One might say that the squares epitomize Savannah. The twenty-three lushly-landscaped blocks, carpeted in green, bordered with bright swells of azalea blooms, and dappled beneath a canopy of centuries-old oaks, are the heart of the city both in geographical terms and cultural context. The squares are steeped in an allure that is uniquely Southern: at once warm, familiar, and thick with the knowledge of something much deeper than appears on their well-mannered surface. Though it is easy to get lost in the aesthetic—Savannah is renowned for is softly draping skeins of Spanish moss, its sleepy corners of moss-covered cenotaphs—the import of the squares goes far beyond their surface charm; they serve as both a monument to and the embodiment of the city’s history: light, dark, and everything in between.
Savannah’s squares have been a part of the city since its inception. Laid out on the bluffs of the rolling Savannah River by the city’s founder, General Oglethorpe, they marked the first of their kind in both intricacy of design and organization. Though the relegated open spaces of the squares were originally intended to provide room for soldiers’ drills, the general’s plan went far beyond military functionality. Some claim that he drew inspiration from the disciplined streets of Peking, others, from a desire to avoid another overcrowding disaster of the magnitude of the1666 Fire of London. But whatever the inspiration, Oglethorpe’s design is lauded as a feat of sheer engineering genius, one that sends city planners and engineers into paroxysms of ecstatic glee to this day. The clean grid is based around the basic unit of a square, surrounded by four residential “tything” blocks and four public “trust” blocks, all sliced into neatly-organized parcels by a series of intersecting one-way streets. Not only did the plan allow for the exponential, orderly growth of the city, its layout ensured a sociable mix of public and private usage, and, with over 530 intersections in a single square mile to say how’dya do, politely mandated a neighborly pace.
Much like Southerners themselves, Savannah’s squares maintain an exterior that is gracious, welcoming, and meticulously groomed, yet beneath the idyllic charm of the surface, a wellspring of history and idiosyncratic Southern character awaits. For some squares, this significance is readily apparent; they bear the names of national heroes such as Washington, local celebrities like Oglethorpe, and a smattering of obligatory Southern panegyrics to less loved characters such as John Reynolds, the eighteenth-century governor whose arrival in the colony was reputedly met with a celebration rivaled only by the one had upon his departure.
For others, like Ellis Square—once the home of Savannah’s thriving slave market—history has been turned in and tilled under, only evidenced by a quiet hum, an ominous undertone just beneath the manicured lawn. Thus is the case, then, that many of the squares have acquired layers of historical and cultural significance, shades of Southern experience developing like a patina on their original luster. Take, for example, Wright Square, one of the Oglethorpe’s Plan’s first four. Originally named Percival Square for the Lord credited with giving Georgia its name, it was rechristened Wright in 1763 to honor the last of the colony’s royal governors. And yet neither of the men for whom the square was named is buried there; this honor went to Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who befriended and assisted the colonists in the earliest days of the city and, at Oglethorpe’s behest, was buried in the square with full military honors.
In 1883, the marker for Tomochichi’s grave was unceremoniously razed and replaced by a monument to native rail tycoon William Gordon, whose own widow took such offence to the slight against the chief that she immediately put in an order with a local quarry for a replacement stone. Wishing to contribute to the honor of the Yamacraw’s memory (and apparently unaware of the widow’s delicate pecuniary sensibilities), the quarry offered to donate the stone for the new monument. When Mrs. Gordon—ever vigilant against the implied necessity of charity—indignantly demanded her right to remunerate, the quarry respectfully mailed the matriarch a bill: $1.00, payable on Judgment Day. When the bill was returned to them, it was with a check far exceeding its charge and a note from Mrs. Gordon herself, politely informing the quarry that on Judgment Day she would be otherwise occupied.
Today the squares continue to serve as the loom upon which the rich and complex history of Savannah is woven. Flanked with age-old theaters, museums, and churches, swathed in the lush profusion of Southern verdure, and deeply steeped in years of history, the squares provide the perfect setting for traditional teas, perambulatory ruminations, and quiet hours of thought, drawing an infinite variety of contemporary Southern characters across the warp and weft of the city, and ensuring the continuation of a story begun almost three hundred years ago.