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Few cities in America enjoy so distinctive an urban identity as Savannah, with its squares and broad streets, its trees and bordering marshes, and its remarkable state of preservation. Yet it is also a place marked by paradox. Founded in 1733 as an agrarian colony of equals, the city prospered greatly from industry, trade, and slavery. Its urban plan attracts worldwide attention, yet few of its buildings are famous or appear in histories of American architecture. Historically a relatively small city (with a population in 2015 of about 150,000), Savannah has nonetheless played a significant role on the national stage in terms of the religious, military, agricultural, transportation, and industrial history of the country. Most recently the city has served as a model of urban design for both American and foreign planners. This volume attempts to paint a more comprehensive picture of Savannah’s urban, architectural, and landscape history than previous studies have done, for to understand Savannah, one must look at its built environment holistically.

Ideals and Realities in Savannah’s Urban Planning History

Before the site for the city had even been chosen, Savannah and the Georgia colony for which it would initially serve as capital already possessed a remarkable social significance. The Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America was formed around 1730 by a London-based group of philanthropists who sought to create a charitable colony in the New World. James Oglethorpe, a British parliamentarian with a military background, was one of the leaders of this group. Combining Christian charity and Enlightenment idealism, its members sought a solution to the appalling abuses in debtor prisons and the religious persecution of Protestants by Catholics in continental Europe. The Georgia Trustees envisioned a place of equality, where charity settlers would receive fifty acres (forty-five acres of farm land, a garden lot near the town, and a 60 × 90–foot town lot). Non-charity settlers were invited to pay their own way and could acquire plantations of up to five hundred acres. Certain prohibitions reflected the founders’ idealism and prejudices—no slavery; no rum, brandies, or strong liquors; no lawyers; and no Catholics. The colony, named in honor of George II, also offered strategic military benefits as a buffer protecting the prosperous Carolina colonies from the Spanish in Florida. The Trustees received their royal charter to establish the colony in July 1732.

Upon his arrival in February 1733, Oglethorpe selected a site on the Savannah River, seventeen miles from the coast and atop a bluff forty feet above the surrounding lowcountry marshes, a location that had important consequences for the town’s long-term success as a port. At first, the river, one of the longest navigable waterways on the Eastern Seaboard, provided access deep into the state. More recently Savannah’s westernmost position on the coast has led to its becoming the nation’s fourth-busiest container port, despite being the world’s shallowest deepwater harbor. As the city grew, the surrounding landscape of marshes and tidal waterways constrained movement and expansion, with more affluent communities and subsequently the airports built on the highest ground. Initially, some peripheral settlements were accessible only by boat. As railways and roads were established, a radial configuration developed, and even today some communities can be reached by only one or two roadways. The arrangement of the chapters in this volume reflects the constraints imposed by the lowcountry geography.

When he established Savannah in 1733, Oglethorpe aimed to create a physical map for the Trustees’ egalitarian vision. He laid out a regional plan, known as the “Oglethorpe plan” (described in detail by Thomas Wilson in his eponymic book), with the town surrounded on east, west, and south sides by common land and on the north by the Savannah River. Beyond the Common to the east and south lay a zone of five-acre triangular garden lots (with land to the west reserved for the local Yamacraw Indians, led by Tomochichi, a strategic supporter of the nascent colony) and beyond these, extending several miles into the broader landscape, was a grid of forty-five-acre farm lots. Beyond the farm lots tracts of undeveloped land divided into one-mile squares yielded a regional plan of about sixty square miles. That larger grid informed the location of the major streets as suburbs developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both in the “historic district” and beyond, the Trustees’ plan structured and informed urbanism and architecture in Savannah and the region in a fashion unique to American urban history.

Many historians have speculated about the sources of Savannah’s urban plan, suggesting ancient and Renaissance architectural treatises, a seventeenth-century representation of Beijing, the grid plan of Turin, Masonic interpretations of biblical cities, sixteenth- through early-eighteenth-century military architecture treatises, and the residential developments centered on squares in London in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. No evidence has been found that points to any specific source, but it is hard to imagine the Trustees were not influenced by the residential squares of London’s fashionable West End. Indeed, one of the original squares in Savannah was named after St. James Square, which was home to at least two of the Trustees. Likewise, the colony’s strategic role and Oglethorpe’s own training make military precedents a likely inspiration.

The “Savannah plan,” as we shall call the urban plan to distinguish it from the regional Oglethorpe plan, was laid out using a neighborhood unit, or ward, as its module. The module was repeated to form a six-ward town (four wards laid out in 1733 and two more a year later), arranged in two rows of three. Each ward has a square at its center, flanked to the east and west by “Trust lots” reserved for public buildings and allocated as needed by the Trustees, and along the north and south sides of the square stretching the full width of the ward are pairs of “tything” blocks, each comprising ten town lots arranged in two rows of five divided by a service lane. The urban use of the word “tything” is peculiar to Savannah (at least in the United States), deriving from an Old English term for a group of ten householders. Two networks of streets divide the various blocks: a primary set of broad civic streets intersecting on axis with and flanking each square, as well as wide streets running east-west between the wards; and a set of narrower secondary utilitarian or service streets running north-south between each ward and the lanes dividing the tything blocks. These features of the Savannah plan influenced the development of distinctive local housing forms—the elevated townhouse with its signature raised stoop, its rear carriage house fronting the lane, and the trust lot mansion.

This seemingly rigid set of parts actually proved to be remarkably flexible. The first act of preservation in the city’s long historic embrace of that concept was the city council proposal of 1790 to retain Oglethorpe’s planning module as the basis for the town’s first expansion approved and implemented a year later, but adapted (by reducing the new wards’ east-west dimensions) to fit the available land in the Common. Citizens, visitors, and civic officials alike had recognized early on the unique merits of the Savannah plan and replicated it for six expansions, yielding a total of twenty-four wards by the 1850s. This combination of piecemeal growth which nonetheless conformed to the original planned vision is unique in the history of the country’s cities and contrasts with the normal scenario where a grand plan is laid out (as in Philadelphia in 1682) and gradually filled in without adherence to the original precepts. Besides adjusting the dimensions and proportions of the wards and the squares within them, planners added a new feature to Savannah’s downtown plan—the broad avenue with a generous green median (akin to a linear square)—that would be replicated elsewhere in the city. The most enduring part of the plan was its most humble aspect—lanes (never called alleys here), which continued to serve as the necessary utilitarian corridors in all urban developments in the city until the 1930s.

Despite this fidelity to the original plan, the growth of Savannah was nonetheless challenged throughout its existence by disease, fires, and hurricanes (though the last proved less a problem than in some other Southern cities). Yellow fever epidemics afflicted the city’s residents on four occasions—in 1804, 1820, 1854, and 1876. The city experienced seven major fires, one each in 1796, in 1820 (when almost half the city was destroyed), in 1865, in 1876, and in 1883, and two in 1889. An 1804 hurricane laid waste to all of the warehouses below the bluff, while the strongest hurricane to hit Savannah, in 1893, devastated the city’s trees. Such disasters prompted the city to change its building codes, improve its sanitation services, and plant its present canopy of resilient live oaks.

Savannah’s Defining Urban and Architectural Characteristics

A spirit of commemoration permeates the city, particularly in the downtown area. Beyond the conventional use of street names to honor people, institutions, and values, the Savannah plan included wards and squares (and in the first four wards even tythings) whose names offered additional commemorative opportunities. As early as 1739, monuments became a defining feature within the squares along Bull Street, in Forsyth Park, and on the waterfront, with the erection of a large fieldstone pyramid over the tomb (2.31) of Yamacraw Indian chief Tomochichi in the center of Percival (now Wright) Square—possibly the first public monument in America. Curiously there is no pattern to the naming of wards and squares: some honor the same subject while others offer three commemorations in one space, such as the Greene Monument (2.2) in Johnson Square (2.1) in Derby Ward.

Green space has been an essential part of Savannah’s urban identity since its founding. The Trustees’ plan was fundamentally, if not radically, agrarian and anti-urban. The population of Savannah would have been limited to 240 families (perhaps 1,200 persons), surrounded by commons, gardens, and farms, as well as the experimental Trustees’ Garden. But even inside the town, the squares were conceived as both utilitarian spaces to quarter soldiers and livestock in the event of a siege and as places of public recreation open to all. Upon the city’s incorporation in 1789, the municipal government passed ordinances, beginning in 1793, to promote and regulate the planting of trees as ornaments as well as for their ecological benefits on each side of the city’s streets and in the squares, at a time when other cities sought to banish them as fire hazards. By 1796, the City passed an ordinance protecting trees, which in 1810 were placed under the special protection of the city council. The city’s twenty-four squares, its waterfront Strand, its tree-lined boulevards of South Broad Street (now Oglethorpe Avenue) and Liberty Street, as well as the establishment of Forsyth Park (10.1) as one of the earliest municipal parks in the nation, inspired people in the nineteenth century to call Savannah “Forest City.” As traveler Charles Mackay commented in his Life and Liberty in America: or, Sketches of a Tour in the United States and Canada, in 1857–8 (New York, 1859), “Of all the cities in America, none impresses itself more vividly upon the imagination and the memory than this little green bowery city of the South.” The city’s commitment to green space provided an ideal setting for pioneering landscape architect John Nolen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to undertake one of his first professional commissions, designing Daffin Park (14.8) in 1907.

With Georgia established as a strategic buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, the colony’s founding by Oglethorpe instilled a military consciousness into the city’s DNA. Its ability to withstand a siege was aptly demonstrated in October 1779, when a French and American attack, in one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution, failed to dislodge the British who controlled the town. Along the Savannah River a series of forts chronicles the history of American fortifications from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century in a more concentrated area than any other place in the nation. At the end of his devastating March to the Sea across Georgia in 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman spared the city and offered it as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln. Monuments to military figures and organizations are prevalent throughout Savannah, and militia companies and their armories defined the social order of the city, including those of the Chatham Artillery, one of the oldest military organizations in the United States and in whose headquarters the U.S. Eighth Air Force was born.

Georgia was founded with no dominant faith; its charter allowed the free exercise of religion (except Catholicism at first), welcoming some of the earliest congregations in America persecuted for their beliefs in their native lands. Guided by the powerful evangelical idealism of some of the Trustees, Christian charity repeatedly shaped Savannah’s development. The colony witnessed the founding of America’s first Sunday school and an orphanage for boys south of the city called Bethesda, among the country’s oldest charitable organizations. The 1804 establishment of a seaman’s hospital, one of the oldest hospitals in the country and first in Georgia, led to the creation of the Savannah Poor House and Hospital (see 10.19) in 1808. Its building from 1818 still stands; its alteration in 1877 accommodated what may have been the first “Nightingale wards” in the country. Chartered in 1832, the Georgia Infirmary (12.6), the oldest known black hospital founded by whites in the United States, included the nation’s first nursing school for African American students, operating from 1904 to 1937. A strong tradition of female philanthropy was led by Mary Telfair, who bequeathed her wealth in 1883 to create the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (2.38), the first public art museum in the South, and the Telfair Hospital for Females (10.16) a year later, the first of its kind in Georgia. Such actions inspired another wealthy Savannah woman, Juliette Gordon Low, to establish the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (see 2.25) in Savannah in 1912.

Although Savannah was founded as the center of an intended agrarian colony, industry and trade early on defined the city’s growth. Slavery and the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney at nearby Mulberry Grove Plantation revolutionized agriculture in the South, fueling the city’s prosperity and transforming its built environment, as well as facilitating the globalization of the textile industry. Hermitage Plantation (c. 1820, Henry McAlpin; demolished 1930s) just west of Savannah became the city’s first true industrial complex, using slave labor and early railroad technology to mass produce “Savannah Grey” bricks. In fact, slave and free black craftsmen contributed much to the city’s construction. Savannah played an important role in trade between mercantilist empires, shipping a succession of export products: rice and indigo in the eighteenth century, followed by the dominance of cotton in the nineteenth (when Savannah’s exchange regulated its price for a time), and shifting around 1900 as the city became the world’s leading exporter of naval stores (wood-based products for ships). In the 1930s, Savannah native and leading American chemist Charles Herty discovered that fast-growing Southern pine could be used to make pulp for fine quality paper as well as cardboard and coarse paper products. This dramatically reshaped the southern landscape to produce sufficient trees for a vast Southern pine and paper industry and prompted the Pennsylvania-based Union Bag and Paper Company in the 1930s to erect one of the world’s largest pulp and paper mills in Savannah. A major employer that helped the city through the Great Depression, the mill and the water pollution it produced prompted Ralph Nader’s critical 1971 assessment The Water Lords. That mill, now controlled by International Paper, which has considerably improved its pollution controls, continues to be a major presence within Savannah’s rapidly expanding port complex. During World War II, the city was a manufacturing center for Liberty ships. Today, Savannah is home to a number of leading global manufacturers drawn to one of the world’s fastest growing ports.

Progress, Preservation, and Beyond

Savannah has witnessed generations of its citizens welcoming new ideas and technologies. The wealth generated by the invention of the cotton gin facilitated early markers of progress. In 1816, shipping merchant Richard Richardson gave the young British architect William Jay his first American commission, now the Owens-Thomas House (2.19), into which Jay incorporated advanced British plumbing technology and structural cast iron, both among the earliest American use of these elements. The Savannah shipping firm of Scarbrough and Isaacs commissioned the SS Savannah (see 5.6), which in 1819 was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Savannah businessmen embraced nascent railroad technology with gusto, establishing the Central of Georgia Railroad in 1833 and completing its first line to Macon by 1843. By the 1850s the company’s complex (7.1)—still standing on the western edge of downtown—was an innovative combination of corporate and design operations, passenger and freight depots, and repair facilities all set on one large site (now its own National Historic Landmark district). Savannah also embraced other emerging technologies—horse-drawn streetcars in 1869, asphalt paving in 1881, electricity in 1882, skyscraper construction in 1895, and powered flight in 1911. The city’s enthusiasm for “autoing” saw it host the nation’s first stock car and American Grand Prix races in 1908, establishing what came to be called the Great Savannah Races, and spawning the development of automobile suburbs Ardsley Park (14.1) and Chatham Crescent (14.2) in 1910.

Efforts to preserve the city’s character date back to the 1790s, when the first expansion of the colonial city replicated the original ward module devised by Oglethorpe, establishing a pattern repeated by subsequent generations of civic officials. General Sherman’s decision to occupy but not destroy Savannah in December 1864 stands as a significant moment of preservation in its history (and contrasts the devastation the war brought to nearby Atlanta, Charleston, and Columbia, South Carolina). Stewardship of the city’s history was dramatically enhanced by the founding of the Georgia Historical Society in 1839, nurturing generations of historians and amateur architectural historians to document the city’s heritage. Among the most active was Thomas Gamble, who moved to Savannah in 1888 and became a newspaper reporter, eventually holding various positions in city government before serving several terms as mayor, beginning in 1933. In 1921, he mobilized the city’s first preservation group, the Society for the Preservation of Parks, in an effort to stop U.S. 17 from cutting through the squares on Montgomery Street. That proposal prompted an ongoing battle until the automobilists prevailed in 1935, the same year the short-lived Savannah Commission for the Preservation of Landmarks was established. During the 1930s, Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs in the city focused on various projects that further documented the past and the present, including the Historic American Buildings Survey and a Cadastral Survey (preserved at the Chatham County Superior Court Records Room) which documented every property in the city and laid the groundwork for the efforts of building preservationists after World War II.

During the 1950s through the 1970s, American cities grew at an unprecedented rate, with suburbs sprawling across the countryside and historic downtowns replaced by large-scale buildings and parking lots, all in the name of progress. Savannahians shared in the heady enthusiasm for modernization, extending the city’s boundaries far to the south. Unlike most other cities, however, here the interstate highway system played little role in this growth. In downtown, meanwhile, the demolition of architectural landmarks—the Wetter House in 1950, the City Market building in 1954, Union Station in 1963, the Hotel Desoto in 1966, and the block of warehouses beside City Hall in 1969—stirred the forces of civic pride. Established in 1955, the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF), under the leadership of Leopold Adler II, successfully saved hundreds of buildings, mostly houses, using an innovative “revolving fund” to purchase threatened properties and then sell them to buyers committed to their preservation, a strategy that would become a national model. The HSF continues to advocate for the protection of the city’s heritage. Private preservationists, notably Jim Williams and Mills B. Lane Jr., saved numerous houses during the 1970s, a tradition carried on by Lane’s son, Mills B. Lane IV, who used his philanthropic Beehive Foundation to support numerous restoration and urban renewal projects. Meanwhile, Walter Hartridge Jr., president of the Georgia Historical Society from 1952 to 1961, rescued and preserved records documenting the city’s heritage.

Most unusual within the broader panorama of the historic preservation movement nationwide was the establishment of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 1978, repurposing the old Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory (8.10). Since that time, the college has found new uses for more than sixty historic buildings scattered throughout the city. As of 2015, Savannah boasts one of the country’s largest National Historic Landmark districts, twelve National Register districts, and three districts with design review procedures integral to the development process. As is evident in its varied buildings, landscapes, monuments, squares, and parks, Savannah remains a living city, balancing new and modern designs with the ongoing preservation and adaptive reuse of the past.


Writing Credits

Robin B. Williams with David Gobel, Patrick Haughey, Daves Rossell, and Karl Schuler

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