The combination of genteel manner, elegant air and mysterious, seductive aura continually draws visitors to this historic coastal Georgia city, where there is so much to discover and uncover.
Savannah is stately. It is a place where incredible architectural elements of mass and symmetry evoke stability; where huge oaks root it firmly to the land and formal gardens speak to its English sensibility and Southern graciousness. It is a unique community with a heritage as much colonial America as antebellum South. It is a city of brilliant urban design, where neighborhoods of commercial enterprises and grand residences surround 21 squares, laid out in a plan envisioned by its founder, James Oglethorpe in 1733, before he even set foot on the bluff overlooking the Savannah River, 10 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean.
Savannah is a proud city filled with magnificent architectural symbols of its past, rescued and wonderfully restored through major efforts initiated in 1955 by a group of Savannah women who saved the 1820 Isaiah Davenport House from destruction. Their Historic Savannah Foundation was the genesis of a Savannah renaissance. Since the 1980s, the Savannah School of Art and Design (SCAD) has invested millions in the restoration of commercial downtown Savannah. The end result is a magnificent collection of more than 1700 restored building in a 2.5 square-mile National Historic Landmark District.
Underlying the established, very English order of things is a Savannah that is melancholy and mysterious. It’s in the air: steamy and humid. It’s in the landscape outside the city: endless marsh grass laced with creeks snaking to the sea, where impenetrable spartina grass has overgrown once productive rice fields of antebellum plantations. It flows from the cumulative tragedy of a people who faced the upheaval brought about by the Civil War and who survived fire and pestilence. It is permeated by the superstitions of the Gullah or Geechee culture of the descendents of slaves from West Africa who settled in the relative isolation of the marshes at the end of the Civil War.
A stroll through Savannah is pure discovery. Around every corner and square, architectural specimens, thankfully spared by Sherman march, stand proudly on display, framed by manicured gardens and intricate ironwork. Representing every important architectural style and constructed of Savannah grey brick, Georgia granite, red brick, or ochre or sunset pink washed stucco, each has story to tell.
It is in the architectural gems of Savannah that her mysteries unfold. In the Gothic Revival Green-Meldin House, medieval in feeling, General Sherman quartered. The Greek Revival Sorrel-Weed House welcomed Robert E. Lee through its Doric columned entrance, the Champion-McAlpin House, fronted by Corinthian columns, whose garden well hid the gold of the owner’s bank from Civil War confiscation. The Federal Isaiah Davenport House is a true example of American architecture in the 1800s. Two houses of worship were designed in styles uncommon to their denomination: the Episcopal Christ Church, the “Mother Church of Georgia,” is an imposing classic Greek temple and the Temple Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jewish synagogue in America, is unusual in its Gothic style. The imposing Regency mansion on Bull Street was the Halloween night birthplace of Girl Scout founder, Juliette Gordon Low. Fashionably Queen Anne detailed, the Romanesque Revival Cotton Exchange, “King Cotton’s Palace,” stands proudly in recognition of the city’s wealth once reaped from cotton. The fine Georgian Olde Pink House on Albercorn Street is now home to one of the city’s best restaurants and, at the center of contemporary pop culture, the events inside the Italianate Mercer House behind the iron fence on Monterey Square set the stage for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
In Savannah’s signature squares, shaded by moss-draped live oak and glossy magnolias, blazing with azaleas and centered by dramatic fountains, its history is told in larger than life statues and commemorative monuments. In Chippewa Square admire the detailed statue of James Oglethorpe, whose egalitarian principles created a city of diverse people, or sit on a bench, as Forrest Gump did. Find out about Chief Tomochichi, buried in Wright’s Square, whose goodwill enabled the early settlement to live in peace; and in Columbia Square, listen to the fountain which once graced Wormsloe Plantation, one of the first in Georgia. Stop by Johnson Square, the first of the original squares, where public meetings and rallies have been held since colonial times.
As you make your way from square to square in this walkable city, notice the details: dolphin downspouts, intricate iron balustrades and railings; columns, smooth, fluted and scrolled; gracious shaded verandahs; the tabby on St. Julian Street; doors painted the Gullah way, a distinctive blue/green called “Haint Blue,” to keep the spirits out.
Be sure to stop along the way. View art at the Jepson Center for the Arts or at Savannah College of Art and Design. Take time for afternoon tea in the alcove window of a historic mansion; dine on local seafood in yet another. Sit outside under a canopy at a bistro in City Market, where the work of local artists is displayed, or walk around the corner to “The Lady” for a superb Lowcountry lunch buffet. Happen upon SCAD students on curbs sketching the wonderful old structures and admire their work. Enjoy a performance at the Savannah Theater, the oldest theater site in continuous operation in the country. Discover wonderful garden art, painted furniture, baubles and more in the Downtown Design District; browse for antiques shops clustered around Bull and Broughton Streets.
Walk down the bluff to cobblestone River Street along Savannah’s working riverfront to savor she-crab soup, find a gift in shops along Factor’s Row, sample a Savannah praline. Drive through the mysterious marshes to the beaches of Tybee Island, stopping along the way at the Civil War era Fort Pulaksi, or for a Lowcountry fish boil at the Crab Shack. If you’re lucky, find a sweetgrass basket at a roadside stand.
Experience Savannah. Her elegance captivates, her mystery intrigues.