The Old Guard

 

t’s not an uncommon scene in Savannah these days: An office worker takes her lunch out to Johnson Square, plugs headphones into her iPod and takes in the casual bonhomie of her surroundings. Cars edge past towering bank buildings, neighbors catch up under the shade of a live oak and the world slows down around this locus of quiet expansion in a city bustling with energy. While the details of this moment could not possibly have been imagined when Oglethorpe first laid eyes on what was then just a stand of pine forest above the bluffs of the Savannah River, the scene has remained fundamentally unchanged for over two hundred years. Maybe the office worker was instead a shipping clerk escaping the bustle of the ports for his midday respite, the banking towers instead simple wood-framed homes in tidy rows and the neighbors currently chatting over lattes instead carry on over well-water and grazing livestock.

Change is inevitable in every city, but here the changes have been simultaneously monumental and as calculated and restrained as a game of chess between the venerated old guard and the ingenious avant-garde, with each trying to leave its own indelible mark on Savannah. Throughout its 274 years, the resiliency of the city’s legacy owes a great debt of gratitude to the immutability of a simple division between what belonged to the individual and what belonged to the people. Navigating this divide, a unique fabric woven from public and private spaces has survived the layers of time, bearing testament to the architects and planners who molded Savannah, and which has now been passed on to a new genera- tion who continue to uphold this tradition.

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To understand Savannah, as it exists today and how it might tomor- row, it helps to go straight to the source. James Edward Oglethorpe land- ed with his band of intrepid colonists on the banks of the Savannah River in 1733 with the intent of carving from the wilderness a new model of civil existence. After clearing the pine forest, the familiar Savannah grid was quickly laid out. An arrangement of wards subdivided into eight blocks around a central square, the grid was unique in urban planning and gave an unprecedented proportion of land to the public realm. The four trust lots to the east and west of the squares were retained to service the public good, explaining why today one often finds churches and civic functions in those spots. The four blocks to the north and south of each square were further subdivided into identical sixty-foot by ninety-foot lots upon which the colonists would stake their residences, reflecting Oglethorpe’s egalitarian vision for the new colony.

Immediately apparent, yet unfathomable in its nuance, the grid has been much analyzed in its form and function, but even today it remains to be decided where exactly the idea came from. Its resemblance to ancient Roman military garrisons or 17th century British settlements in Northern Ireland lend clues to possible sources, as Oglethorpe would have been familiar with both from his military experience. Even still, the debate lingers, but the impact of this enduring system of streets, lanes and squares is undeniable.

Oglethorpe initially laid out four wards—Johnson, Ellis, Reynolds and Wright—but the rational arrangement of interconnectable modules is theoretically infinite in its repetition, and as Savannah grew, so too did the grid. And while over time the lots might be divided into 30 or 20 foot wide sub-lots, and trust lots—as much prime real estate then as today— sometimes deviated from their civic purpose to house the grand maisonsvilles of Savannah’s emerging moneyed class, the fundamental arrangement of streets and wards has remained unwavering. This hard line between the public and private sectors, and the relegation of buildable area to within rigidly prescribed boundaries, has defined and maintained the pedestrian utility and human scale of the city even more so than zoning or city code.

While Forsyth Park marks the effective termination of the ward sys- tem, as one proceeds south along Abercorn Street, the gradual dissipation of the grid is almost palpable, a virtual timeline of Savannah’s growth and extension from urban center to suburban sprawl. While multiple flavors of urban planning are in evidence along the north-south corridor, Oglethorpe’s original intent is being revisited as the city looks to extend its urban center along its east-west axis. In an impressive display of collaboration between developers and city planners, the East Riverfront Neighborhood—or Savannah River Landing, depending on who you ask—will be the first proper extension of the ward system in over one hundred years. Facilitating this grand gesture from their Gordon Row office is the urban planning team of Sottile and Sottile.

Based in Savannah but with a portfolio of work that extends internationally, Christian and Amy Sottile bring to urban analysis and design a philosophy based on “old urbanism”—a point of view that looks across the layers of time to draw forth the human element of place memory in the urban environment. With their fingers in a lot of pies around town, including the civic planning efforts behind the East Riverfront Neighborhood and the Downtown Master Plan, and even more inti- mately scaled projects like the Brady Street Revitalization, Christian and Amy Sottile have devel- oped a special appreciation for the fundamental nature of the city. “What makes Savannah unique is how it strikes an incredible balance between public composure and private diversity,” Christian notes. “While the public network is Platonic in its arrange- ment, the potential development patterns are much more Aristotelian. Where much of development tries to organize the private sector, Savannah is an anomaly in that it puts such a heavy emphasis on public life and visibility.” Within the 54-acres that comprise the Savannah River Landing project, a sub- stantial serving has been devoted to public use; care- ful and calculated in its design and development, the project serves to emphasize that bridge between pub- lic and private on which Savannah was based. “The city allows people to be good citizens,” says Amy. “When you have to step out onto the street every morning and greet your neighbor, it creates a more cohesive society.”

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Where the public-private divide sets up the con- textual basis of Savannah’s urban fabric, the buildings that fill the spaces in between cannot be overlooked within the rubric of the city’s past, present and future. One man whose work left an indelible mark on Savannah’s built environment was New York architect John Norris. Splitting roughly 14 years in the mid-1800s between New York and Savannah, Norris was behind such a vast array of public build- ings and private residences that one can scarcely swing a dead cat in this city without hitting one of his buildings. The Massie School, Low House and Presbyterian Manse represent a very select few of his works here, and his portfolio reflects an astonishing felicity in both the classical and romantic styles.

Norris came to Savannah in 1846 as architect for the U. S. Customs House on Bay and Bull Streets. He was chosen over native son Charles Cluskey to head up the project—a slight to the local citizenry that lobbied hard for the Treasury Department to select Cluskey. One of Norris’ best recognized proj- ects was the Green-Meldrim House, built in 1853 for cotton trader Charles Green. The home, which cost $90,000 to build—an astounding amount at that time— is one of the earliest Gothic revival hous- es in Georgia, and is also among the finest examples of the style. The crenellated parapet wall caps the pink stucco exterior like a king’s crown, while oriel windows punctuate the north, east and south facades. Intricate iron lace encases the pagoda-roofed veranda, marked by a deceptively substantial wrought iron portico over the main entry to the south. Inside, the generous proportions of a more classical, Georgian spatial organization belie the more romantic exterior trappings, but as all things, heaven is in the details. Inside, a magnificent wrapped stair is topped by dome and oculus—a clever environmental response that allows hot air to rise and vent into the attic, and a theme repeated in differing iterations among Norris buildings. Sold in 1892 to Judge Peter Meldrim and sold again in 1943 to St. John’s Episcopal Church, the house has had only three owners in its 150-year life, and interesting ly, only three coats of paint. Any changes over the years were largely functional in nature, including electrification of the original gas lamps and installation of central heating and air in the 1960s. Otherwise the building remains fundamentally as Norris had designed it, even though its function today as parish house for St. John’s Church is a far cry from its original conception. Perhaps it owes its pristine condition to the genius of its design, as subsequent owners never felt the need to make any substantial renovations. But as Docent Jane Presley observes, “Both Green and Meldrim had large families, and now it houses another large family. We use this house for Sunday coffee hour, Bible classes and meetings. For the church, this is our home.”

The Mercer House, another Norris design from his later tenure in Savannah, has cast tendrils deep into the layers of Savannah’s history, inexorably tied to almost every ideation of what this city is today. Norris was originally engaged in 1860 to build the home for General Hugh Mercer (great grandfather of Johnny) but construction was interrupted by the onset of the Civil War, as both Norris and Mercer left Savannah. The unfinished structure was later sold to John Wilder, who brought on Norris’ associate, DeWitt Bruyn, to complete the project. While Norris’ original plans had been lost, it is believed, as quoted on August 13, 1866 in the Daily Morning News, “Messrs. Muller and Bruyn, who have a correct idea of the original plan, have submitted a drawing of the same…” While perhaps primary attribution can be debated, Norris can be directly read into every detail of the building. The luxe appointments— intricate moldings and millwork, generous scale, and classical proportions, even the grand curving stair topped by a glorious dome and oculus—all read Norris. Noted as the architect of “arches and light,” he incorporated basket handle arches throughout the design, most notably in the tran- soms over its floor-to-ceiling windows. The exteri- or features impressive elements of the Italianate vocabulary. Most notable are the grand Corinthian portico and over-scaled black iron window caps that stand in contrast to the tightly pointed Philadelphia Red bricks, but equally impressive is the broad roofline cornice, a staple of Italianate design. The house lay vacant for almost a decade before being bought and restored by Jim Williams in the 1960s and 70s. Mr. Williams was a pioneer of the preservation effort in Savannah, saving some fifty residences and helping spawn the movement that has brought Savannah to the state

in which it finds itself today. But of all the homes he had restored, the Mercer House was the one in which he chose to reside. A man of fine and eclectic tastes, Mr. Williams filled the house with his personal collection of art, antiques and curiosities, which today are on view to the public.

In Savannah today, much of the conversation on our built environment has centered on matters of preservation and sensitivity to the past in our new construction. There is a sense of stewardship for the legacy we have inherited, and while it can be generally pleasing to reference and replicate our rich high and vernacular architectural history, much is left unsaid in the architectural expression of the contemporary zeitgeist. One local architect who is pushing this dialogue forward is Dan Snyder. His creations make a profound statement as to the potential that exists here in the Coastal Empire, while simultaneously tipping the proverbial hat to his predecessors. Equally honored by the Historic Savannah Foundation as by local, state and regional chapters of the AIA, Snyder hung his shingle in 1991 over the same unassuming garden level office on East Gaston Street he operates out of today. Keeping a small office— only himself, one associate and an intern—he manages to keep the workload down to a select number of projects. The reason is simple. “When we had more employees, there was too much run- ning a business and worrying about payroll and not enough worrying about the architecture,” Snyder explains. “By being small I have to work on the buildings, and that’s what I want. I want to be an architect more so than being a businessman.” As an architect, he gravitates toward projects that look to participate in the contemporary discourse of archi- tecture, but in such a way that it allows the client, the site, its environmental components and the place memory to each have input into the conversa- tion. “Nostalgia is a huge part of contemporary architecture, but that does not mean mimicry,” he says. “An historic context is as much a parameter as the site, or the client’s requirement for three bed- rooms that must be designed to, and that enriches the whole project.”

Snyder’s Brooks House on Tybee Island conveys this sense of place memory and environmental response. A simple palette of wood and siding and a

spare composition of form lend an immediate evo- cation of a more functionalist vernacular—boat- houses and barns, the architectural legacy of a life dependant on the interface between land and sea. Propped up on pilings to protect the coastal dune below, the house wends its way through the existing tall pines. A gesture of respect for the site as much a practical response to the environmental immedia- cies of the island. The middle third of the house is visually removed, solid given way to void, to expose frame and fenestration. A dogtrot captures sea breezes and light to be funneled throughout the structure, creating both visual and actual connec- tion between resident, structure and site.

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Despite its rich history, or perhaps because of it, Savannah has its roots in forward-thinking opti- mism. Its civic plan and stately historic structures, what we might today view as evocative of Old World European charm, were cutting-edge innova-

tions for their times. Historicism did not deliver Oglethorpe and the passengers of the Anne to the foot of Yamacraw Bluff, and even the gothic nostal- gia undergirding Norris’ Green-Meldrim House was premised on the moral potential of mankind. The city, as it exists today, is not solely a product of its streets and lanes, nor solely of the venerable elder statesmen of its architecture. Instead, the city can only be defined in the interface that exists between these built elements and the collective will of its people. The responsibility that Savannah’s denizens have inherited is not merely to preserve the city’s past at the expense of its future, but to reconcile the two as faces of the same coin. Looking to the future, one cannot responsibly ignore the precedent left to us, but the conversation is not one-sided, and equally important today are those who seek to spark a dialogue with the past in crafting the vision of what Savannah might be generations from now.

—ts