Walking the Rhythmic Squares of Savannah
A Tour of the South’s Architectural Jewel
Savannah is often called a haunted city, and if you walk the streets of its historic downtown, it won’t be long before the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you pause, perplexed. But you won’t have seen a ghost; you’ll be standing in a square very much like the one you were just in, feeling a strong sense of déjà vu.
“There are twenty-two squares in downtown Savannah,” said Robin Williams, a professor of architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design. A Toronto native, he’s lived in the small city of 142,000 people for 23 years and has adapted quite well to the look of the Southern gentleman, complete with a straw hat. “If you’ve got keen eyes, you can look [down the road] and see not just the monument right there, but the monument beyond it, and the monument beyond it. Each square is equidistant, with only seven hundred feet or so between them. It’s very rhythmic.”
If this repeated rhythm makes Savannah’s beauty obvious over and over again, it has the city’s underlying blueprint to thank. Savannah has one of the most unusual layouts in the country, and the nation’s largest restored historic urban area. “It’s just like Manhattan, on a smaller scale,” Williams said. “It’s a rich, complex, built environment that has lots of layers and lots of intimate details.”
In 1733, Savannah’s founder, James Oglethorpe, created a settlement as a foothold in the no-man’s-land between the Carolinas to the north and Spanish Florida to the south. His plan blended the necessary military qualities — defensible, spread out in case of bombardment and equipped with spaces to house and train troops — with utopian elements based on equality and the prohibition of slavery, liquor and lawyers. Oglethorpe’s answer was six cookie-cutter neighborhood units called “wards,” each built around a central square, with four public building lots for churches and libraries and roughly eight sets of housing lots.
If that sounds particularly thoughtful of residents, it was. Oglethorpe saw Savannah as a place of opportunity for debtors and the religiously persecuted — a kind of inverse version of Australia, where prisoners were sent to a hellish penal environment. “Georgia was almost proto-Communist,” said Williams. “Each citizen in Savannah had a townhouse, but was a yeoman farmer who was expected to carry his weight for society.”
Oglethorpe’s utopian vision failed after 20 years or so, ruined by the rising tide of slavery (and to a lesser extent, lawyers and booze). But the town’s layout flourished. “The city evolved in the seventeenth century, but they kept this idea and kept replicating it, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century,” Williams said. “Like a family recipe that gets handed down through the generations.”
Throughout that evolution, Savannah has consistently been in competition with its neighbor Charleston, only 100 miles to the north. The rivalry, at least architecturally, stems from the fact that the two cities are treated like twins due to their proximity and shared Southernness. “They’re definitely not twins,” Williams said. “Maybe cousins.”
It’s true that Charleston has always been the older, richer city, and its architecture and way of life reflect that. Where Charleston’s affluent downtown was made up of grand “single houses” with their own gardens, two-story porches, and privacy walls, Savannah and its linked row homes and shared squares retained a public feel. “Privacy was highly valued in Charleston, while in Savannah, evidently, it was a more public life,” Williams said. “One way that might manifest itself today is that Savannah is one of a handful of cities in the US where you can walk around legally with a drink downtown. If you think about it… is that a coincidence, or is that a legacy of these differing attitudes?”
Drinking isn’t the only legacy of Savannah’s historic rivalry. Case studies in historic architecture are ubiquitous downtown — particularly the Georgian-style row home in the Italianate style, with its prominent projecting roof held up by brackets and its small but noticeable flourishes, like intricate cornerstone quoining. The city has 11 lavish “trust lot mansions,” whose wealthy original owners could afford the lots usually reserved for churches and libraries, and who peacocked their fortunes with flourished adornments and styles.
And though the vast majority of the city’s beautiful downtown buildings are historic, Savannah’s pride in its built environment is not all that stuffy. A healthy number of regular citizens are well versed in the town’s architecture. People pay special attention to the Historic Savannah Foundation’s architectural review board, which adjudicates new building requests based on whether a building is respectful of the urban tradition of Savannah in its height, color and materials. “Our last meeting was Wednesday,” Williams said with pride. “It was front-page news in the local paper.”
But as plenty of residents, including Williams, will tell you, their favorite way to feel connected to the beauty of their city is not on the printed page, but in the flesh, taking a long walk from square to square, sauntering to the rhythms of their city. Preferably with a drink in hand.
The Architectural Elements
A. The Square
“There are twenty-two total in the city, serving as the center of each ward. The square provides gardens for recreation; these were based on English gardens. They were also practical and utilitarian: each square could quarter soldiers in time of attack and provided wells for fresh water.”
B. Savannah Elevated Townhouse
“These Georgian townhouses with elevated staircases are the defining Savannah visual characteristic. They use a side-hall plan, three bays wide. On these shallow residential lots that have a lane at the back, the house is as close as possible to the front of the property. The result is that the staircase up to the front door is on public property. Because there’s a square, you don’t need side gardens. Elevating the house is a status symbol and also an effort to capture the benefit of breezes. It also allows the raised basement, which is like a service floor and has its own entrance, so slaves and servants, or deliveries, could come and go without interrupting the upper level.”
“Behind every row of houses is a lane. Along them are the carriage houses, which housed horses below, servants or slaves above. Slaves in Savannah had direct access to these lanes, and had a certain level of mobility that others didn’t enjoy in Charleston, where each house was a private compound. Here was the place to put all the messiness of life, be it slaves, horses, carriages, or sewers and telephone poles and electricity. It’s all tucked in back here.”
D. Trust Lot
“Oglethorpe originally conceived these for public buildings like churches and libraries. But in Savannah, if you’re really wealthy, you live on a trust lot. You get a bigger lot and also the urban prominence of the public building lot. They get the benefit of a front yard and a private garden because it’s so deep. All but two of the trust lot mansions directly
face the square. It’s sort of like dressing up for the occasion — it’s a very formal behavior.”
E. Wide Streets, Tree Lawns
“Savannah excels at wide streets. If you go to the American West, towns will have this sort of main street, and it’s a really wide street, but it feels so barren. Whereas these wide streets, because they have three- or four-story buildings and tree canopies, it sort of provides a sense of scale… no tumbleweeds here.”
“From early on, Savannah advocated planting trees on the civic streets for shade. The streets are so wide, there’s plenty of room for them. This city had so many trees in the nineteenth century that it was known as ‘Forest City.’ There are a few places where the trees are substantial enough that sidewalks and streets have to go around them.”