People of a certain age are often accused of repeating the same old story until it becomes exquisitely tedious. So, Shirley and I have agreed with friends to use a hand signal: place your thumb and first two fingers together and tap them over your heart. It means, OK, we have heard that one enough already. Shirley is always too polite and patient to avail herself of the signal, but I’m not above flailing away like crazy trying to hit the pause button. Or ignoring the frantic signals of others if the storyteller is me.
In a recent column, I mentioned that we had been to Savannah, Georgia, our favorite city, 14 times. In October it became 15 times. Naturally I assumed that Savannah had been written about quite enough already. But a check of the records revealed that Savannah stories appear far less often than I had thought. If you are a particularly diligent reader of this column and are bored with Savannah already, just tap your chest and turn the page. Really. It’s OK.
Our love of Savannah starts with the historic architecture of the city, the basis for its popularity with most other tourists as well. That has not always been the case. Like many cities, Savannah went through a phase of urban blight before it was reborn. (Consider Toledo’s Old West End neighborhood.) This renaissance can be traced to the beginnings of the Historic Restoration movement in 1962 when the Davenport House just barely missed becoming a parking lot.
Before you can have a rebirth, though, you have to have a birth. Georgia was established as the 13th and final American colony in 1733 when General James Oglethorpe founded Savannah. The main purposes of the colony were to provide opportunities for poor English emigrants and to create a buffer zone protecting South Carolina from encroachment by the Spanish down in Florida. Oglethorpe immediately made friends with Indian Chief Tomo-chi-chi and secured his permission to build Savannah. Thus, the city managed to thrive without the conflict that sometimes characterized the origins of other colonies.
Tomo-chi-chi, by the way, deserves more attention than he usually gets. The chief was reportedly impressive in both physical and political stature. At the age of 84, he and his wife, Senauki, visited London where he was presented to the king at court and introduced to the Archbishop of Canterbury. At his own request, he was buried in Savannah among his English friends.
Oglethorpe laid out Savannah in a grid pattern that provided wide streets and 24 shaded public squares or parks for community gatherings, business centers, and elegant residences. Rather, the residences built 100 years later were elegant when the local economy prospered by exporting cotton and rice. Savannah was and remains a major international port. It is a little-known fact that the first steamship crossing of the Atlantic was made by the S.S. Savannah in 1819. Today, you can sit on a park bench along the river and watch the arrival and departure of cargo vessels and impressive 100-foot pleasure craft. Or tour the port in a faux stern wheeler like the Georgia Queen. Perhaps climb aboard a sailing ship that welcomes visitors.
History buffs will recall that Gen. Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea ended at Savannah. When Sherman had taken nearby Fort McAllister, city leaders came out to make nice so that beautiful Savannah would not be burned like Atlanta. Sherman was invited to use the Green-Meldrim Mansion as his headquarters. From there he sent a telegram to President Lincoln on Dec. 22, 1864, offering him Savannah as a Christmas present. You might want to visit both Green-Meldrim and Ft. McAllister. We camp at the fort when they have scheduled Civil War re-enactments and during the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival in October.
There are dozens of additional attractions worth your attention. For Shirley and me, the chief of these are located in the Historic District and the surrounding neighborhoods that are once again stunningly beautiful with fabulous private and museum homes lining each of the squares or parks. Each square is shaded by grand old live oaks draped with Spanish moss and features a monument or fountain.
The monuments include statues of Gen. Oglethorpe, of course, in Chippewa Square. Visitors who have never heard of Oglethorpe might recognize Chippewa Square as the location of the park bench where Forrest Gump talked about life as a box of chocolates. The bench itself was just a temporary movie prop, so you can’t get a selfie on it.
In Johnson Square is the monument to Gen. Nathanael Greene, second in command and close friend of George Washington. (He named his son George Washington Green.) Gen. Greene was a hero of the Revolution as leader of American forces in the South. Casimir Pulaski, whom you might think of as the Polish Lafayette, is honored in Monterey Square as a father of the American cavalry, for saving the life of George Washington, and for giving his own life in the defense of Savannah. Next to the City Market is an impressive monument to Les Chasseurs Volontaire de Saint Dominique, black volunteer troops from Haiti who fought for the Revolution.
For people who like to eat, there are choices ranging from high-end Low Country cuisine to traditional Southern cooking, barbecue, and Paula Deen. There are numerous opportunities for outstanding meals in every price range.
For music lovers, you can’t beat Savannah’s Favorite Son, Johnny Mercer, winner of four Academy Awards for best original songs. His statue is in recently restored Ellis Square, which was still occupied by a parking garage the first time we visited. (The restoration ladies saved Davenport but were too late getting to Ellis Square.) Another connection is the Mercer House, built by his great grandfather, Confederate Gen. Hugh Mercer, and still further back, another Gen. Hugh Mercer who served in the Revolution. Mercer County Ohio is named for this general who was mistaken for Washington at the battle of Princeton and bayoneted to death by the British.
The Mercer House is especially popular with tourists because it was the setting of the events represented in Clint Eastwood’s film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film and the best-selling novel on which it is based, called The Book in Savannah, are often credited with the huge surge in Savannah tourism because of its focus not only on the architecture but on some of Savannah’s quirkier residents. The Mercer House was once owned by the socially prominent antiques dealer and murderer Jim Williams played by Kevin Spacey. There are even specialized tours that take you to all the locations featured in the movie.
There are now about two dozen historic homes open for tours. Every time we visit it seems like there is another new old house worthy of attention. In addition to the Mercer House, now owned by Williams’s sister, you might consider touring…
- The Davenport House, in the Federal style, completed in 1820.
- The Owens-Thomas House, considered the finest example of the English Regency style in America. LaFayette addressed citizens of Savannah from its side balcony.
- The Harper-Fowlkes House, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1842.
- Birthplace and childhood home of writer Flannery O’Connor.
- Home of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.
- The pumpkin-colored Sorrel-Weed House, which was the site of marital infidelity, suicide, and death that could have come right from a Faulkner novel. Sorrel-Weed is featured on the Ghost Tour. Apparently, there are enough ghosts in Savannah to justify several tours based on that theme.
All of these magnificent homes, some of which occupy entire city blocks, contain original and/or authentic period furnishings and décor as well as intricate, fantastic woodwork, plasterwork, and staircases. More recently, the antebellum homes of the Historic District have been joined by the restoration of once derelict homes and mansions in the 50 blocks of the Victorian District. Craftsmen in all the skilled trades are constantly busy refurbishing and maintaining Savannah’s proud heritage.
In addition to the squares, you will want to visit Forsyth Park for its exceptional fountain, erected in 1858, reached by a long, wide, shady allee of live oaks festooned with the obligatory Spanish moss. We find it even more stunning when the azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwoods are in bloom. One spring we were invited to attend a wedding near the fountain. Very romantic, featuring bagpipers and bridesmaids whose gowns defied convention by actually being attractive.
While you are at Forsyth, take a stroll along adjoining Gaston and Whitaker Streets to admire still more beautiful homes such as the Georgian-Revival-style Mills B. Lane House. It has stately Ionic columns, a “swan’s neck” pediment, splayed lintels, and an ornate wrought-iron gate and fence. Directly across from the live oak allee that leads to the fountain is the Armstrong-Kessler House, the last built of the truly great mansions of Savannah. Its restoration was completed at the end of 2019 after it had served for decades as home to a small college and then as law offices.
And don’t miss Jones Street, which has been described as one of the most beautiful in America. The street is shaded by a canopy of live oaks, of course. The neighborhood itself is the attraction rather than individual mansions of special renown. Certainly, though, there are notable homes and gardens all along the street. Shirley and I make a practice of walking the entire length of the street, up one side and back the other, peeking through iron gates to admire private gardens or stopping to chat with residents we meet along the way. Savannahians are very sociable and welcoming to visitors—even Damn Yankees.
Our preferred way to see Savannah is on foot so we have time to pause and appreciate homes as our whims dictate. Other people, though, take advantage of guided tours that are sometimes conducted on foot but are more likely to be provided in buses, horse-drawn carriages, or even on Segways, those battery-powered, two-wheeled vertical scooters.
You will also want to stroll the nine blocks of River Street, cobbled with ballast from early sailing vessels. (Walk carefully. Cobblestones make the footing uneven, and the high steps of historic stone stairways can be a special challenge.) The street is lined with former cotton and rice warehouses that are now shops and restaurants. In the waterside park on River St. there is some sort of festival just about every weekend. While on River St., get a free sample of pecan pralines at the Savannah Candy Kitchen and nuts and other goodies at the Peanut Shop. Enjoy an upscale seafood lunch or dinner at the Shrimp Factory or the River House. If you are feeling especially confident, try a big brandy snifter of Artillery Punch. One little sip will blow you away. There are also numerous casual restaurants and pubs. Poke your head into some of the art galleries, specialty shops, and antique stores.
When we are in Savannah, we never miss yet another visit to Bonaventure Cemetery because of the sheer beauty of the place. At Bonaventure, the usual cemetery monuments truly are monumental and the usual live oaks are augmented by camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Toss some pennies onto the marble-covered tomb of Johnny Mercer. It’s the customary tribute to “Pennies from Heaven,” one of the more popular of his 1,500 or so compositions for Broadway and the movies. In similar fashion, the inscription on the gravestone of his wife Ginger is “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.”
Speaking of Mercer songs, when we are not at Fort McAllister we usually camp at Skidaway Island State Park. The park is reached via the bridge across Moon River. When Andy Williams was singing about it back in the 1960s, we thought it was just a poetic metaphor, but it turns out to be an actual river.
If you have a hankering for the beach, Tybee Island is just a few minutes away. Climb the stairs in the lighthouse for a panoramic view. Or, take a short drive down I-95 to see the Gilded Age mansions on Jekyll Island. Board a ferry, escorted by porpoises, out to Cumberland Island, home to a herd of wild ponies and the wedding site chosen by John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. Savannah is also just a short drive from Hilton Head and Beaufort, SC.
There are so many things to see and do on a trip to Savannah that you cannot exhaust them all in one trip. We return again and again to see everything that was old becoming new again. October and March-April are probably the best times to visit when the temperatures and humidity are just about ideal. I have heard people recommend the summer months because hotel rates are lower then. Shirley and I think there is a very good reason the rates are lower then. By mid-April, things are already getting a little on the sticky side. Still, no matter how often we visit, Savannah is always just a walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site. ❦