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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Architecture, Art, and Culture of Savannah, Georgia

We started our day simply enough at Back in the Day Bakery. This oasis of deliciousness is slightly off the beaten path. It was well worth the drive up to 40th and Bull Street and scrambling a bit to get a parking spot. We had two Muffins, a Biscone, and Savory Ham & Cheese puff pastry. All were very tasty. What set this place apart was the quirky and creative d├ęcor. A pleasing color palette and a rich collage of found objects made this a perfect palimpsest for our day-long journey ahead.

Our breakfast at the Back in the Day Bakery.
We jumped into the car one last time to make our way to the historic area. Heading down Abercorn, we found easy parking on Oglethrope between Bull and Drayton. The five hour time limit was perfect for us, and the payment box that accepted credit cards made it easy and convenient rather than having to dig around for enough coins. For the remainder of the day our primary conveyance was by foot (and strollers for our boys aged 4 and almost 2). Walking through Savannah was a sheer delight and pleasure.

Upon getting out of the car we were most immediately struck by some of the amazing juxtapositions that Savannah offers. Looking up the sidewalk beyond a classically inspired brick school building was the spire of the Independent Presbyterian Church. The architectural detailing on the church and spire rivaled the ornamentation found in similar building types anywhere. To have these two buildings side by side, both borrowing from Classical and Renaissance motifs, was a welcome start to our adventure. This would be just the first of several major discoveries of this nature throughout the day.

Spire of the Independent Presbyterian Church.
A City of Statues, Squares, and Symbols

James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785) presents an excellent starting-off point for an exploration of the history of Savannah and Georgia. This soldier-philanthropist was responsible for founding the Colony of Georgia. A sculpture by the team of Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon who also designed the Lincoln Memorial, greets visitors in Chippewa Square. The placement is somewhat curious. Oglethorpe is so high up and out of reach, that his figures are made indistinct. Further, it gives the effect of glaring down on the passerby. From the perspective of history, however, the qualities of character and courage Oglethorpe exemplified does indeed set him apart from the ordinary and everyday lives of most residents and visitors to Savannah. One curious reflection of the Oglethrope statue was in the Jepson Center for the Arts. There in the Artzeum one can get up fairly close and familiar with Oglethrope, albeit on a diminished scale. Somehow in that state he seems less grand.

We shift from one statue to another. The Bird Girl Statue featured so prominently in the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is simple, accessible, and approachable in a way that the Oglethorpe statue is not. After the film came out and this statue was featured on the cover, visitation to Bonaventure Cemetery (where it was located) and the resulting wear and tear this created, caused the statue to be moved. Today the statue may be found in the main hall of the Telfair Academy on a 5th floor balcony and walkway. The location is so remote, in fact, that many visitors pass through without seeing this famous piece at all, even though it is quite literally right over their head upon entering. What makes this placement more unfortunate is that if appropriately positioned, this piece could drive traffic and interest in the Telfair, and further be a jumping off point for a broader discussion of public sculpture in Savannah. Instead, the Bird Girl is placed so far out of sight that few people will ever see it. Luckily we were among the select few who were able to find it.

Wall section of the Independent Presbyterian Church.

The experience of recreating what once was lost is a defining Savannah trope. A formal preservation movement emerged in Savannah in the 1950's. Since then the Historic Savannah Foundation has been at the forefront of preserving historic places. One place this impulse to preserve and recreate is powerfully on display is beside the Independent Presbyterian Church near Hull and Bull Street. A small one-story arcaded wall section screens a 20 space or so parking lot behind it. Upon closer inspection, a plaque placed in 1980 explains how after extensive archaeological research, this wall was created from stone that "is believed to have been quarried, cut and carved in England from a white English marble." The plaque continues, the wall is "thought to be the remains of one of the oldest structures in the State of Georgia." When compared to similar fragments in places like Paris or Rome, the antiquity of this wall from 1759 is suspect. In the context of Colonial America, however, it provides a vital link to a time before our nation's founding. It also demonstrates how craft traditions like masonry had yet to take hold in places like Savannah. Instead, people of that time needed to rely on imported stone.

Telfair Museums

We briefly touched upon the Telfair Museum already with respect to the Bird Girl sculpture, though will now elaborate upon it in some more depth. This is actually three attractions connected together. The first is the Telfair Academy with traditional galleries and exhibits on display. One can easily pass through here in an hour or less. Of particular note on our visit was the exhibition of Savannah chairs. Some of these were so richly decorated and lavish that they were deserving of special recognition. One could see this becoming a permanent exhibit somewhere, someday, somehow. The two other entities in the Telfair are the Jepson Center for the Arts, just a block away from the Academy, and then the Owens-Thomas House a few blocks away from that. The Telfair has rightfully and respectfully staked a claim for decades as an anchor for a city so rich in culture. Lacking a major encyclopedic museum as many larger cities have (New York, Chicago, Detroit, LA and others), the Telfair plays an important role filling that gap.

In a city so rich in history, one of the remarkable contemporary buildings is the Jepson Center for the Arts. A little less than a decade old (or young as it were), the Jepson Center is an important addition to the educational and cultural life of the city. Designed by Moshe Safadie, an effort is made to connect this building with the surrounding environment in a way that is seldom seen. A comparison might be made with The Getty Museum in Malibu, California. Both have similar light colored stone and are architectural statements in their own right. Where they differ is the Getty is set atop a mountain like an Acropolis, detached from a city whose culture it is seeking to reflect, whereas the Jepson Center is interwoven with the fabric of the city it seeks to celebrate. As such, we find the Jepson a more relevant example of what a cultural institution should be - connected, accessible, and approachable - instead of a place set apart.

Underside of stairway within the Jepson Center.
Of special note, especially for those with kids and families was the Artzeum. This space within the Jepson Center allows for creative play for kids between the ages of about 3 and 15. Some of the highlights from an architectural perspective were lessons about design and construction. In addition to the typical building block toys, there were orders of various columns that children could identify. Two of the most unique features were a garden exhibit meant to mirror a painting in the Telfair collection. Another was of a French countryside house, meant to mirror another painting. These were cutting edge exhibits, in my opinion, and deserving of further elaboration at various other museum settings.

Some of the unique children friendly exhibits at the Jepson.
The Civilizing Effect of Squares

The squares of Savannah are one of the defining features. Each has a personality of their own. Too often where the squares from the original plan have been lost, paved over, or built upon, the city in turn has lost some of its vitality and distinctive charm. We posit that the power of these spaces, is in juxtaposing nature with civilization. To scan ones view from a classically inspired Greek temple to a sprawling live oak tree, one sees the whole gamut of human history from the state of nature to the highest achievements of architecture. This has a sort of humbling effect, making us realize how far our civilization has come, though leaving the unanswered question of "Where are we going?"

Moshe Safdie provides at least a partial response with the Jepson Center for the Arts. Here there is a deliberate architectural strategy to connect the building with the square. Instead of the building being a hermetically sealed object, cut off and set apart from its surroundings. Instead, the building is re-imagined and reinvented as being interconnected with its surrounding. A centerpiece of the building is a cascading staircase in the interior opening to a glass-walled and light-filled atrium. Glass skylights give a further feeling of lightness and transparency, connecting with the sky above. The overall the effect is elegant and grand. If there is hope for architecture and civilization, it is in the sort of innovative expression of form and structure found here.

The Sacred and Profane

In a city so full of architecture and history, it is hard to name one building above all the others. Oftentimes in church architecture, we find the highest refinement of the architectural form. Were there a single building to make a unique claim to the greatest architectural statement in Savannah, it very well might be the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Having recently undergone a $12 million restoration (with all but around $175,000 paid off), this is a truly stunning building in the heart of the city. The interior is marked by richly painted polychromatic walls. While the vaulting is not quite as soaring as the cathedrals of Europe, the effect created here is fairly remarkable. Paintings and sculpture inside provide nice accent notes to the majesty and beauty of the surroundings.

View inside a side chapel of St. John the Baptist.

Corinthian capitals atop columns fronting Trinity Methodist.
Trinity Methodist, albeit on a somewhat less grand scale than the Cathedral, is another one of the great church buildings of Savannah. The city has a long-time association with the Methodists and was an important setting off point for propagation of the faith. This 1850 building by John B. Hogg of Savannah has grand columns surmounted with the difficult to execute Corinthian capital. This spoke to a level of taste and refinement among the designer and congregation relatively rare for this period of time.

Juxtaposed against these sacred buildings we share the Federal Building. These are three separate buildings arranged enfilade. The photo we show below has the much older U.S. Post Office to the rear. Made of Georgia marble, the Post Office demonstrates the grace and majesty once lavished on public structures. The contemporary Federal Building, however, shows a sort of disregard for civic architecture. Our tour guide in the morning hit the nail on the head when she called this the bathroom tile building. Unlike other buildings in Savannah that have been lovingly preserved and adapted through the years, all that may be done to make the Federal buildings welcoming, inviting, and a wellspring of civic delight might be their swift removal. Starting anew based on earlier designs, such as the Post Office, might be a good start. From this example we can observe, how the sacred and the profane stand side-by-side in Savannah.

The understated Federal Building clad in bathroom tile, with the Post Office behind.

Savannah College of Art and Design

One cannot really fully understand and tell the story of Savannah without saying a word or two about the Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD, as it is popularly called, with its 13,000 or so students is a major driver of the local economy and culture today. Many buildings have been bought up and lovingly restored to serve the needs of faculty and students. Particularly dramatic are the many theaters, especially concentrated in the downtown, that have one sort or another of SCAD programming. Even fairly utilitarian and almost modern buildings such as the Woolworth's have been taken over and re-purposed for some sort of student or academic use. There is not a definite center of the SCAD presence in Savannah. Instead, the whole city is a sort of canvas upon which SCAD activities are spread out. (As an aside, the playing fields are actually on the South Carolina side of the bridge heading into Savannah, showing the relative role and position of athletics compared with the the main academic and artistic buildings in the city center.)

Palimpsest from the Woolworth's store (now long gone) where a SCAD student center is located today.

The Savannah and Lucas theaters are two of the main performing spaces in the downtown area.

When viewing the impact of SCAD upon the local culture and economy today, an interesting comparison might be made with the earlier Telfair Academy. Whereas the Telfair was more tightly focused in scope, and targeted towards those with an interest in the fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.), SCAD has continued this artistic tradition and expanded it to include features such as illustration, theater, photography, and film. Institutions like the Telfair have given Savannah the bona fides it needs for a the blossoming of creative and artistic activities undertaken by SCAD today. One cannot imagine SCAD without the Telfair, just as one cannot imagine Savannah today without SCAD.

Detail of the front portico of the Owens-Thomas House.

Owens-Thomas House
As one of the finest examples of English Recency architecture in America, the Owens-Thomas House provides a panopoly of pleasures. Outside the facade has a rare and dignified presence fronting Oglethorpe Square. (Note that the Oglethrope statue is in Chippewa Square). Young English architect William Jay designed much of the house in England without ever visiting Savannah. The innovations were many. In addition to the slender columns and curved details on the stairs and portico, other highlights are indoor plumbing, colored glass skylights in the Dining Room, and the most peculiar of bridges on the upper floor of the interior spanning the grand staircase and connecting the front and rear living quarters.

The Marquis de Lafayette famously stayed here for two days when he visited Savannah in 1825. He addressed the people of Savannah from the south balcony on two occasions, one time speaking in English and the other time in French. During our guided tour the claim was made Lafayette's stay was the reason the house received historic designation. While this was an important event and marked the visit of a significant personage, the architecture too is one of the major claims to significance. Not to mention the story of Richard Richardson who was a Savannah merchant involved in cotton production and shipping. In fact it was Richardson had the house built between 1816 and 1819. This spoke to his relative influence and stature. Regrettably, after losing his wealth, the house passed through a variety of hands and the importance of his role as progenitor of this very special place was lost. Even the name used today recognizes George W. Owens, a lawyer and Member of Congress who acquired his house, and Margaret Gray Thomas his granddaughter who gave the house in trust to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1951.

Perhaps one of the most unique features of the house was not in the house proper, but in the Slave Quarters across the garden and to the rear. These have been re-interpreted to bring to light this important chapter in the history of this house and the broader story of Savannah. Rough hewn beams are on display inside. They have a rough and unexceptional quality to them, especially when compared with the main house. A slight shade of blue paint is discernible over a significant section of the main room where tours begin. Guides claimed this is one of the largest intact sections of Haint Blue paint. The origins of this paint was that slaves believed evil spirits could be fended off by painting walls and ceilings the color of water. According to our guides, this was one of the largest sections of the original paint on display anywhere in Savannah.

... and you Must Stop by Leopold's!

A cold treat for the Kremer boys at the end of a busy action-packed day.
Just around the corner from the Owens-Thomas House at 212 E Broughton St is Leopold's Ice Cream. A Savannah institution dating back to 1919, this confectionery made a perfect ending to a great day. The selection was plentiful and delectable. Service was swift and courteous. And we had plenty of time to sit and enjoy our treats in one of their air conditioned rooms. The Thin Mint ice cream and Thin Mint brownies were a nice shout out to the Girl Scouts. Leopold's even had a badge that scouts could purchase. Just a nice example of the small ways that people are working together to create a local culture and working relationships with reverberations and significance to people far outside of Savannah.

Some Concluding Remarks

After that we strolled around a little bit longer and enjoyed passing by now familiar places one last time. A quick stop by the spray fountains near the City Market provided some fun for our boys. They ran around as the water jets shot out of the ground. Later when asked what their favorite part about Savannah was, of course it was the water. We passed by the river walk and waterfront too. A large boat with shipping containers passed through, and went beneath the bridge ahead with only about 50 feet to spare. There is nothing like watching a ship of that size in the foreground heading towards a bridge of that size in the background, and not being sure whether the ship can actually make it beneath.

Shortly thereafter we were on that bridge heading home. Our last thought as we left was what a lovely city Savannah was and still is. Whereas most places have bulldozed over their history, and in the process created a bland sort of sameness that you can find in most major cities all over the world - Savannah's claim to fame is its distinctiveness. One will be hard pressed to find a city of this size or even larger with so much of the historic fabric still intact. We know this is thanks to the collapse of cotton and the economic malaise the city found itself in for decades after the greatest growth and development during the 19th century occurred. Today, however, we find a vibrant and culturally active place on the cutting edge of art and design. What an exciting place to live in and visit. 

We were left with an overwhelmingly positive impression of Savannah, and look forward to many happy return visits in the years to follow. And in that is a theme that unites the past, present, and future of this great city. Savannah was made great through the exporting of products, especially cotton. Today, the leading export is cultural - ideas, art, and creativity. Tourism is an export itself, through attracting outside dollars that help to make the local economy grow. In final analysis, place is the critical element that made Savannah great, and continues to make the city great. As each generation adds their unique layer onto this history-laden place, the wonders of the culture and civilization created are certain to only grow.

View of the city and historical skyline as we headed towards home.