Savannah is a beautiful city, with antebellum mansions arranged around picturesque squares. When William Tecumseh Sherman arrived after burning his way across confederate Georgia in his famous/infamous scorched earth march to the sea, he spared Savannah from the torch and gave it to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. One story goes he didn’t raze the city because it was so beautiful, while others argue it was due to its military and economic significance. In “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” Jim Williams relates how the mayor of Savannah and a delegation of high society members wined and dined the Northern General at a series of parties, and it was by the sheer force of Southern Charm that Savannah was saved for us to enjoy today.
Savannah is certainly a city with a lot of charm. You can take a trolley tour bus around the historic district and learn about the layout and architecture along with the history. A nervous theater major might hop on at one stop to portray Forest Gump between the square where his bus stop bench was and the diner where Jenny worked, or a more seasoned veteran playing Robert Louis Stevenson may join you outside the Pirate’s House to describe the inspiration for Treasure Island. It is a strange, surreal feeling place where the lines between fiction and history blur, and authenticity and artifice blend. Here’s Juliet Gordon Low’s house, founder of the Girl Scouts, here’s Johnny Mercer’s place, and that’s Flannery O’Conner’s childhood home, and this is one of the most haunted house in America, you see the owner lives out back in the carriage house because she won’t spend a night inside and can’t sell the place. It’s part small town, part port city, part Disneyland. Walk past the candy store and they give you a taste of rich, buttery praline. Go past the bar and they suggest you to “take a traveler” in their rich, buttery drawl, which means a to-go cup because open containers are not only legal but encouraged in the historic district.
Kate and I didn’t do much drinking, beyond a tasting flight of mead at the Savannah Bee Company, but we still stumbled once or twice on the cobblestone streets as we weaved our way around the city soaking in the beautiful homes and Spanish moss curtained squares. It seems like every style of American architecture from the last two centuries is represented and well-preserved in the historic district, and I went full tourist and took a ton of pictures of the details on people’s homes. I’m fascinated with the Tabby sidewalks, where whole oyster shells become a key ingredient in the concrete and make you feel like you are walking on a fossil bed. The “grey” bricks formed from the clay of the Savannah River are a key local building material as well. I love the ornamental wrought iron that’s everywhere here, on doors, fences, balconies, curving staircases. The idea of taking something so heavy and elemental and turning it into ornate, scrolling designs really appeals to me.
I also enjoy all the examples of Haint Blue you find if you go looking. At first I thought it was simply a nice sky blue people were using on their porch ceilings, but I learned that the paint is a custom from Gullah culture supposed to ward off evil spirits. Made from crushed indigo grown on plantations and applied to the ceilings of slave quarters, those poor people had a world of evil to try to keep out. Savannah loves and fears it’s ghosties, and Haint Blue can be found applied on or above doors and window frames to keep out the bad spirits, or as a nod to cultural heritage (in a sense the opposite of white washing,) or maybe just because it’s a nice color.
I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts, but if anywhere is haunted then it’s this old city built on colonization and slavery, that witnessed war against the Spanish, the French, the British, and the Union. The past is kept close in Savannah. We ran out of daylight before we got to visit Bonaventure, but we’re likely going back because as unlikely as it seems, the grand cemetery is one of the top rated attractions here. We did see the grave of Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman called the father of the American Calvary, who’s name adorns my favorite road near my childhood home. Confusingly, he was not laid to rest in Pulaski Square, but in Monterey Square, overlooked by the famous Mercer House and Mickve Israel Temple, one of the oldest Jewish congregations in America. We went by on a Saturday morning when Jules and Steve visited us and witnessed armed guards stationed outside during the services. We also stood in front of one of the oldest, if not the first African Baptist Church on Franklin Square, which served as a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for organizers of the civil rights movement. The site of a department store whose lunch counter witnessed a pivotal sit-in to protest segregation has been purchased by the Savannah School of Art and Design. A relatively young school at 40 years old, SCAD owns and restores buildings all over the city, and Kate and I are tempted to join the optimistic-eyed students carrying oversized portfolios around so we can spend more time in this strange and beautiful city. It’s a good plan B.