Squares of Savannah
located throughout downtown Savannah
Submitted by: Thomas Erwin
These 22 legendary, 18th and 19th century public squares were designed to be - and still are - an integral part of downtown Savannah.
This "noble sequence of wooded and gardened squares . . . form[s] the glory of the city" William Dean Howells wrote almost 100 years ago. The Squares are set out within a unique grid of streets and "lanes" (or alleys) that follows a pattern established by General James Oglethorpe when he founded Savannah in 1733. It is "the most intelligent grid in America, perhaps the world," says the urbanist author and architect John Massengale. Oglethorpe's plan of squares and streets for Savannah is "so exalted that it remains as one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence," claimed the Philadelphia planner and author Edmund Bacon. The American Society of Civil Engineers has designated Oglethorpe’s plan a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and in 1994 the Savannah city plan was nominated by the Federal Interagency Panel to the UNESCO World Heritage List. In Savannah Oglethorpe is "hailed appropriately, as the city father, a visionary, and mentioned regularly in the public discourse, not unlike the framers of the U.S. Constitution." (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck) The Squares are the heart of the plan.
All of the Squares are about 200 feet from north to south, but they vary east to west from a maximum of over 300 feet to a minimum of little more than one hundred feet. The largest squares are thus about three times the size of the smallest.
The genius is in the details. Every square is set in the middle of a "ward," typically a nearly square rectangle of about 600 feet per side. Every square is bounded on the north by a narrow one-way street running east to west and on the south by a narrow one-way street running west to east. Typically each side of a square is intersected by a wider two-way street. The wards, themselves, are bounded on the north and south by wide east-west through streets.
". . . [T]he grid pattern of Savannah . . . is like no other we know in its fineness and its distinguishable squares. . . . [O]nce seen it is unforgettable, and it carries over into real life experience. See it . . ., in person, on the ground, and it is not difficult to draw. See it in plan, on a map, and you will recognize it on the ground," writes Allan Jacobs in Great Streets.
The Squares are now planted largely in live oaks that provide a magnificent tree cover especially appreciated in Savannah's semi-tropical climate. All squares have attractive and convenient seating, two have gazebos, and one has active recreational uses. Many have fountains and monuments at their centers. The monuments include one in Chippewa Square of Oglethorpe, himself, by the noted sculptor Daniel Chester French; one in Monterey Square honoring Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish general who was killed leading American forces at the Siege of Savannah in 1779; and a coming monument in Franklin Square honoring Haitian volunteers who fought along with Pulaski and the Americans. A massive granite boulder in the southeast quadrant of Wright Square honors Tomochichi, the Yamacraw Mico (or chieftain) who befriended Oglethorpe and allowed him to settle.
What Makes Squares of Savannah a Great Place?
Each square can be approached from eight public rights of way: one each from the north and south and three each from the east and west. Although all downtown streets carry substantial daily traffic, there are no stoplights at any intersection surrounding any square. As Miss Harty said to John Berendt in Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil, "the thing I like best about the squares is that cars can't cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace. The squares are our little oases of tranquility."
Persons walking have the right of way, and typically the broad sidewalks lining the wide streets continue across squares, so that a person can walk from square to square to square, crossing street after street without having to stop for a car. Downtown Savannah has not needed to be "pedestrianized." As Beth Reiter, Savannah’s Preservation Officer, writes: "the plan’s ingenious flexibility has accommodated the automobile while preserving a pedestrian pace."
Because the "pace" of life is so leisurely in downtown Savannah there are many other transportation options to reach the squares besides walking and the automobile. The transit system operates a free trolley that wends its way around a number of squares, as well as offering conventional bus routes. Horse-drawn carriages and charabancs and pedicabs appeal to tourists; bikes, scooters and rollerblades, to students. In the last few years convention-goers and guests at the Westin Savannah Harbor Hotel have been able to reach the squares by a two-minute ferry ride.
Because the Squares are so accessible, they are also very visible, and as a person leaves one square another often comes into view immediately. As Allan Jacobs notes, there are 530 intersections in the square mile of Savannah's downtown, more on average than in almost any city in the world without canals. The Squares of Savannah are as accessible and linked to their surroundings as any parks in the world.
Visitors to Savannah are often stunned by their first experience of her Squares. Their reaction was well-put by the urbanist writer James Howard Kunstler: "It's an incredibly beautiful place. Savannah is like being on another planet that vaguely has US characteristics, but you're not on the same earth. It's freaky." "La plus belle ville dans l'Amerique du Nord," the most beautiful city in North America, wrote a reporter for Le Monde covering Olympic sailing events held near Savannah in 1996.
But this extraordinary beauty has been hard-earned, the result of over a century of vision, patient determination, and hard work by countless citizens. For the last 20 years the City has striven to achieve a "resort quality" appearance in the Squares - to make the "public realm" the equal of the private. The Squares have become Savannah’s image in the minds of millions throughout the world. Perhaps for no other city in the world are parks so integral to its cultural identity. Like all cities Savannah has crime and poverty, but the City has committed to maintaining the safety and attractiveness of its Squares not only for tourists but for all its citizens.
Millions enjoy the Squares every year. Savannah is a city of about 140,000, yet she hosts 5.5 million visitors a year drawn by her extraordinary beauty and vitality. (1.3 million check in at the Visitors’ Center alone, and many thousands of Girl Scouts make pilgrimages to Savannah, the hometown of their founder, Juliette Gordon Low.) Every day thousands of tourists walk through and drive or ride around the Squares, entranced.
But Savannah is a living city and not a museum or a theme park. Every day thousands of Savannahians - downtown residents, workers and students - drive, ride, bike (or rollerblade) around the squares or crisscross them on foot on their way home, to work, to school, to play, to worship, to shop, to study, to visit, to dine, to celebrate and to mourn. They often stop to speak with friends and neighbors and some graciously field questions from tourists. As a travel writer recently wrote, Savannahians can be "achingly polite."
Because the squares are so many and so varied, they are bordered by a wide diversity of land uses, ranging from modest houses to tall office buildings. Because lots within the Oglethorpe plan are relatively shallow and are typically bounded by alleys to the rear, buildings meet the streets and squares in an urban manner, creating spacious outdoor "rooms."
The Oglethorpe plan differentiates lots to the east and west of Squares, which are larger, surrounded by public rights of way, and were originally intended for public purposes, from lots to the north and south of Squares, which are smaller and were originally intended for private use. “Oglethorpe designed the squares to be public spaces surrounded by mixed uses. Today that tradition continues as institutional, governmental, residential and commercial uses blend together to create our vibrant historic district and community,” writes Lise Sundrla, Executive Director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. No square is surrounded exclusively by residential uses, and only a few do not have some surrounding residential uses. The current urban trend toward “mixed use” has been Savannah’s history for 270 years.
The squares are home to a number of cultural institutions and museums, including the Telfair Museum of Art, the recently restored Lucas Theatre, and the Savannah Theatre, on the oldest theater site in continuous use in the United States. Many government buildings face squares including the Post Office, the Federal courts and other Federal agencies, and State and local offices. Private institutions on squares include the Red Cross, the International Seamen’s House, and the Rose of Sharon Apartments. 13 churches and synagogues adjoin squares, including the synagogue of the third oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, the largest Roman Catholic church in the Southeast, and the oldest African-American church in North America.
The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is a private arts college that has grown to an enrollment of over 6000 students in 25 years. SCAD has restored, renovated or re-used 58 buildings in Savannah, representing an investment of more that $78 million. SCAD has made the city its campus and many of its classrooms, offices, galleries, athletic facilities and student housing adjoin squares. The many and varied activities of its students, faculty and staff add greatly to the life of the Squares.
The Squares can be rented, so weddings and wedding receptions, luncheons and other private activities take place frequently. The City’s policies and protocols keep these private uses from unduly interfering with the use and enjoyment of the Squares by the public and nearby residents. Some squares are noted for annual events, such as the Blessing of the Pets in Troup Square, and block parties and neighborhood gatherings are common.
The Squares are the scenes of public celebrations such as the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade (touted as the second largest in America), and the City routinely sponsors music ensembles in Johnson and Wright Squares where van loads of seniors, office workers and visiting girl scouts all picnic and listen under the live oak trees. But perhaps the Squares are best loved for the pleasure and enjoyment they give individuals every day.
Magnificent live oak canopies, wide brick sidewalks, inviting benches, refreshing fountains, intriguing monuments and public art, and the feeling of being in beautiful outdoor rooms produce an almost palpable sense of ease and pleasure in most of the users of Savannah's downtown squares and parks, young and old, black and white, tourist and Savannahian, alike.
A recent visitor, while people-watching in the Squares, noted, "when one looks closer . . . a picture of a true Savannah native takes shape and makes me, at least, smile. It’s something in the gait . . . I can almost see in many such faces a chuckling, as if the person is remembering a recent funny experience and invoking it again in their eyes.”
History & Background
The Squares inspired the legendary historic preservation movement in Savannah that has resulted in the preservation of thousands of historic buildings over the past 50 years. The destruction in 1954 of the City Market that stood on Ellis Square and the near destruction of the Isaiah Davenport house that still stands on Columbia Square catalyzed the formation of the Historic Savannah Foundation which has been Savannah’s flagship preservation organization ever since. As the late Mills Lane wrote, “the most enlightened preservationists are trying to restore more than buildings. They wish to restore a sense of community and of humane and civilized values in an age of bigness and speed and, too often, of loneliness, fear and conflict.”
Ironically, the lease for the parking garage that replaced the City Market on Ellis Square will expire at the end of 2004, and the City has committed to reclaiming the Square for more appropriate public uses. Last year the City sponsored a remarkable public charrette to consider how Ellis Square should be used and how it should look after the parking deck is gone. The City in collaboration with SCAD has also committed to the creation of a new Elbert Square, which will occupy some of the land of the original square that was lost when the Civic Center was constructed in the early seventies.
The Squares are so beautiful and well-loved and most of the buildings surrounding them, so handsome, that the City and its citizens are determined that any new development be appropriate in scale and appearance. This determination took the form of law with passage of the Historic Preservation Ordinance of 1973 which was strengthened in 1997 when the City adopted a Manual for Development in the Historic District, clearly stating the parameters within which new development can take place.
For over 200 years, "the City's dedication to the ideals and vision of Oglethorpe [has] remained a moving force" that has led to the development of Forsyth Park, Emmet Park, and Colonial Park Cemetery within downtown itself, as well as many other "active" and "passive" parks which include a vintage minor league ballpark and a Donald Ross-designed municipal golf course. The developers of Ardsley Park, one of Savannah’s most beautiful early twentieth-century neighborhoods and now part of an Historic District, deliberately copied the squares, although siting them off center of thoroughfares.
Forsyth Park lies immediately south of the Oglethorpe grid and within easy walking distance of all the Squares. Laid out as a formal city public garden, today it offers a children's playground, tennis and basketball courts and substantial playing fields for "pick-up" athletics and is often used for picnics, art shows, and concerts.
Emmet Park is a green spine stretching three blocks between Bay Street and Factors’ Row along Yamacraw Bluff with views across the River to the new Convention Center and offers yet another downtown oasis to visitors, workers, and residents alike.
The Oglethorpe "vision is witnessing the creation of an entirely new series of public parks," including a square surrounded by new and renovated affordable housing and a square fronting an historic African-American church adjoining public housing.. The Park and Tree Commission was established in 1896 to protect the already existing magnificent tree cover and to "assure the orderly forestation and beautification of" the city. Today the City continues to "increase its commitment and support for its urban forest . . ." Since 1996 the urban forestry staff has grown from 18 to 25, including seven certified arborists. The National Arbor Day Foundation has recognized Savannah as a Tree City USA since l985 and awarded it Tree City USA Growth Awards seven times in the last eight years.
The Squares have contributed significantly to the revitalization of Broughton Street, Savannah’s principal downtown shopping street. Despite the initial successes of the historic preservation movement, Broughton Street languished as a retail center. 11 squares, however, lie within 250 feet of Broughton Street, and as the Squares stabilized and residents returned, the City began a concerted and aggressive effort to bring back its "Main Street." Today Broughton Street attracts national retailers such as the Gap, Banana Republic, Starbucks, and Birkenstock, while attracting new local retailers and retaining long-time businesses, such as Levy Jewelers and the Globe Shoe Company, which have been on the street for over 100 years. Since 2000, 210 new businesses, 860 new jobs and more than $103.8 million in private investment have occurred within the Broughton Street Urban Redevelopment Area and the adjacent MLK and Montgomery Street Corridor, the city's historic center for the African-American community.
As Savannah’s tourism burgeoned over the past two decades, many came to believe that a new convention center was needed. By then no one wanted to propose any downtown site that would adversely affect the Historic District or any of the remaining Squares. The solution was the new Savannah International Trade and Convention Center and Westin Savannah Harbor Hotel which have been constructed on Hutchinson Island across the Savannah River from the Savannah waterfront.
"More than a quarter millennium has passed since the passengers from the Good Ship Anne waited in the cold damp February air while Oglethorpe laid out the streets and squares which are still the essence of Savannah. Without the plan, little that is admirable about this city could have occurred . . [T]he Squares are the sine qua non of ‘Savannah Style’; social life, the economic heart of the area, the religious and artistic endeavors, even the political and justice systems – all are intimately enmeshed in the little green parks that simultaneously separate and bring together the community." Chan Sieg
Savannah can continue to claim (with a bow to Auden) that her squares are
Her North, her South, her East and West,
Her working week and her Sunday rest,
Her noon, her midnight, her talk, her song.
Lise Sundrla, Executive Director, Savannah Development and Renewal Authority: 912 651-6973
518 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Savannah, GA 31401
- Heritage Konpa Magazine
- Savannah Now
- Tomochichi Memorial
- 1994 Nomination of Savannah Squares to the UN World Heritage List