set height limits for the first time, which vary from area to area in the district."

Reiter stresses that both renovation and new construction are currently booming. "One of the more interesting renovations is the restoration of the Marshall Hotel, an 1850s structure that has been 'uncovered' on Broughton Street," she says. "Other projects include a thirty-three-unit townhouse-condominium development that will greatly enhance revitalization of the district's west side."

Reiter points to the new design for the annex to the Hyatt Hotel as another interesting case study. "The construction of the Hyatt in the seventies was very controversial, and its design phase just preceded the adoption of Historic District zoning," she says. "The design of the new annex next door comes under the purview of the Historic Review Board, and its design is much improved over the original hotel."

As far as where the district is headed, Reiter predicts that the new residential and commercial infill will continue for the next few years. "We will also concentrate on correcting any past renovation mistakes by providing more academic documentation of the proper treatment of certain historic styles," she adds.

According to J. Paul Hansen, of Savannah-based Hansen Architects, the city "quickly learned from mistakes made in the fifties and early sixties that its historical integrity was being jeopardized by not being respectful to its architectural significance."

[Influential Elements]

"I think many cities have profited from our efforts to enhance instead of replace and to incorporate strong design elements from our past--that is, pediments, window openings, pilasters, and so forth--into our new designs," says Hansen. "Charleston, Boston, Richmond, and other cities have realized that scale and mass can be pedestrian friendly and still service our modern-day space and technological needs.

"Savannah is a model to many for restoration, adaptative reuse, and compatible new designs that have successfully preserved the heritage and integrity of our built environment," he concludes.

Today Savannah is the fastest-growing port on the South Atlantic Coast. A new convention center is scheduled to open late this year, and the long-vacant storefronts along Broughton Street have begun to fill up. Thanks to a waterfront-revitalization program that began in the seventies, the place where Oglethorpe first landed on February 12, 1733, is today's Savannah Historic Waterfront, lined with more than a hundred shops, galleries, restaurants, night spots, and elegant inns and hotels.

Above all, there are ample, and convenient, opportunities for visitors to appreciate the city's past: Lush oasis-squares built at the time of the first settlement recall Savannah's early origins; simple, eighteenth-century cottages point to austere traditions; extravagant palaces built by the merchant princes of the burgeoning cotton kingdom whisk us away to exuberant times; and wharves and warehouses create images of the glorious days of Savannah's flourishing ocean trade.

Indeed, daydreams come easy in an architectural environment such as Savannah's.