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Dreaming of Savannah – Rendezvous with an Historic Romantic Southern City

May 7th, 2010 by Teresa Jacobson

Part 1:
Savannah is a city of squares, a city whose rhythms change softly from block to diminutive block. Uncommonly pleasant to visit, it seems to have been planned for those who care to take their time and stroll quietly through the 19th century.  

James Oglethorpe’s Squares
The squares were laid out by Gov. James Oglethorpe in January 1733. The source of his inspiration is debated, although many have noted that Oglethorpe had once lived in London and have surmised that his plan for Savannah was influenced by what he had seen there. But it is generally acknowledged that military considerations dictated the small scale of the town – it had to be compact enough to be easily defended. He laid the plans for a city of shaded squares that did not exclude but led at short intervals one to the other, a long vista of oases. Oglethorpe was a man who fought against the Turks and captured Belgrade – a commanding force, but a practical idealist and philanthropist. He was appalled by the misery of debtors in prison, concerned for Europeans who were the victims of religious persecution, and when he set sail for Savannah he brought with him 115 colonists. There were two groups of Jews from central Europe, hardworking Moravians and persecuted Portuguese, and on later trips he brought in highland Scots, Greeks, and some Irish Catholics, as well as his chaplain, John Wesley. The King’s support, insured by the Royal Patent, also had a military motive – to protect the British Colonists further north and beyond from the encroachment of the Spaniards in Florida. Early settlers were city-bred and of no use with an ax or at clearing forests, however there were no blacks in Savannah in the early days – Gov. Oglethorpe hated slavery.  Though indeed the town held out against slavery for a long time, this shortage of labor plagued the general and in the end, the colony caved in on slavery and thousands of blacks came.
While King Cotton reigned, so did Savannah. In its heyday, over 2 million bales of cotton per year moved through this port ranked first on the Atlantic Ocean and second in the world.  The price of cotton was set in only t wo places in the world – England, and Savannah.  As the cotton trade grew so did architecture.  These properous merchants were eager to cast off their frame house for something more elegant and worthy of their newfound stature.   James Habersham Jr. built the home now known as the Olde Pink House in 1789 which has a Palladian window and a Georgian stairway but was otherwise a modest residence. Three of the most elegant and sophisticated houses in Savannah were designed by a young Englishman from Bath, the fashionable watering place of Jane Austen’s England. William Jay designed and oversaw the building of these three Regency houses at a time when Savannah’s economy was experiencing a great cotton boom.

The Owens-Thomas House (124 Abercorn Street; 912-233-9743), considered one of the best examples of Regency architecture in the United States, is a fawn-colored, two-story stone building completed in 1819. In the dining room, there is an ingenious indirect lighting system and on the second level a graceful wooden bridge connects the front and rear of the house. The Ships of the Sea Museum is housed in the home built for William Scarbrough, one of the principal owners of the Steamship Savannah and president of the Savannah Steamship Company. Jay built for him an elegant mansion with an imposing portico, a stunning fan window and a two-story atrium with a sky-blue barrel ceiling. The museum collection exhibits ship models, paintings and maritime antiques, principally from the great era of Atlantic trade and travel between England and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Through careful planning and sensitive plant selection the Museum Garden has become a delightful oasis; a place to sit and meditate as well as an excellent tool for the experienced horticulturist and weekend gardener. (Museum Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10 – 5; 41 M.L. King Boulevard, Savannah, Georgia 31401; 912-232-1511) 

The Telfair House is now the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (121 Barnard Street; 912-232-1177) and was built in the Greek revival style with romantic statues of painters outside. Its collection includes Impressionist works, paintings from the American Ashcan School and an extensive collection of American and English decorative art from the early 1800’s. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.; Sunday 2 to 5 P.M. 

 While Isaiah Davenport contented himself with an austere Federal approach (Davenport House, 1821), Aaron Champion had the architect Charles B. Cluskey reach back to the Greek Temple of the Winds for guidance (Champion-McAlpin House, 1844), and for Charles Green, the New York architect John S. Norris borrowed Gothic motifs (Green-Meldrim House, 1853). The Green-Meldrim House on Madison Square (912-233-3845; Hours are 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. Tuesday through Saturday) looks, with its crenellated roof line, like the sort of place where General Sherman might have stayed – and he did when he ended his march to the sea. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began his March to the Sea in 1864; Atlanta was heavily defended by the Confederacy. Sherman leveled it. Savannah’s cotton merchants watched with alarm as Federal forces advanced, destroying nearly everything in their path. When Sherman’s troops reached Savannah in December, the city surrendered without a fight. Sherman dispatched a telegram to President Lincoln, saying, ”I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” So much of Savannah remains from the early 1800’s because the city chose not to defend itself at a moment when any such defense would have invited devastation. 

 Next: Stroll the Squares
“Squares, rows, fine houses in brick and frame, verandas, balconies, where the wisteria and the creepers climb, spirals and pillars, in a lacework of sun and shade, Savannah is delightful to the eye and too lived-in to strike one as a being a museum.” – V.S. Pritchett.