Every year, millions of visitors from all over the world make their way to Savannah GA. They stroll the city’s historic squares while enjoying the generous tree canopy draped with Spanish moss as well as soaking up the architectural ambiance of hundreds of beautifully restored historic buildings. But this city has not always been the polished jewel that tourists bear witness to today. Savannah’s historic downtown core came under tremendous pressure in the years immediately after World War II, during which it was proving a profitable affair, for developers to bulldoze old structures, putting parking lots in their place and selling the bricks to be used in new suburban homes (Gobel 109). Furthermore, the city’s leaders saw no value in historic buildings and instead sought to make the city look like other newer South cities, with shopping centers as well as banks, rising from the rubble of the past (Gobel 109). In this regard, tearing things down and putting parks and parking lots was thought of as the answer to making downtown Savannah attractive again. The loss of important historic structures represented a loss of community and a sense of place, which Savannah had, as its leadership traded the city’s uniqueness everywhere in the USA, one building at a time.
Over the years, the were isolated efforts to save Savannah’s historic buildings. Leaders such as Walter C Hertridge, a Savannah native and president of Georgia Historical Society, was one of the few voices that spoke against the erosion of the city’s history (Methven 7). Walter championed for the preservation of every stone, brick, and cobblestone that formed part of the city’s unique history. Also, other visionary leaders who included Savannah gas company president Hansel Hiller and his wife Mary, commenced the restoration of the historic trustees’ garden area on the northeast corner of downtown Savannah, dismantling the old gas tanks and restoring historic buildings on the property (Walker 33). In addition to these important inputs, various groups help save other Savannah architectural marvels such as the gothic revival of Green Meldrum mansion, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Andrew Lowe House, and the Owen Thomas mansion (Methven 8).
As significant as the salvaged homes were, their salvation could not reverse the tide of neglect that was washing over the historic aspects of Savannah, GA. The straw that broke the camel’s back the destruction of the old city market building, which had stood in Ellis Square since the late 1800s (Gobel 11). City leaders and top officials watched as the market building was torn down in 1954, and in its place, a parking garage was built (Methven 9). Savannah residents who were pro-preservation would vow that nothing like this catastrophe would ever occur again if they were in a position to stop it (Methven 13). The inevitable showdown came in 1955 when a downtown funeral parlor announced plans to purchase the circa 1820 Isaiah Davenport House on Columbia Square with the presumed intention of demolishing this structure (Methven 13). Local newspaper writer and artist, Anna Colquitt Hunter rallied her six friends, forming a new non-profit organization (Historic Savannah Foundation) to make sure that architectural treasure was not lost (Gobel 12). This group was able to raise the resources needed to purchase this mansion. Today, the Isaiah Davenport is a house museum, hosting thousands of visitors each year and spreading the message of what Historic Savannah Foundation is all about. The Isaiah Davenport received national recognition in 2005 when the museum was honored with a Preserve America Presidential Award for private preservation, by President George W. Bush (Methven 13).
Salvaging the Isaiah Davenport was a success story that the city of Savannah on the map, but, the aspirations of the Historic Savannah Foundation traveled beyond preserving one piece of history. The Historic Savannah Foundation’s true intention was to create a mechanism that would save as many structures as possible. This group’s vision was to bring organization to the whole fight of saving the city’s endangered historic buildings (Gobel 13). Therefore, rather than putting out fires and existing in panic mode, the Historic Savannah Foundation sought to incorporate organization, both literally and figuratively, into the conversation of conservation. The Historic Savannah Foundation went on the offensive, creating a revolving fund to always have cash on hand to purchase threatened historic structures whenever the need arose (Gobel 14). Rescued buildings were restored and put back on the market being sold to new owners who recognized the value of living or working in a historic place (Walker 34). Therefore, a significant part of what is the city of Savannah today is thanks to the concerted efforts of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
To date, hundreds of historic buildings have been salvaged by the revolving fund created by the Historic Savannah Foundation. But the key to turning Savannah around was the potential income brought about by tourists. Historic Savannah Foundation brought a nationally recognized tourism expert to the city and their assessment enabled the city’s leaders to see the light (Walker 35). As the city began to feature in headlines as a tourism destination, the business community found an economic niche to exploit. Historic Savannah Foundation went ahead to help create the city’s first tourist guide book-Sojourn in Savannah (Methven 15). But soon, Historic Savannah Foundation’s attention was drawn by another emerging crisis. Armstrong junior college, located in Bullen Gaston street downtown, announced its plans to extend its campus in the 1960s and eliminate historic homes in the process (Methven 16). However, retired banker Mills B Lane jr. stepped in and donated land on the city’s undeveloped southside for the new campus (Gobel 15). Historic Savannah Foundation bought Armstrong’s downtown building and sold them to new owners, averting disaster (Gobel 15). While gaining national recognition, the city’s leaders went on to become national pacesetters for preservation over the years.
Along with many success stories, there were some losses tied to the preservation efforts as well. For example, the historic Union Station on West Broad Street, a turn-of-the-century renaissance building was brought down in the 1960s and replaced by an interstate flyover (Walker 40). Furthermore, developers brought down the original 1888 DeSoto Hotel on Madison Square (Walker 42). However, preservation had begun to gain ground, with the US Department of the Interior, designating downtown Savannah as a National Historic Landmark District (Gobel 16). The Historic Savannah Foundation has made public its inventory of more than a thousand structures of historic significance within this district.
Today, Savannah is filled with remarkable buildings that tell a lot about the city as a community and as Americans at large. Despite some losses during the fight against the erosion of the city’s rich history, Savannah is still full of American history and puts Georgia on the map, as a tourism destination as well as an important earner of tourist dollars. However, much of the city’s current beauty and historical wealth comes down to deliberate efforts from visionary leaders and the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Gobel, David. “Interweaving country and city in the urban design of Savannah, Georgia.” Global Environment 9.1 (2016): 108-148.
Methven, Elenor. “Community revitalization: building on the heritage of historic Savannah, Georgia.” (2017).
Walker, Nathaniel Robert. “To Gather in War and Peace: The City Squares of Savannah, Georgia.” Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Routledge, 2016. 31-54.