Savannah: body and soul – includes related article on Georgia’s islands

C.J. Hadley


The good looks she got from her founding father were fading, but C. J. HADLEY says Savannah was finally able to live up to his expectations.

“There will be no slaves, no hard liquor, no lawyers,” proclaimed the British Col. James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, before settling 120 Englishmen near the mouth of the Savannah River in 1733. “Everyone in this colony will be equal.”

The colonel had carefully selected his site for North America’s 13th British colony. His first settlement and capital city, Savannah, was set close to the river on a bluff he named Yamacraw, after the region’s Indians. He planned his brand-new city around a series of green, oasis-like squares that all would share, with broad shaded streets and alleys, and he gave equal lots to all settlers.

The Oxford-educated parliamentarian and his 19 fellow royal trustees intended Georgia as a refuge from poverty, unemployment, and religious persecution. Georgia was also to be a buffer colony, to protect Carolina from Spanish settlement to the south. Oglethorpe was a soldier by trade: honest, hardworking, and fair. His sponsor, King George II, wanted to increase imperial trade and navigation and to bring in silk from the colonies, and Colonel Oglethorpe’s choice of the sheltered port on the Savannah River sufficed absolutely.

Savannahians would follow Oglethorpe’s town plan long after doing away with equal lots–and his ideas of equality. The squares of Savannah still checker the heart of the city with precise, recurring green spaces full of live oak, Spanish moss, azalea, peach, dogwood, and magnolia. They make the city’s climate tolerable even on brutally humid days. A slow parade of businessmen and well-dressed matrons flows through the squares, everybody’s front yard in neighborhoods without lawns. Even camera-laden tourists accept the invitation to dally, to dawdle. Automobile traffic is light and deliberate, discouraged by the maze of turns.

The squares are dedicated to Savannah’s crowded history. A statue of Georgia’s founder dominates Chippewa Square, one of the original five flanking Bull Street, and a plaque in Johnson Square details his far-seeing city plan. Johnson Square, the earliest and the closest to the present-day business district and riverfront, also memorializes the great chief Tomochichi, who befriended the Englishman and allowed his settlers space on the bluff. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and an early follower of Oglethorpe’s, looms in bronze over the nearby Reynolds Square; Casimir Pulaski, the Revolutionary War hero who perished in the siege of Savannah (1779), over Monterey Square. Nathanael Greene, the Marquis de Lafayette, John C. Calhoun, “Mad Anthony” Wayne, and a host of other major and minor notables have lent either their names or their likenesses to Savannah’s squares. (For some reason known only to Savannahians, the statue of the man and the square named after him rarely coincide.)

Not far from the Savannah River’s bustling traffic, Factors’ Row is home to the original Cotton Exchange, where cotton factors set prices worldwide and warehouses stored cotton for export to Europe on tall-masted ships and steamers. The two- and three-story buildings these days house dozens of bright and shiny specialty shops, restaurants, and nightspots, each one housed behind an original, brass-knobbed warehouse door; here one finds as well the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, three floors of nautical artifacts, models, and memorabilia. Cobblestone ramps lead down from the Bay Street level to River Street, where a long brick walkway reaches grassy picnic areas overlooking the continual river traffic of tugs and barges. Nearby is the statue of the Waving Girl, a lighthouse keeper’s sister who kept a half-century vigil for a sailor.

Just south of the waterfront is the city’s historic district. Nowadays it’s a harmonious mixture of shops, commercial overnights, and family residences, some newly acquired and restored, some ancestral. At Mrs. Wilkes Jones Street boardinghouse, eight dollars fetches a meal including but not limited to fried chicken, lima beans, collard greens, corn bread, black-eyed peas, rutabagas, and strawberries and cream. Sitting at an oval table for 12, patrons converse with each other and the elderly Mrs. Wilkes until duty beckons her: “Gotta go. Gotta go take the money. I’m workin’ the cash register.”

At eclectic mansions in the district, mint juleps and fresh lemonades are poured on pastel verandas. Tiny gardens, perfectly coiffed with neat borders, hedges, statues, wrought iron benches, and miniature fountains, are often shared with the public: “It’s nothing, but if the gate’s open, you’re welcome,” says the gardener at Miss Louisa Wright’s residence.

Well-postured Savannahian ladies, always in dresses, every hair in place, escort visitors on walking and carriage tours of the historic district. These down-to-earth aristocrats put visitors at ease by gently mocking their storied city: “Can you imagine what Savannah was like in 1818 when it was just a bunch of rednecks?” or, “Here’s how to use the hip tub in the necessary room. First you stand in it and wash up as far as possible. Then you wash down as far as possible. Then you sit down and wash possible.” … No wonder did haughty Charlestonians look down on their cousins in Savannah.

The mood is different on the Negro Heritage Trail. There is the First African Baptist Church, originally built by slaves in 1788 with the permission of their masters, remorseful over the flogging of a black preacher. It was the first black Baptist church in America. At the King-Tisdell Cottage, W. W. Law tells visitors, “Many of our forebears came from the culture of Timbuktu. They were literate. We did not come here as savages.”

Oglethorpe, more diplomatic such than predecessors as the Spanish conquistadors and Blackbeard, requested and received permission from the Yamacraw Tomochichi in order to settle on a bluff 15 miles from the mouth of the river. Tomochichi liked Oglethorpe. The Englishman cared about the Yamacraw. They were both, in their way, aristocrats, appreciating each other’s values and traditions. Their friendship kept the peace between their peoples, and they were both proud of Savannah.

Outside the city limits, Oglethorpe planned five-acre garden lots for each family; beyond those, 45-acre farms. His Trustees’ Garden was an immense agricultural experiment with plants and herbs from all over the world to discover what would grow best in this fertile wilderness. It produced Georgia’s famed cotton and peach crops, but the hoped-for silk production from mulberry trees never materialized. Later subdivided and turned into an area of garden-adorned homes, Trustees’ Garden Village became Savannah’s first systematic renovation project in the 1950s. Trustees’ Garden is now regarded as “the very heart of Old Savannah… ringed by 19th-century brick and ironwork houses, with tiny jewel-like gardens.”

The Indians had cultivated corn, beans, and pumpkins. Europeans introduced oranges, figs, and domestic animals. English colonists made tar, pitch, and turpentine; they used live oak timbers for shipbuilding. They also invented tabby, a tough and easy building material that mixed sand, limestone, oyster shells, and water. Tabby ruins can be seen throughout coastal Georgia.

Savannah grew slowly. Even with snakes, alligators, and enormous biting bugs, “every insect here stronger than in England,” the site was heaven for Oglethorpe’s oppressed. The settlers worked hard and Savannah’s export business thrived, reflecting growth in rice farming, cotton production, and Indian trade.

The perfectly planned utopia soon went awry. The powers in London, worried that Oglethorpe would foment war with Spain with his colonization and fortifications, asked him to withdraw from the coastal islands. He ignored the request. For a time he had to use his own resources to build and protect Georgia.

Scurvy, yellow fever, and malnutrition killed more soldiers than the Spanish did. One soldier’s child was eaten by an alligator. By 1742, Spanish troops had camped on St. Simons Island, on their way to claim Fort Frederica, Oglethorpe’s outpost on the coastal islands. But Oglethorpe, outnumbered at least two to one, ambushed the enemy on a narrow road at the edge of the marsh. His Highlanders, settlers, and Indians made Spanish blood run thick that day, and the Spanish retreated from Georgia forever.

After Oglethorpe’s huge success at Bloody Marsh, a dissident officer leveled serious charges against him. Forced to return to England in July 1743, he was vindicated on all counts and repaid for most of his expenses. But he never returned to Georgia.

Oglethorpe was deep in old age in England when Georgia colonists swarmed into Johnson Square to burn George III, their namesake’s son, in effigy. The American Revolution had begun. Royal troops soon took Savannah from the rebels and held it until the end of the war, despite a major rebel assault in 1779 in which Count Casimir Pulaski lost his life. Pulaski was a Polish nobleman and another idealist who gave up his comfortable world to help build Georgia. The site of his death is marked today by a plaque just behind the Savannah Visitors Center, the converted Central of Georgia Railroad station.

Savannahians were free by revolution’s end–white Savannahians, that is. Oglethorpe’s prohibition on slavery had long since been repealed. Rum was still outlawed, so bootleggers ran thick in the piney woods. Land grants were given to the large-scale plantation owners; slave labor was used to plant and pick cotton. On a plantation outside Savannah in 1793, Eli Whitney invented a cotton gin that made cotton’s large-scale cultivation possible.

Savannah became a great commercial port–and the center of the slave trade–with the invention of the cotton gin. Leadership had passed from idealists like Oglethorpe to merchants from England, Scotland, and the Northern states. These newcomers scorned the simple dwellings of Oglethorpe’s day, all but extinct after two major fires. They built handsome houses, mansions, and villas, using slaves as servants and the skills of architects of differing traditions and backgrounds.

Most of Savannah’s treasured sites of today stem from this period: the Old Pink House, later a bank and now a restaurant and tavern; the Hampton-Lillibridge House, Savannah’s leading “ghost house”; the Davenport House, the first project and now headquarters of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Outside the city limits, the tabby ruins of the original Wormsloe Plantation, built in 1739 by Noble Jones, an Oglethorpe compatriot, were supplanted by a grander Wormsloe. Today visitors can tour the Wormsloe I ruins and museum; off-limits is the private, family-owned Wormsloe II, its gardens, and its extensive library with the original copy of the Confederate constitution and letters of Jefferson Davis and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sherman. Savannah has no monuments to her Civil War conqueror, but on a wall of the King-Tisdell Cottage there is a depiction of Sherman’s entry into Johnson Square in December 1864. The assembled whites are glum to a man, but every black face is shining, jubilant.

Savannah’s seductive beauty–and a timely offer of surrender–had saved the city from Atlanta’s fate. General Sherman instead telegrammed President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas Gift, the City of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

What war had saved, peace almost destroyed. Savannahians tried to continue their architectural tradition, this time adding Victorian styles to Federal and Greek Revival. But Savannah had to outlive the catastrophic decline of the rice and cotton industries. She had to ride out a lack of economic diversity, plus slumlords, unemployment, and apathy. Her architectural wonders were neglected and decayed, the town’s spirit and former glory badly tarnished. “A lady with a dirty face,” Lady Astor is said to have called her.

As Savannah reached mid-20th century, Oglethorpe’s neat British town on Yamacraw Bluff was decaying and dirty. Unregulated, but desperately sought, new industry polluted the air and countryside. The Savannah River teemed with mercury, sulfuric acid, and the entire city’s daily output of raw sewage. Some of the glorious squares were used as parking lots, and badly planned roads annihilated much of her powerful history.

But even as Supreme Court decisions and civil-rights demonstrations began to face-lift society, Savannahians awoke to the degradation of their once-beautiful city and her surroundings. The first steps were taken to regain quality control over the local air and water.

In 1955 a group of seven women, calling themselves the Historic Savannah Foundation, saved the historic Isaiah Davenport House from demolition 24 hours before it was to see the wrecker’s ball. The largest ongoing architectural-preservation movement in the United States had begun. The non-profit foundation’s revolving fund has rescued 21 of 24 squares and more than 1,100 architecturally significant and historic buildings: Regency (highlighted by the Owens-Thomas house and its winding double stairway); Federal; Greek and Classical Revival (its headliner the Champion-McAlpin-Fowlkes house, shaded by yew trees planted at the birth of each McAlpin son); Romanesque; Gothic; Queen Anne; Georgian; and Victorian. Since 1970, the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and, since 1979, the Shore Assistance Act, have watched over Georgia’s fragile coast. In 1974, a major drive began to revive the Victorian District, south of the historic district, with the aim of restoring the area’s original beauty without displacing its primarily black residents.

Savannah today is a gentlewoman, like England at her very best. Spanish moss sways in the Southern breeze, and the city is a living garden. Grander. And a little more equal. In 1990 Savannah’s 2.2 square miles of historic district is surely the nation’s largest per capita. She is a walker’s paradise, a gentle and healthy reminder of what America has been and can be.

“There are no slaves,” Oglethorpe would say were he here today, “and the town is beautiful.

“It’s just a pity that we’ve still got hard liquor and lawyers.”

PHOTO : A presence still felt after 2 1/2 centuries, James Oglethorpe dominates one of the squares

PHOTO : that made his city plan so effective.

PHOTO : (Top) Horse-and-carriage sightseeing in Washington Square. (Bottom) A different drum in

PHOTO : Savannah’s antebellum symphony, King-Tisdell Cottage’s museum of black history ensures

PHOTO : that the whole story is told.

PHOTO : The road to ruins: a mile-long avenue of oaks leads not to Tara but to the tabby remnants

PHOTO : of the original Wormsloe Plantation house.

PHOTO : The Old Pink House (1789) is one of Savannah’s few remaining 18th-century houses; major

PHOTO : fires devastated the city in 1796 and in 1820.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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