It’s hip to be square in Savannah. (And yes, we qualify!)
Well, at least it’s hip to do squares in Savannah.
General James Oglethorpe, the most revered gentleman in the state of Georgia (with the possible exception of Uga, the University of Georgia mascot), laid out the city of Savannah in 1733 with a square established for each ward in the community.
Who gets your vote?
Oglethorpe’s four original squares overlook the Savannah River. By the mid-nineteenth century, the “hostess city of the South” boasted twenty-four squares, of which three were demolished or altered in the twentieth century. One of those, Ellis Square. was reclaimed and dedicated to favorite Savannah son and songwriter Johnny Mercer in 2010.
When I have asked people who have been there, what is Savannah like?, I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer. “It’s great”, people will say. “It’s a must-see,” they will tell you. But that doesn’t really explain the place and now I understand, because I can’t adequately explain it either. It is not Charleston, that’s for sure. In fact, I guess it is not like any other place I’ve ever been.
There are the antebellum houses, preserved because General Sherman, instead of continuing his “March to the Sea” through Savannah in December of 1864, decided it was too pretty to burn and instead presented the city to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. There is the river and its environs, scented with commerce and a whiff of the bawdiness that traditionally characterized that part of the city over the past two and a half centuries.
There is a taste of too-close air even in cooler months, presaging the sticky humidity that keeps things slow there in summer. And there are the towering live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss, reigning benignly over the city’s squares which greet you every few few blocks as you explore the town. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you will get next: each square is unique unto itself.
The CE decided that the best way for us to experience Savannah would be to visit each of the existing twenty-two squares. We only made it to seventeen of them, which assures a return trip to pick up the remainder. We quickly chose our favorites: for me it was Whitfield Square with its lovely gazebo.
We both did our pre-Savannah homework by reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and when we made the requisite pilgrimage to the book’s setting on Monterey Square, the CE instantly declared it his favorite. Monterey Square is one of Savannah’s prettiest and it is surrounded by beautifully-restored townhouses including the Mercer-Williams house which figures prominently in John Berendt’s book, which occupied the New York Times best-seller list for a then unprecedented 216 weeks.
We weren’t the only ones traversing the squares. We came across many other couples on a similar journey, armed with maps or, like me, with Paul Bland’s The Savannah Walking Tour & Guidebook. You can also download a walking guide of Savannah’s squares.
Of course, not everyone visits Savannah for the history. There is a definite party scene vibe wafting through the town, from the beer-stained floors of the pubs along the river up to the stately townhouses overlooking the squares. As John Berendt says in his book “If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, “What’s your business?” In Macon they ask, “Where do you go to church?” In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is “What would you like to drink?”
What can I tell you about Savannah? It’s great! It’s a must-see! And I’ll share a bit more in my next post…