Savannah is a city containing an immense amount of history spanning the entire spectrum of the South’s Anglo-American existence. Founded in 1733, it was the earliest city in the colony of Georgia and the colony’s key point of formation as well. The city was laid out on a grid-based plan, with a series of squares—public spaces that functioned as small parks—forming the centerpiece of this plan and so, instead of evolving in an organic or even haphazard manner, Savannah came of age with the native advantage of prudent planning.
General James Oglethorpe, the mastermind behind the Savannah colony and this unique plan, had uncommon foresight as to what a colony in the New World could become. Many of the early settlers of Savannah were poor, some were prisoners mainly from debtors’ prisons, and few had the means to obtain a better status in life in England. But the New World and Oglethorpe’s plan for a sustainable, agriculture-based economy offered them hope. The urban plan for Savannah wasn’t just icing on the cake: in a foreign territory with an uncertain future and people who had not had much throughout their lives, the city was a tangible sign of order and respect.
This urban core—the squares and the stately homes that grew up around them—remained surprisingly intact throughout all of Savannah’s history, in part by happenstance and in part in later years due to a strong and focused effort at historic preservation. In December of 1864 Union General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Savannah after wreaking havoc on much of Georgia and, despite his total-war approach elsewhere in battle, decided not to burn the city to the ground but instead telegraphed Lincoln that he had captured the city and was presenting the President with it as a Christmas present. Thus Savannah was spared the hard damage seen by so many other Southern cities of notable size during the War.
In post-war years, Savannah’s immediate importance as a port was diminished (though it would be regained by the 1980’s) and the city’s economic fortunes were slim, a situation that oddly enough served the city well in the long run because money wasn’t present to tear down older structures and build new ones from scratch. Much of the downtown urban core, therefore, was retained and not only homes but commercial and industrial structures as well. Factors’ Walk down by the riverfront, where cotton merchants and planters once prepared cotton and other goods for sale and shipment, is a notable example of this unplanned preservation, where a wealth of buildings, ranging from eighteenth-century grand homes to early-twentieth-century schools, have been retained.
By the 1970’s locals were starting to see the merit in planned preservation and that their historic city was marketable for tourism due to its history and pristine material culture. With the founding of the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1978 by an Atlanta businessman and his wife, an educator, a use for buildings difficult to find reuse for, such as schools, an armory, and railroad shop and office buildings, was manifest: the college, best known simply as SCAD, from day one placed a high emphasis on adaptive reuse of extant structures for college purposes and has reused far more such historic structures than they have built new.
The role of SCAD in Savannah’s economic growth is hard to overstate. The college itself has grown markedly over the decades, and with it the expected need for housing, retail, and restaurants for its students, faculty, and staff, coupled with the growth of Savannah as a tourist destination, has meant that Savannah’s downtown has experienced an economic boom that any city would envy. The emphasis SCAD placed on the merit of historic buildings and the importance of maintaining their historic character has led to the preservation of many large historic structures downtown, and this in turn brought other business leaders and building owners to do the same with their own properties.
In fact, SCAD did what no one else could have by taking awkwardly large and unwanted buildings, ranging from an 1880’s Marine Hospital (now offices for the college) to a 1950’s department store (now the school’s library), and not only restoring them to their original splendor but applying programs of adaptive reuse resulting in much-need college facilities. As a student in the building arts at the college myself, I saw firsthand efforts in restoring college properties or lending the school’s vast architectural expertise to other local projects.
Between the focus on education and tourism, Savannah’s downtown found two strong economies that made use of its rich past instead of industries that would require stripping the city of its history, removing its long-held and rich-material culture, and replacing it with banal, common, contemporary urban form instead. The city General Sherman saved from his army had in turn saved itself from economic ruin, largely based on its innate beauty.
By the early 2000’s, Savannah was in a good place. Its downtown had more storefront businesses occupied than vacant—not true a mere decade earlier. Rental housing, mainly in restored apartment buildings, boarding houses, or homes, as far south as Anderson Street—a good distance from the heart of downtown but still in the urban core—was both plentiful and occupied and a strong money-maker for landlords. And nearly all major civic and industrial structures downtown that once had been vacated were either now restored or in-process of such.
However, that was only the start of what Savannah would become, and where it is now in 2015 indicates a hard-earned but very successful march forward. Growth has not been simply a matter of bringing in businesses, tourists, or students but also of a climb in sophistication and urbanity. As a port city in the region, Savannah is old competition for Charleston, but now the city stands as a savvy rival in terms of its food scene and shopping as well.
While Southern cuisine is expectedly the core of Savannah’s move into foodie territory—Paula Deen opened her restaurant the Lady and Sons here years before she was a household name—the range of restaurants is quite encompassing and includes quality Thai, Latin American, sushi, and other international offerings. The sophistication is deep in that a high level of quality seems present at most restaurants and very few coast by on their more or less captive client base of tourists, students, and business-people downtown.
Savannah instead constantly raises the bar. Restaurants like The Flying Monk, which offers a pan-Asian array of noodle dishes from the likes of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, brings a degree of depth and scope in its exploration of Asian foodways that you might expect in New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. Papillote, a French café, is another example of a restaurant using the finest of care and an emphasis on authenticity to provide a noteworthy experience and one perhaps somewhat unexpected for Savannah.
And this trajectory of the past decade or so towards a more cosmopolitan Savannah doesn’t end with restaurants. The Paris Market and Brocante is a perfect example of Savannah’s flair for home-goods, jewelry, and fashion. With its wide assortment of delights from antique drafting tables to charming necklaces to books on design, this store also has shop windows decorated for the seasons with just as much verve as the design-oriented goods they sell inside.
Not all good things are new, however. The Savannah Blue Print Company, which has been in business for decades catering to all these folks doing architecture and restorative work in the city, sits in the same mid-century structure near the old courthouse it has always occupied, basking in the ample sun of Wright Square and the surety of its place in both local favor and architecture. It and other businesses like it continue to contribute to a sense of authenticity in Savannah’s urban core that make the city one of the most special in the South.