Savannah oozes Southern charm, but beware of the ghosts after dark
By Cassandra Sherrill
Savannah drips with Spanish moss. And in the summer, it drips with humidity – not that Savannah would ever admit to so gauche a thing. No, if anything, Savannah simply "feels the heat," like any proper Southern belle.
Luckily, arching oak trees are everywhere, providing copious shade that makes the city’s many parks seem at least 10 degrees cooler than the sunny streets.
The best way to see the city is on foot, with occasional stops at convenient benches to drink in the atmosphere, a method of touring that adds to Savannah’s languid drawl.
Turn just about any corner in the large historic district – 2.5 square miles of genteel homes, parks and businesses – and you’ll find something charming or even quirky, such as downspouts shaped like funky dolphins or a gate fence decorated with iron oranges and lilies. This is a city bursting with ambience.
Founded in 1733 on a bluff above the Savannah River, Savannah was the first planned city in the Colonies. Its founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, designed it in a grid with streets running into 24 periodically placed squares. Today, 21 remain,
And they are havens of relaxation. Most of them have something of interest in their centers, such as a statue, fountain or gazebo.
Savannah retained its historic charm less from any deliberate attempt – at least until the mid-20th century – than from its economic fortunes. The city never became heavily industrialized, so buildings were seldom torn down in the name of progress, though it did lose many in three large fires. And after the cotton industry declined, many homes became rundown or derelict.
The modern historic-preservation drive began in 1955 with seven Savannah women who banded together to raise the money to save the Isaiah Davenport House on the eve of its planned destruction to build a parking lot. They started the Historic Savannah Foundation and began to save other buildings, leading to a citywide interest in preserving its heritage. Since 1966, any building built in the historic district – except for government buildings – has to look as if it had been built in the 1850s.
The best way to get an overview of the city is to take a ride on one of the many tourist trolleys that make a circuit through the historic district. Drivers point out sights of interest, recount the city’s history and share illuminating (and colorful) stories.
Then it’s time to get off the trolley and walk. The major squares lie along the central Bull Street, the oldest street in Georgia. It leads to the beautiful expanse of Forsyth Park, the southern border of the historic district and home to a large, white fountain that is one of the city’s most-photographed spots. It’s hard to take a direct route in Savannah, however, since the side streets off the squares invite an exploratory detour. There’s always an intriguing architectural detail across the street or a half-hidden garden that can be spotted through a gate.
Wherever you go in Savannah, it’s likely that you’ll encounter a group of Girl Scouts. Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, lived here, and it has become a mecca for Scouts. Her birthplace and the Andrew Low House, where she lived after her marriage, are open to tourists.
One of the most interesting homes is the Owens-Thomas House, designed by architect William Jay and built from 1816 to 1819. It is considered one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in the United States and is largely constructed of tabby, a popular building material made from lime, oyster shells and sand. It was the first home in Savannah to have indoor plumbing, and you can see the large cistern in the basement.
An outbuilding contains one of the South’s earliest urban slave quarters. Its ceiling retains its 19th-century coat of paint in "haint blue," a sky-blue color reputed in the voodoo culture to ward off evil spirits. In this case, it also helped ward off mosquitoes, since the lime used in it had insect-repelling properties. Many homes in Savannah are still trimmed with this color.
When the sun sets, Savannah’s ambience takes on a spookier tone. A good way to experience it is to go on a ghost walk. There are many companies offering ghost-themed tours; one even allows you to ride in a modified hearse. Guides tout Savannah’s ranking by the American Institute of Parapsychology as the most-haunted city in the United States, with the claim that 80 percent of its buildings are haunted.
At night, it’s easy to believe it. The street lamps in the squares give off an apricot glow, adding an eerie note to the gnarled oak trees and Spanish moss that seems to reach downward ominously. The statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square becomes more spooky than benign, with his outstretched hand and shadowed features.
Some of the town’s famous ghosts include one who likes to pinch visitors to a popular restaurant, another who moves objects around in a store, a murderess who was hanged immediately after giving birth, and a loving husband who came back to collect his widow on her deathbed.
River Street, which runs along the Savannah River, offers a different type of walking experience. It is composed of cobblestones that were once used as ballast on ships, making its surface a challenge to sneakers – and shock absorbers, for those who drive along it. Because it lies 40 feet below the rest of Savannah’s historic district, getting down to it requires descending narrow stone stairs, braving the blind curves of cobblestone driving ramps – or, for those who prefer things the easy way, taking an elevator. The street is lined with dozens of shops, bars and restaurants.
The Waving Girl statue, on one end of River Street, is a tribute to Florence Martus, who was born in 1869. Legend says that she fell in love with a sailor as a young woman and promised him that she would greet every ship that came into the harbor until he came back. For 44 years, she never missed a ship, but her love never returned.
Lying between River Street and the historic district is Factor’s Walk, a row of multilevel buildings that were once home to brokers, or factors, who graded the quality of the cotton in the 19th century. The ground floors of the warehouses opened onto the river so that goods could be directly loaded onto ships. The upper floors were accessible to the city streets by a network of iron bridges over cobblestone ramps. Today it is home to many antique shops.
No trip to Savannah would be complete without seeing some of the sights made famous in the publishing phenomenon Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s colorful account of some of the city’s eccentric residents and a scandalous murder case. Yes, Forrest Gump sat on his bench and contemplated the similarity between life and chocolate in Chippawa Square (the bench, a Hollywood prop, now resides in the Savannah History Museum), but it was "The Book," as it’s known to locals, that really put Savannah on the tourist map.
Ten years after Midnight hit the best-seller list and began to draw millions of visitors to Savannah, its influence is still keenly evident. Companies offer Midnight tours, copies of the book are in virtually every souvenir shop, and images of the Bird Girl that graced its cover are everywhere (the statue itself was moved to the Telfair Gallery to protect it from fans).
Mercer House, the Italianate mansion where antiques dealer Jim Williams shot his young lover, Danny Hansford, has recently been opened to tours by the Williams family.
The homes of Midnight "characters" Serena Dawes and Lee Adler are only a few steps away, as is Armstrong House, a breathtaking Italian Renaissance palazzo that Williams restored and sold to his law firm.
Perhaps the most evocative – and photogenic – site related to Midnight is Bonaventure Cemetery, where thousands of Savannah residents have their final resting place, including such favorite sons as composer Johnny Mercer and poet Conrad Aiken. Built on the site of a former plantation, it lies about 15 minutes east of the historic district and is well worth the short side trip. Large oaks, Spanish moss and countless statues of angels and wistful women make it a haunting place whose beauty lingers.
© 2004 Winston Salem Journal