In the early '70s, this port city was a challenging destination. Yes, it had historical treasures, but they had to be ferreted out amid decaying tenements and unkempt public parks.
Many of the public squares laid out by James Oglethorpe in 1735 were overgrown or barren. They were regarded mostly as obstacles to automobiles, and, in fact, three squares were obliterated to speed up traffic.Along the riverfront, the historic Pirate's House, once a haunt for Bluebeard and Blackbeard, was about the only place to buy a cool drink. But getting there meant navigating an industrial neighborhood of decrepit and often deserted warehouses. A car was virtually a necessity; I didn't have one, and found walking difficult if not dangerous.
What a difference a few years make! This time around, I came by car, but left it parked along a side street: Savannah in spring 1991 beckons the visitor on foot.
The public squares that jut into the streets every few blocks now are prized as Savannah's outdoor living rooms, carefully tended by urban residents and the city's parks department. Dense canopies of towering live oaks draped in Spanish moss create the ceiling; banks of flowering pink, peach and purple azaleas form the walls.
The entire downtown and riverfront area - 2.2 square miles - is a National Historic District. Exteriors of 19th century houses, such as the one where I rented a sweltering room as a working college student, are being renovated according to historical guidelines. Inside, however, modern comforts such as air conditioning have been installed.
Proud houses once carved up into apartments now serve as upscale bed and breakfast inns, single-family mansions or offices for lawyers and dentists. Flowering azaleas, dogwoods, redbud trees and camellias frame almost every home. Except for the mostly moribund Broughton Street, the '50s-era main street of discount and dime stores, Savannah's historic district is an urban success story.
"Even our city manager, Don Mendonsa , lives downtown on one of the squares," notes Lee Schissler, vice president and general manager of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Leading down from a 40-foot bluff to the river, rough cobblestone streets give tourists a feel for life in Colonial America. The warehouses facing the Savannah River house trendy boutiques, restaurants and bars. Day and night, River Street is filled with locals and tourists stopping in at raw bars, open-air cafes, restaurants and shops.
The Savannah River is still very much a working one, but the stodgy, 37-year-old bridge to South Carolina is being dismantled. Just opened in its place is a stunning white suspension bridge high enough to permit super tankers to enter Savannah's port.
Along the riverbank is a linear park dotted with fountains, small trees, benches and occasional statues. The most famous is one of a waving girl, Florence Martus, who, legend holds, fell in love with a sailor and waved a white cloth by day and a lantern by night hoping her true love would be on board a passing ship. He never returned, but from 1887 until 1931, seamen looked forward to seeing her friendly greeting as they sailed upriver to the port.
The first ship to dock along that stretch of river was Oglethorpe's. He was sent there to establish England's 13th royal colony as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the English-owned Carolinas. Oglethorpe selected the 40-foot river bluff as the site for his city because he felt it would be easy to defend. He designed the streets wide enough for a full military unit to march down and created the public squares as places to grow crops and encamp soldiers in time of siege. Today, 21 of the original 24 squares remain.
Happening upon a bus tour led by someone as knowledgeable and involved as Stutts drives home the struggle Savannians still wage with developers, government officials and even fellow preservationists.
Many of the historic homes featured on tours today would be long gone had it not been for seven irate women who in 1955 organized the Historic Savannah Foundation to save the Davenport House, built in 1815-20. A funeral parlor across the street wanted to tear it down to put up a parking lot. The house, one of Savannah's finest examples of Federal architecture, had deteriorated into a tenement housing eight families.
Before the women rescued the house, two marble mantlepieces were removed. One, chipped by earlier tenants cracking ice, has been returned. The other, made of pink marble, has not. Stutts won't name names, but she admits the possessor is a fellow member of the historic foundation. You get the feeling Stutts won't rest until that pink mantelpiece is returned to its original fireplace.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman also spent time in Savannah, but his sojourn is not recalled so lovingly. After his men burned their way from Atlanta to the sea, Sherman stayed at the Green-Meldrim mansion, now the parish house of St. John's Church. Sherman's soldiers, who camped out with their horses in the Colonial Park Cemetery, are blamed for changing dates on tombstones so that some of the deceased appear to have died before they were born. One tomb they didn't tamper with was that of Button Gwinnet, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He died following a duel held conveniently next to the graveyard.
Whatever Savannians think of Sherman, they're thankful he didn't torch their city. In December 1864, the general sent Lincoln a telegraph presenting him Savannah "with 150 heavy guns and plenty of artillery and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."
"We were Lincoln's Christmas present," Stutts says ruefully.
Sherman wasn't the only famous visitor to Savannah. John Wesley preached there, Eli Whitney perfected the cotton gin upriver and the well-traveled George Washington slept there. A good way to get a historical overview is to take a guided tour by bus, trolley or horse-drawn carriage.
Another way to absorb the area's history is to step inside the homes of Savannians of yesteryear. For example, the Owens-Thomas House, designed by William Jay in 1816, is considered one of the country's finest examples of the Regency period. Passed down from one generation to the next, the house still has the original chandeliers, door hinges and furnishings. On display in the basement are the lead-lined pipes used to provide indoor plumbing, a revolutionary amenity in the early 1800s. It was from the balcony of the Owens-Thomas house that the Marquis de Lafayette made his famous two-hour speech during his 1825 visit to the city.
The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace gives insight into another famous personality. Expensive decorations and original portraits hint at the social standing of the family of the founder of the Girl Scouts. One grandfather built the first house in Chicago, another brought the railroad to Savannah. The house itself, where Juliette Gordon Low was born on Halloween 1860, had been built for Savannah's mayor.
But she didn't hesitate to challenge Victorian society's ideas of a female's proper place. Maybe she took after her mother, Nellie, who met her father in a most unorthodox way. Bored during a tour of Yale University, Nellie slid down a banister and sailed into a top hat. Thus began her courtship with the crushed hat's owner, William Washington Gordon.
That's the kind of spunk it took to launch the Girl Scouts in 1912 and it's the kind of spunk that keeps Savannah moving forward today without forsaking its past.