Claiming Savannah: Anyone Can Feel Proprietary About One of America's Handsomest Towns

SAVANNAH DOESN’T know how good it is, which is why it’s so wonderful to visit. Sometimes, it is true, the city is a magnet for tourists: this month hundreds of thousands of people will converge for a famous Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and thousands more will come for special garden tours to see the azaleas that festoon the city. But otherwise the city is sleepy, keeping the pace of 1950s America. Savannah is not part of the New South. “Hell,”one businessman who grew up there told me, “we’re not even on the weather map anymore.”

That leaves a visitor free to discover for himself the city’s immense architectural riches, its lushly decorated and personalized inns, and its good food— a privilege long denied visitors to Charleston, a hundred miles to the north, which long ago discovered itself. Savannah is well worth traveling to on its own, despite its frequent pairing in travelers’ itineraries with Charleston, and certainly vacationers on Hilton Head Island, which is just forty-five minutes away by car, should take a few days off from the beaches and golf courses to see Savannah. The architecture of Charleston, pretty as it is, is dominated by eighteenth-century styles (most of it withstood Hurricane Hugo), while Savannah’s is a textbook of styles from more than two hundred years. I feel as happy walking its streets as I do in small cities in Italy, where I tell myself that I am the first to appreciate the diversity and quality of the buildings around me. I’m wrong in every case, of course. But anyone can still feel proprietary about Savannah.

All the architecture in Savannah starts with the city plan, which the English General James Oglethorpe designed in 1733. The plan laid out four squares in the manner of some squares in London and also of Roman and other fortified cities. The plan turned out to be brilliant, allowing public and private buildings to be interspersed rather than concentrating them in separate areas. Savannah survived several disastrous fires, and twenty more squares were eventually added. Today a stroller in the 2.2-square-mile downtown historic district is never far from greenery, and never far from anything else in the city either.

The best place to be introduced to Savannah is the Massie Heritage Interpretation Center, in a former public school built in 1856—1886. The Massie gives a concise, thoughtful history of the styles of architecture in the city, and shows how the city changed; one room is devoted to the city plan, with a seven-by-nine-foot model of the District, as the downtown is called. An hour at the Massie is delightful, and perfectly orients the visitor, but the center, inconveniently, keeps school hours and is closed on weekends. Most first-time visitors find themselves at the Savannah Visitors Center, which, with its sketchy exhibitions and a hokey twenty-minute historical film accompanied by automated figures lurching up and down, is a distant second best.

Savannah first became rich from trade in cotton, especially after the invention of the cotton gin, in 1793 at a nearby plantation, and the arrival of the railroad, in the 1830s. The riverfront became a cotton exchange, and the handsome warehouses and counting rooms along River Street, which is a full story below street level (it is connected to the city by a series of ingeniously designed staircases and ramps), still survive, some now occupied by quaint souvenir shops. The city was untouched in the Civil War. After 1920 the economy declined, with the result that aside from misguided destruction in the 1950s and 1960s—for highways, parking garages, a civic center, and chain hotels—the city today looks much as it did in the twenties, when almost everything dated from the nineteenth century. In the sixties a preservation group led by a local businessman named Lee Adler saved thousands of buildings by selling them to people who promised to restore them. Adler, who went on to win grants to restore houses for low-income tenants, last November received a Medal of the Arts from the President for his efforts. Now the District is largely occupied by upper-class whites, but not by the kind of rich retirees who move to Charleston. Savannah still owns itself.

THERE ARE SEVEN house museums in Savannah. All are worthwhile, but the one I keep going back to is unlike any house I know of in America, perhaps because it was designed in England, and in a style that never took hold here. William Jay was an architect trained during the regency of George IV, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and he designed for a relative what is now called the Owens-Thomas House. Jay was allowed to try out seemingly all his ideas, many of which were taken from the English architect Sir John Soane. The house is showily clever, full of plays on shallow ovals and unexpected windows in unexpected shapes (“ox eyes,” greek keys) and colors (rosin yellow, deep blue). A bridge at the top of the mahogany double staircase, which is edged with undulating incised brass, links two parts of the second floor which otherwise look like unconnected islands. The furniture, in many nineteenth-century styles, is superb. The spaces in the house refuse to lay themselves out plainly, and starting at the sinuous portico, with its long columns and tiny Ionic capitals before a wide, shallow niche for the front door, the whole house seems dreamlike. The peeling, mottled stucco exterior, in shades of apricot streaked from age with lime green and black, also refuses to identify itself as one color. None of the surviving buildings that Jay designed after he moved to Savannah has the tranquil mystery of the OwensThomas House.

The Davenport House, a block away, is a good example of the Federal style, with well-made furniture. But it is the continuum of the nineteenth century that makes Savannah different from many cities, and so the other house museum of exceptional stylistic interest is the Gothic Revival GreenMeldrim. (Another Gothic Revival building, on the next square, is Temple Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jew - ish congregation in the country, which has its own small museum.) The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, furnished in the Victorian style of the 1880s, has a more casual, familial air— as it should, considering the number of current and former Girl Scouts who go through it: Low founded the Girl Scouts, in 1912. Visitors leave through a gift shop, which, disappointingly, sells no Girl Scout cookies.

SEVERAL OF THESE houses are on Bull Street, the spine of Savannah, which from the first was the place for builders and their clients to show off. My favorite building is on Wright Square: the little-celebrated U.S. Post Office, an enormous Beaux Arts Renaissance palace, built in 1895 and added to, in the same style, in 1931. It has a high, ornate, arched tower that is a wedding-cake version of a Venetian bell tower. The polished granite sparkles, and the grandiose is happily undercut by the silly.

Across Wright Square is another remarkable building, the yellow brick Chatham County Courthouse, by William G. Preston, who brought to town the Romanesque Revival of the nineteenth-century architect H. H. Richardson, with its stones in contrasting colors, wide arches, ornamental brickwork, and massive turrets.

Preston’s best work, the 1893 Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory Building, is two squares down Bull Street. Upended iron cannons flank the entryway. No guardsmen pass between them: the armory is now a classroom building for the Savannah College of Art and Design, a young institution that gives B.F.A.s, M.F.A.s, and B.Arch.s, and the traffic is artily dressed students carrying portfolio cases. Under its aggressive president, Richard Rowan, the school has bought two dozen historic buildings and is busily renovating them. Old Savannah is leery of Rowan, a northerner, and the changes he has wrought. The SCAD student body has grown from seventy-one in 1979, the first year of classes, to 1,800. Parking has become a problem. Last December the city council considered (and tabled) an ordinance to prohibit skateboarding. Students leave unsightly deck chairs and towels on wrought-iron balconies. When a woman I met complained of this, someone suggested that she, too, had in the past hung towels on her balcony. “Towels?” she replied indignantly. “Never. Oriental rugs, maybe.”

But SCAD has revivified the District, and even grumblers admit that the students on the streets make them feel more comfortable walking at night. One way to see the town is to board one of SCAD’S English double-decker shuttle buses, which will take you to, among other places, a Moorish county jail converted to a video studio, and the wonderful Richardsonian and neoclassical Henry Street School, with terra-cotta floral swags, where instead of desks there are now looms for textile classes. Your companions will most likely have bleached hair and a few earrings in one ear—not the sort you find next to you on a tour in a horsedrawn carriage.

AS BEFITS A house-proud city, Savannah has exceptionally handsome inns. A number have been made from houses in the District, and of these, three stand out for the attention their owners have given the rooms and give the guests: the Gastonian, the Magnolia Place Inn, and the Ballastone Inn. The rooms in all of them are individually decorated, with new beds and color televisions (the Ballastone and the Magnolia feature VCRs in each room, and maintain videocassette libraries with excellent selections) and frequently with working fireplaces and whirlpool baths. All serve breakfast on trays or in prettily decorated dining rooms; they also serve in courtyards in warm weather. All offer tea and sherry or wine in the afternoons, and the Ballastone has a full bar. Instead of chocolates on the pillow, there are often pralines made with Georgia pecans, which I find much more tempting. I stayed at the Gastonian, and enjoyed the warm welcome of the proprietors, Hugh and Roberta Lineberger. The bathrooms are very large, and one is overwhelming—a whole parlor with a vast whirlpool bath in the middle, covered with a baldachin. It is part of the Caracalla Suite (the other rooms are named for famous Savannahians), and suggests that the Gastonian might do well for a second honeymoon.

The Magnolia is in a late-nineteenth-century Victorian mansion on Forsyth Park, just across the border that divides the Historic District from the Victorian District, which is also rich in architectural curiosities. I found the rooms, with their interesting moldings and pretty Portuguese-tiled fireplaces, most to my taste, especially a gentian-blue room, 301. Because the front rooms, two sharing a veranda, have such a good view of the azaleacovered park, they are booked fast for late March and much of April, the height of the season (the Savannah Tour of Homes and Gardens, at 912234-8054, runs tours from March 24 to 28; the Garden Club of Savannah, at 912-238-0248, runs tours on April 20 and 21). The Ballastone, next to the Low house on Bull Street, is in a more central yet quieter location. I would be delighted to stay in one of its very attractive rooms. Prices range from $85 to $225 a night, with the Magnolia charging slightly less than the Ballastone and the Gastonian. (The telephone number of the Gastonian is 912232-2869, the Magnolia 912-236-7674, and the Ballastone 912-236-1484.)

SAVANNAH IS NOT the place, unfortunately, to explore low-country cooking, as the dishes from the region along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are called. Low-country cooking, which blends English, Caribbean, and French influences with great delicacy, is found almost exclusively in private houses (the Charleston culinary historian and bookseller John Martin Taylor, of Hoppin’ John’s, is now writing what promises to be the definitive work on it). But for generic southern food there is the redoubtable Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House, where at lunchtime Monday to Friday each table is a groaning board covered with fried chicken, red rice, hot biscuits straight from the oven (I can vouch for this, having once asked for biscuit lessons; instead, I was put to work for two hours forming biscuits and setting them on big baking sheets), collard greens, candied yams, okra with tomatoes, succotash, rutabaga, pickled beets, snap beans, and various other vegetables and stews. Tables are for at least eight, and you’ll quickly make friends with the other people at your table; you can practice a boarding-house reach to get some of everything. This excess costs just $6.50. Breakfast costs $3.75, and has the same biscuits plus eggs, ham, sausages, and delicious grits. Mrs. Wilkes (pronounced “Miz Wilkes”; she is still alive but her family helps run the restaurant and inn today) and her restaurant are the closest most people will come to real southern food in Savannah. Plenty of natives eat there, knowing to arrive at 2:30, a half hour before closing, when they are likely not to have to wait long. Certainly no one should miss the fried chicken, whether or not he would consider eating it back home. Breakfast is served from 8:00 to 9:00, lunch from 11:30 to 3:00; the address is 107 We st Jones Street; and if you don’t want to wait, you can get fried chicken and other fare to take away.

The dress-up restaurant in town is Elizabeth on 37th, in an early-twentiethcentury mansion near the Victorian District. The restaurant has probably received more publicity than any other in the South in the past ten years. It’s not a southern restaurant, even if many of the ingredients are associated with the region. Its owner, Elizabeth Terry, is a selftaught cook from the Midwest with high professionalism and a fine sense for good food. At worst, dinner seems like what you might receive at a dinner party given by an able and enthusiastic cook. At best, as in wild mushrooms on flaky pastry bases; or squares of fried grits crisp outside and custardy inside; or grilled fillets of a local game fish; or silk pie, with a meringue crust and a light chocolate-mousse filling, the food can be as good as at any restaurant in America, and it is reasonably priced— dinner costs $40 to $60 a person. The restaurant serves only dinner; the telephone number is 912-236-5547. Another dressy restaurant said to be very good, with an interesting menu that has Northern Italian touches, is 45 South (912-233-1881), near the river. Locals go to eat plain fresh boiled or steamed seafood, served on newspapers, at Desposito’s (912-897-9963), in the nearby town of Thunderbolt, where the police insignia has a big bolt of lightning running through it.

For a quick lunch while sightseeing there is the central Express Cafe, at 39 Barnard Street, with good soups and sandwiches, and for a snack there is Comer’s Cookies, a small independent bakery that makes deliciously crisp cookies (and nothing else), in the middle of the District, at 313 Barnard Street. And although I can’t recommend the food, I like to stop in at McCrory’s, an old-fashioned five-andten on Broughton Street, which was once the main shopping street and is now the locus of efforts to revive downtown retail. McCrory’s, like Kresge’s, down the street, still has a lunch counter. Ordering coffee or a soda there feels like checking in to an older urban America.

MANY COMPA-nies offer guided tours. It is probably best to try the Historic Savannah Foundation first, at its headquarters at 41 West Broad Street. Two guides, Elizabeth Richardson and Ethylyn Stubs, come especially recommended, and the foundation also rents recorded walking tours. Another recommended guide is Deborah Helmken, of Gray Line Tours. The finest guide of all is said to be W. W. Law, who leads visitors on the Negro Heritage Trail by request and only on Saturdays, since he still works as a postman. (Other guides will take groups on the trail on weekdays, given a day’s notice.) Law helped found the King-Tisdell Cottage, a small gingerbread cottage that documents the life of blacks in and around Savannah and on the sea islands off the Georgia coast, where some African culture has survived. The black middle class was always strong in Savannah, and its institutions and churches continue in force today; if it has become less strong, so has the white middle class— Savannah is today largely a blue-collar and upper-class city.

Surely a tour by any well-informed guide helps place a visitor. Ask, for instance, to see the simple house where Flannery O’Connor lived, which a local group is trying to make into a museum, or the grand house where the songwriter Johnny Mercer’s grandparents lived. But any tour will leave you with the same resolve you’ll have after studying the city plan at the Massie— to walk every square in Savannah. □