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Countdown to Savannah: Historic Preservation in Savannah

Written by AppalAnnie

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

Historic Savannah Foundation

As kaydee has already indicated here, James Oglethorpe may very well have been the first city planner in America. The genius of Oglethorpe’s design for Savannah, with its grid of wide streets and public squares (see this and this Countdown), undoubtedly served as an inspiration to later generations who made concerted attempts to preserve this marvelous heritage.

Unfortunately, though, the beauty of Oglethorpe’s original plan was not always or consistently honored. By the 1940’s, many notable buildings in the Historic District had already been demolished to create parking lots, and some squares had been bisected by streets or fire lanes. It was the demolition of the 1870 City Market and the planned demolition of the 1821 Davenport House, especially, that prompted seven local women to organize the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955.

In the absence of local zoning laws, the Foundation set about to develop a strategy to promote preservation through the use of private funds. Over the next few years, the Foundation developed a comprehensive architectural inventory of buildings within the area, which was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1966. Over 1100 structures eventually were identified and evaluated.

The Foundation purchases, but does not restore, buildings itself. Instead, it transfers ownership to people who are willing to restore them according to covenants included in the deeds. Their efforts were further aided by the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1969.

In recent years, SCAD, the Savannah School of Art and Design, has played a significant role in historic preservation in Savannah, as well as in the wider geographic area. Rather than describe their efforts myself, I thought it might be interesting to have this done by someone directly involved in these projects. Consequently, through the kind assistance of Melissa Wheeler, Media Relations Manager at SCAD, Professor Connie Pinkerton, the chair of their Historic Preservation program, agreed to answer questions I e-mailed to them. Below are my questions and Professor Pinkerton’s responses.

1) How, if at all, did Savannah's early history, such as Oglethorpe's plan with its multiple squares, influence the later development of historic preservation in Savannah?

ANSWER: The downtown portion of Savannah was listed on the National Register of Historic places due to its intact 18th-century city plan. When General James Edward Oglethorpe landed here in 1733, he laid out the plan of streets and squares that we still see today. I dare to say that if Oglethorpe sailed up the Savannah River today, he would – after a little shopping on River Street, a pint at Moon River, and some fried chicken at Paula Deen’s – recognize the city he left nearly 300 years ago. It is important to note that SCAD managed to expand to such a degree without negatively impacting this significant imprint of the past.

2) What have been the subsequent contributions of SCAD to the city, and how does it function today?

ANSWER: In the 30 years since the College’s founding, preservation has been the driving philosophy as SCAD has rehabilitated over 60 historic buildings for reuse. It is important to note that the rehabilitation has not only been of the buildings, but of the surrounding neighborhoods as well. The College is located in four National Register Historic Districts and two National Historic Landmark Districts. Each of these neighborhoods has felt the impact of preservation – through the physical changes to the buildings as well as the economic revitalization caused by the influx of new populations.

3) How and why was SCAD's program in historic preservation established, and what is its current status and focus?

ANSWER: When the Savannah College of Art and Design opened in 1979, one of the first majors was Historic Preservation. In fact, it was one of the earliest preservation programs in the country and remains one of only 13 undergraduate programs. Students can earn a BFA, MA, or MFA degree as well as a graduate certificate. The certificate and the MA degree are also available online through an award-winning E-Learning program.

4) How do SCAD's students in this program benefit from being in a city with such a dedicated focus on historic preservation, and what do they contribute to local efforts today?

ANSWER: The program is broad-based, and prepares students for a wide range of careers in the field. The city of Savannah serves as a living laboratory for preservation students who are frequently seen around town with their trademark clipboards and cameras. SCAD is currently working with the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF) on the restoration of the Kennedy Pharmacy building on Broughton Street. HSF owns the building, and Professor Jim Abraham is the project manager. Students have also worked on restoration projects at the Flannery O’Connor House, the Andrew Low House, the Lucas Theater, the Universalist Church, the Nicholsonborough Baptist Church, and others. Students this quarter are traveling to Ossabaw Island each week for preservation work there.

5) What should visitors to Savannah know and appreciate about the history and ongoing process of historic preservation in the city and region?

ANSWER: Visitors to Savannah should know that it is because of historic preservation we all have this beautiful city to share. And whereas we have a lot of museums, we are not a ‘museum city’. What I mean is, people live and work and play in these old buildings. They have been saved to use – not saved to put on a pedestal. That is a philosophy we instill in our students.

6) What insights about historic preservation might visitors to Savannah take away with them that they could use where they live?

ANSWER: When I think about what insights visitors to Savannah might bring away with them ... tourists come and take in the whole of Savannah – the buildings, the squares, the trees, the food, the flowers, the heat. I would like them to imagine what the city would be like without any one of these things. Then I would like them to do the same thing in their own communities – ask themselves what it is that makes their home special. And ask if those things (be they tangible things like buildings, parks, trees and views, or the intangible things like scents and tastes and sounds) are at risk. And would they be missed?

Resources

All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)


Author: AppalAnnie is a retired college professor with interests in people, places, and public affairs; history; music of all kinds (with a few exceptions), especially "classic" folk, blues, bluegrass, and jazz; awesome vistas; Appalachian culture (e.g., folktales and music); and Judaica.


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