Historic Savannah: A Destination, Not A Pass-Through

November 23, 2011 83 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In this new special series, Metro Jacksonville will highlight what several peer cities across the country have created and are implementing to become destinations and not pass-throughs. Two hours north of Jacksonville is a community now internationally known for an economy driven by its historic preservation efforts: Savannah.

About Historic Savannah

Savannah's historic district is the heart and soul of the city. Rich in history, architecture and Southern charm, we think you'll love Savannah's historic district as much as we do. Stroll down cobblestone streets, visit historic squares filled with old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, discover her grand mansions and amazing ironwork. See why we say there is no other city quite like Savannah. A little quirky, but always captivating, a visit to Savannah is an experience you will always treasure.

Officially designated a Historic Landmark District in 1966, the 2.2 square mile area runs from E. Broad Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., and from the Savannah River to Gaston Street. Lovingly and painstakingly preserved, Savannah’s historic district is one of the largest in the U.S. with more than 1100 historically and architecturally significant buildings, including examples of Federal, Victorian Regency, Greek and Gothic Revival, and Italianate architecture. More than 800 of these buildings were restored using the original paint colors; Savannah blues, greens, reds and pinks.

Tragically, in the 1950s, many of Savannah’s historic buildings were demolished. But when the Davenport House was threatened, seven angry and determined women stepped up and formed the historic Savannah Foundation to purchase and preserve this historic home, saving it just 24 hours before the scheduled demolition. The Historic Savannah Foundation continues to be a major force in Savannah’s redevelopment and revitalization.

Renovation and restoration continues. Over the centuries, Savannah has survived war, fires, and demolition, but the Hostess City of the South has never been more beautiful.

Forsyth Park

Forsyth Park is a large city park that occupies 30 acres in the historic district bordered by Gaston Street on the north, Drayton Street on the east, Park Avenue on the south and Whitaker Street on the west. It contains walking paths, a Cafe', a children's play area, a Fragrant Garden for the Blind, a large fountain, Tennis courts, BasketBall courts,areas for soccer/frizbee, and home field for Savannah Shamrocks Rugby Club. From time to time, there are concerts held at Forsyth to the benefit of the public.

The park was originally created in the 1840s on 10 acres of land donated by William Hodgson. In 1851, the park was expanded and named for Georgia Governor John Forsyth. By 1853, all original planned wards of Savannah were occupied and a large public park was added to the extreme south end of the city plan. This park was anticipated by General James Oglethorpe's plan and was made possible by a donation of 20 acres of land owned by Forsyth.

Broughton Street

Free on-street parking.


The Port of Savannah's extensive facilities for oceangoing vessels line both sides of the Savannah River approximately 18 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Operated by the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA), the Port of Savannah competes primarily with the Port of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina to the northeast, and the Port of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Florida to the south.

Between 2000 and 2005 alone, the Port of Savannah was the fastest-growing seaport in the United States, with a compounded annual growth rate of 16.5 percent (the national average is 9.7 percent).

On July 30, 2007, the GPA announced that the Port of Savannah had a record year in fiscal 2007, becoming the fourth-busiest and fastest-growing container terminal in the United States. The GPA handled more than 2.3 million Twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of container traffic during fiscal 2007 -- a 14.5 percent increase and a new record for containers handled at the Port of Savannah. In the past five years, the port's container traffic has jumped 55 percent from 1.5 million TEU handled in fiscal 2003 to 2.3 million TEU in fiscal 2007.

Selling Quality of Life As An Economic Driver

Savannah is a beautiful city. Residents living in Savannah spend their free time the way other people spend their vacations. Furthermore, young professionals have made Savannah a destination of choice – trading in major-metro stress and suburban sprawl for the city’s wide range of cool new and old neighborhoods.

A magnet for talent, Savannah’s beauty has long inspired artists and musicians to reside in the city. With more than 60 in the area, Savannah has over 200% more art galleries per capita than New York City! With that said, the Historic District itself is living art. In 2006, the Savannah Area Convention & Visitors Bureau reported over 6.85 million visitors to the city during the year. Lodging, dining, entertainment, and visitor-related transportation account for over $2 billion in visitors' spending per year and employ over 17,000.

But don’t let the quaint, preserved, historic district theme fool you. Behind Savannah’s historic fašade are vibrant, forward-thinking residents and a progressive business community. Underneath the cobblestone streets lies 38,000 miles of fiber optic cable. With the fastest growing port in the nation and a booming tourism industry, Savannah enjoys a diverse economy that also includes manufacturing, healthcare, government/military, as well as a growing number of creative and technical businesses.
source: http://www.seda.org

SCAD: An Economic Driving Force

Savannah College of Art and Design was founded in 1978 by Paula S. Wallace, Richard Rowan, May Poetter and Paul Poetter. In 1979, SCAD opened its doors with five trustees, four staff members, seven faculty members, and 71 students. At that time, the school offered eight majors. In May 1981, the first graduate received a degree. The following year, the first graduating class received degrees. In 1982 the enrollment grew to more than 500 students, then to 1,000 in 1986, and 2,000 in 1989. In 2010, the university enrolled 10,461 students.

The college is engaged with the city of Savannah and the preservation of its architectural heritage. By restoring buildings for use as college facilities, the college has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Historic Savannah Foundation and the Victorian Society of America. The college campus now consists of 67 buildings throughout the grid and park system of downtown Savannah. Many buildings are located on the famous 21 squares of the old town, which are laden with monuments, live oaks and an undeniable Southern-Gothic feel that is sought by the many movies filmed there.

The college's first academic building was the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, which was purchased and renovated in 1978-79. Built in 1892, the Romanesque Revival red brick structure is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally named Preston Hall, the building was renamed Poetter Hall in honor of co-founders May and Paul Poetter. SCAD soon expanded rapidly, acquiring buildings in Savannah's downtown historic and Victorian districts, restoring old and often derelict buildings that had exhausted their original functions.

Most students live off-campus, outside of the residence halls, as there are no formal campus grounds other than those contained by the building properties themselves. In Savannah, there are 11 buildings that provide student housing and range from one-person to three-person, single-room residence halls or to four-bedroom student apartments. The residence halls are Weston House, Dyson House, Oglethorpe House, Turner House, Turner Annex, Pulaski House, Forsyth House, Boundary Village, Alice House, The Terrace, and Barnard Village.

Ellis Square: Building Upon Already Achieved Success

The city of Savannah was laid out in 1769 around four open squares. The plan anticipated growth of the city and thus expansion of the grid; additional squares were added during the 18th and 19th centuries, and by 1851 there were twenty four squares in the city. Most of Savannah's squares are named in honor or in memory of a person, persons or historical event, and many contain monuments, markers, memorials, statues, plaques, and other tributes. In the 20th century, three of the squares were demolished or altered beyond recognition, leaving twenty one. In 2010, one of the three "lost" squares, Ellis, was reclaimed.

Ellis Square is located on Barnard between Bryan and Congress Streets. It was named after Henry Ellis, second Royal Governor of the Georgia colony. It was also known as Marketplace Square, as from the 1730s through the 1950s it served as a center of commerce and was home to four successive market houses. Prior to Union General Sherman's arrival in December 1864 it was also the site of a slave market. In 1954 the city signed a fifty-year lease with the Savannah Merchants Cooperative Parking Association, allowing the association to raze the existing structure and construct a parking garage to serve the City Market retail project. Anger over the demolition of the market house helped spur the historic preservation movement in Savannah. When the garage's lease expired in 2004, the city began plans to restore Ellis Square. The old parking garage was demolished in 2006 to make way for a new public square (park) that features open spaces for public concerts, as well as an underground parking garage. The underground facility was completed and formally dedicated in January 2009. Meanwhile, hotel, residential and commercial space on adjacent properties has been renovated concurrently with the Ellis Square project. The restoration of the square itself, begun in the spring of 2008, was completed in February 2010. Ellis Square officially reopened at a dedication ceremony held on March 11, 2010. A bronze statue of songwriter-lyricist Johnny Mercer, a native Savannahian, was formally unveiled in Ellis Square on November 18, 2009.

For Jacksonville's Consideration

At the heart of Savannah is a 2.5-square-mile downtown district filled with shops, cafes, green squares, and 18th and 19th century preserved architecture.

Savannah isn't an "Anywhere, USA" city, where the original character of the place has been eclipsed over time. It is unique, and thriving with a tradition of commerce balanced by exquisite coastal beauty and warm historic charm. Savannah residents spend their free time the way other people spend their vacations.  Easily mixing business with pleasure, and the past with the present, is as much a part of the people here as the Spanish moss gracing the tremendous live oak trees.  This is mainly due to preserving and promoting its history and turning it into an economic driving force that sets it apart from its competitors.

In short, Savannah is another community that has invested in itself, its history, heritage, and culture to become a destination and not a pass-through.  If Jacksonville's leaders and residents want to turn the corner, its time to think along the same lines of investing in the city itself.

Article and photographs by Ennis Davis.