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Savannah, Georgia

City of Small Parks

Englishmen who planned Colonial American cities had a proclivity for copying London's familiar blueprint and its famous commons. When William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1681, he placed a square in the center of a gridiron and laid out four other tree-lined, fountained oases, one in each of the quadrants. James Oglethorpe who led the first settlers to Savannah did not receive a charter from the king until nearly 40 years later. He, however, surpassed Penn as an urban developer, sketching his city before he ever sailed to the New World and basing the design on a system of 24 squares. The pattern for these small parks was quite precise. If you look at a map you can see that the town greens are evenly spaced, two streets apart in one direction and four in the other. Because the plazas are so close together one is always in sight of leaves, blossoms and shade, courtesy of Spanish moss cascading from live oaks. The early trustees hoped to make Savannah a garden colony.
City Market, Savannah (credit: Edwin Fancher)
Throughout the centuries the city suffered from waning fortunes and inevitable mishaps. Today, because its good bones survived and were helped by skillful gentrification, it is again one of the country's gems. Partly it was luck and later a strong dose of thoughtful management. Captured by General Sherman on his Civil War march through Georgia, Savannah was spared and given to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. The hostilities ended, but trade, built on cotton and rice, declined and the city center began to decay. In the 1950s a group of local women organized the Historic Savannah Foundation to rescue and restore old homes. Their success has transformed the 2.2-square-mile downtown area into the Historic District, encompassing all of Oglethorpe's original parks except two, which were bulldozed for municipal projects. The scale is small, but the beauty of the district is breathtaking. The architectural inven-tory includes facades of clapboard, limestone and brick and mansions and townhouses built in Federal, Regency, Greek Revival, English Georgian, American Gothic and Victorian styles.

At night the squares are lit by lamps that look as though they are illuminated with gas. During the Christmas season all the vest-pocket parks are decorated with ribbons, wreathes and holiday ornaments. Other sections deserving particular note are the old City Market area, which has been converted into a pedestrian streetscape with shops, restaurants, clubs and galleries and the Riverfront Plaza/River Street where the former site of the cotton exchange and warehouses was transformed into attractions for tourists.

The way to start your visit is by circling every square. Consult the map to see how effortless it is to ride around the downtown, driving the thoroughfares in a horizontal direction and then moving on to the next row so as not to bypass any of the parks. You will want to rediscover the same paths on foot, by carriage and tour bus, but their charm is so seductive that the experience bears repeating over again.

Bus tours, which start at the Visitor's Center, compete for the tourists' attention. Because John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" doubles as a first-rate guide, we recommend a "book tour" sponsored by three different companies. Several general tours offer unlimited on/off privileges and allow you to board at many shuttle stops. Schedule the carriage ride, leaving from City Market, in the evening when the town takes on a romantic glow.

For the citizenry Savannah is a state of mind, a place to feel a sense of community and where partying and socializing are ways of life. Even without reading "Midnight. . ." one would sense that Savannahians feel a passionate attachment to their heritage and their town. If you choose to spend the millennium here and are not acquainted with any locals who might ask you to a celebration, the city will invite you to theirs. It's held at the City Market where at midnight a giant peach followed by balloons was lowered into the plaza to mark the onset of 1998.

For more information call the Savannah Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-444 CHARM.


For a town its size Savannah has an unusual number of well-preserved and furnished historic house museums. Two of the most interesting are:

Isiah Davenport House, 324 East State Street. Tel. 912-236-8097. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Owens-Thomas House, 124 Abercorn Street. Tel. 912-233-9743. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 4:30.

Savannah History Museum is housed in the old Central of Georgia passenger station. A film and displays present an overview of the city's history.

Savannah History Museum, 303 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Tel. 912-238-1779. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences is the main art gallery and has a permanent collection of European and American paintings and sculpture.

Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, 121 Barnard Street. Tel. 912-232-1177. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Wormsloe Historic Site, the only remaining plantation grounds in the area, has a museum and interpreters of colonial life.

Wormsloe Historic Site, 7601 Skidaway Road. Tel. 912-353-3023. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5:30.

At the Fort Pulaski National Monument an interpretive program explains how the fort functioned during the Civil War.

Fort Pulaski National Monument, Highway 80 East, P.O. Box 30757. Tel. 912-786-5787. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.


A visit to Savannah demands a stay in a historic house; it's integral to the adventure. To choose another type of accommodations would almost negate the reasons for visiting. Whenever the shuttle tour bus stopped at the old inns to pick up boarding passengers we heard them rave about their lodging choices. Ditto for ours, the extravagant Victorian Kehoe House with fin-de-siècle moldings, facade, banisters, music room and oversized furnishings. There was even a chandelier in the bathroom looking out on Columbia Square, which was still illuminated at dawn by gaslight-type street lamps. We enjoyed sitting at the communal dining table and sharing a full breakfast with other guests. More opportunities to socialize take place at tea and cocktail time.

The Kehoe House, 123 Habersham Street. Tel. 800-820-1020, 912-232-1020. Rates begin at $195 including breakfast, tea and evening hors d'oeuvres and wine. www.kehoehouse.com


Tour guides are supposed to be impartial, but the young man who drove us around in a carriage recommended The Olde Pink House as the best restaurant in town and he, along with several food critics, might be right. For starters, the building is a Georgian mansion, circa 1771, whose plastered walls mysteriously changed from white to pink. Dinner is served in several small candelit dining rooms with fireplaces, wood beams and plenty of history. The home was the site of the first public reading of The Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson contributed to the architectural design.

Three cheers for the food. Although it is Southern in style, it was neither heavy nor greasy. Seafood--crab cakes, scallops, stuffed grouper and sauteed shrimp--seemed to be the chef's forte although pork tenderloin and duck were pleasing, too. Don't leave without sampling the mouth-watering desserts. For an after dinner drink head to Planter's Tavern on the lower level where you can hear Gail Thurmond sing and accompany herself on the piano. It's one of the local spots that makes Savannah famous for jazz.

The Old Pink House, 23 Abercorn Street. Tel. 912-232-4286. Open daily, dinner. Expensive.

Located in the City Market area Bistro Savannah, an informal eatery, is housed in a mercantile building dating from 1878. Savannah gray brick walls showcase a changing display of works by local artists. Floors are original heartwood and appointments include marble tables and wicker chairs. Chef Mark Gaylord is as much a historian as he is a cook. His cuisine--fresh market--evolved after much research into the traditional cooking style and ingredients that were used in the 19th century. Best bets are bouillabaisse of local seafood over saffron linguini and berry cobbler with burnt caramel ice cream.

Bistro Savannah, 309 Congress Street. Tel. 912-233-6266. Open daily, dinner. Moderately expensive.

Summer 1998