Oglethorpe – there’s a name that’s mentioned often in these here parts. It all started with a General James Edward Oglethorpe who founded Savannah in 1733. A British MP and philanthropist, he suggested to King George that a new colony be established with settlers made up of debtors and unemployed. He had definite ideas about his colony – No Slavery! No Liquor! No Lawyers! No Catholics! Everyone (else!) who was willing to take the risk was offered a house in town, a 5 acre garden outside town and 45 acres further out for farming purposes. He laid out his new city around a series of squares with wide streets in a grid pattern. Each square had a small group of colonists living around it and also public buildings such as churches, courthouse, etc. The city grew to 24 such squares.
(Oglethorpe’s vision was to fail with the rising tide of slavery – not to mention the liquor, lawyers and Catholics!!)
Roll on to 1864 when Union General Sherman was destroying everything in his path during his famous southbound march. When he arrived at Savannah, he was so inspired by its beauty that he sent a telegraph to President Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas gift!
Today, with streets and parks dripping in Spanish Moss, graceful architecture and a rich history, its not surprising that so many visitors – both domestic and international – descend upon the city in droves.
Of the original 24 squares, 22 remain and are among the city’s most iconic features. They were based on English gardens with fountains or monuments at their centres. Many are planted in oaks which provide welcome shade.
In Wright Square, a massive granite boulder honours Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who befriend Oglethorpe and allowed him to settle here.
Chippewa Square is where you’ll find a monument to Savannah’s founder. Oglethorpe faces south, so he can keep an eye on the Spanish and continue protecting his beloved city! However, that’s not Chippewa’s only claim to fame. Forrest Gump‘s bench was located here – this is where he talks about his life and delivers his famous line ‘life is like a box of chocolates’. (The bench was just a movie prop and has since been relocated to the nearby history museum).
At Ellis Square you’ll find Johnny Mercer (1909 – 1976). This native was co founder of Capitol Records and wrote over 1400 songs – including Moon River. He won 4 Oscars, with 18 nominations for best song.
It would be difficult to find a style of architecture not prevalent in Savannah – simple Colonial, Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival, Medieval influence, Federal, Italiante….
Historic preservation and restoration has flourished since the 1970’s. Today, local homeowners must get every single detail of their houses approved by the Historic Commission, from historically accurate paint colours to historically accurate door handles!
Elevated townhouses define the historic centre. Facades are enriched with cast-iron balconies, railings and columns. The house is usually close to the front of the property – because of the squares, there was no need for front gardens. The staircase up to the front door is often on public property, usually veering to one side rather than straight up. The extended staircases were a status symbol but also necessary because of the high basements. Basements had their own entrance so servants, slaves and deliveries could come and go without disturbing the family.
A lane runs behind the houses and here were the carriage houses with horses stabled below and slave quarters above.
Here at Rainbow Row you can see the steps on the public pathway.
Away from the squares, residential lots were bigger.
The Armstrong House was the biggest residential building in the city.
Inside a Savannah Home: Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
Built in 1816 for a banker, shipping merchant and slave trader, the family moved in with 9 enslaved men, women and children. A decrease in prosperity cause them to sell up and the bank owned the property for a number of years. In 1830, the then mayor of Savannah, George Owens, bought the house and moved in with his wife and 6 children. Owens was also a lawyer and planter as well as a politician. Over the years he kept 9 -15 enslaved people here and held almost 400 in bondage on his plantations. His last descendant to live in the house was his granddaughter Margaret Gray Thomas. She willed the house to be run as a museum.
From the back of the house, you can see the building at the end of the garden which was divided into a carriage house and slave quarters. This was where the enslaved men, women and children who maintained the family home were housed. After the Civil War, the space became servant’s quarters, housing many of the same people.
The garden was originally a work yard which probably had hanging laundry, a small kitchen garden and livestock. There was an outside loo in the corner. As household tasks became more mechanised over the decades, less outdoor space was needed and the gardens evolved.
In the main house, public rooms downstairs were meant to impress. Upstairs was private. At basement level was the kitchen, bathing room and the most unique feature of the house – the indoor plumbing system.
Your ticket to the Owens-Thomas House includes admission to Telfair Academy. This is the oldest public art museum in the south and presents a collection of fine art and beautiful rooms.
The museum is home to the iconic Bird Girl statue. 4 statues were made from the original plaster cast but the most famous was bought by a family in Savannah who placed it at their family plot in nearby Bonaventure Cemetery. In 1994, the statue achieved fame when it graced the cover of John Berendt’s bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It brought so much traffic to the cemetery that the statue was relocated.
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
You won’t miss this on the skyline – the twin spires make it easy to find. The church was founded in 1700 by the first French Colonists. The original building was destroyed by fire – this one dates to back 1874. You can take a self guided tour of the French-Gothic building and enjoy the Italian marble, Austrian stained glass and Persian rugs.
Independent Presbyterian Church
Q. Whats wrong with the clock?
A. The Roman 4 should read IV!
Colonial Park Cemetery
This is one of the most visited sites in the historic district. From the first burial in 1750, it served as the city’s main cemetery until 1853. The tall wrought iron railings surround 100’s of gravestones but are there over 10,000 graves – the cemetery actually extends beyond the walls and some of the dead are interred under neighbouring streets.
The exact number of people buried in this mass grave is rumoured to be 666 – much to the delight of the ghost tour companies!!!
This 30 acre city park is home to one of the most photographed sights – the Forsyth Fountain. Erected in 1858, the cast iron fountain, designed to resemble the grand water features of Europe, is not however unique. Dubbed the ‘mail order fountain’, it really was ordered from a catalogue (Model No.5, Illustrated Catalogue of Ornamental Iron Work, $2200) and there are similar structures in New York, France and Peru!
The park, which is very popular with locals and visitors alike, features a playground, basketball and tennis courts and a Saturday farmers market.
This district offers 4 blocks of shops, restaurants and galleries in former grain warehouses.
Its always 5.00pm somewhere! Savannah is one of the few cities in the US where you can legally walk around downtown with your cocktail.
Old City Exchange Bell
This bell hung in the cupola of the City Exchange from 1804 until the building was knocked to make way for City Hall. It was manned every night due to the constant threat of fires. It also signaled closing time for shops. It is now housed in a small replica of the original bell tower.
Built in 1905, the dome was originally clad in copper. As recently as 1987, it was gilded in 23 ct gold leaf – a gift from a local philanthropist!
The Irish in Savannah
The Irish began arriving in the 1600’s. They traveled down from South Carolina and were mostly soldiers, traders and trappers. The first real wave of immigrants came in the 1830’s to help build the railways.
The first public parade took place in 1824 when local Irishmen marched through the streets. By 1870, the parade had bands and a ‘Grand Marshall’. Today, the St. Patrick’s Day parade has grown to a 3 hour event and is one of the biggest in the US, up there with NYC, Chicago and Boston.
(Dedicated to the city in 1983, the Celtic cross in Emmet Park is made from Irish limestone)
Down by the River….
The new colony developed quickly and settlers began exporting their produce – cotton and tobacco in particular. By 1744, the first dock had been constructed and by the 1760’s, more than a dozen warehouses lined the river at Savannah.
Once upon a time the warehouses on River Street were filled with cotton and enslaved families waiting to be sold in auction. The cobblestones were originally ballast material on the many ships that sailed into the port. Early settlers found them a useful building material.
Nowadays, this promenade, running along the south side of the Savannah River, offers shops, bars, galleries and restaurants.
Waving Girl Statue
This statue commemorates Florence Martus, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who waved to passing ships for more than 44 years with a white handkerchief or lantern. The true reason is still a mystery, one suggestion being that she was waiting for a sailor she fell in love with to return.
Atlanta hosted the Centennial Games in 1996 but being a landlocked city, it selected Savannah as the location for yachting events.
The commemorative sculpture features the Olympic torch surrounded by 5 columns that represent the 5 rings. Billowing sails represent the yachting events.
This was a primary point of entry for ships arriving full of cargo from West Africa – slave ships. Today, it is still one of the largest ports in the country.
The City from the River
A riverboat cruise shows the city from a different perspective.
The ship docks at River Street…..
… the back of City Hall as we pull away…..
Talmadge Memorial Bridge, named after a 1940’s politician, links Georgia with South Carolina. Originally built in 1953, it was reconstructed in 1990 to accommodate bigger ships entering the port
Fort Jackson is the oldest brick fortification in Georgia. Its guns could fire on any ship coming into Savannah.
Our cruise coincides with a cannon firing ceremony!
Move over Forrest Gump – There’s a new star in town!! This is the riverboat used as the casino in the latest series of Ozark!
If you don’t fancy a cruise, the free Savannah Belles Ferry connects River Street with the opposite river bank.
If you don’t have a car, the city is well served by an international airport and a railway service linking NYC, Washington DC, Charleston, Miami, etc.
The historic centre is very walkable Because it is flat and has multiple bike lanes, its also a good area to explore on a rented bike.
The DOT provides a free passenger service in the area, serving 24 stops, about every 10 minutes
Where we stayed
Well you can see where it got its name! This hotel has a great location, just at the edge of historic downtown and is within walking distance of all the major sights.
Admission $20 includes Telfair Academy and Jepson Centre
The narrated 1.5 hour Harbour Cruise costs $24.95
There are also Lunch and Dinner Cruises available.
If you are thinking of visiting this region, have a look at: