SAVANNAH, Ga.-In the beginning was the river. That's the way Walter J. Fraser begins his 2003 history, Savannah in the Old South. The Indians called the river Keowee, Spanish explorers Rio Dulce, and the French would refer to it simply as the Grande. But when the Carolinian settlers armed a tribe called the Savannahs and defeated all those laying claim, the river was once and for all renamed the Savannah.
Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe was less focused on the river, even though it was a major artery for trade, and more interested in establishing a settlement on the bluff 40 feet above it.
The British, spurred by Carolina colonists who feared an invasion from the Spaniards in Florida, created a plan to attract investors and settlers to establish "a Town on the River Savannah to be call'd by that name." On Nov. 17, 1732, Oglethorpe and an expedition of 114 colonists (including children) sailed down the Thames. When they reached their new home 18 miles up the Savannah from the Atlantic, the settlers climbed the bluff, pitched four tents, and slept on what is now the site of a downtown Hyatt Regency.
Oglethorpe, then 36, had a vision for the city of Savannah that went beyond military interests. An Oxford student who quit school to serve in Queen Anne's Guards, he was elected to Parliament while still in his 20s and served as head of the prison reform committee. While learning the conditions in London's debtors' prisons, he determined to amend the injustices and corruption he believed contributed to a permanent state of unemployment and poverty among the underclass.
By 1730 he had made common cause with Church of England clergyman Thomas Bray and hatched a plan for resettling London's "worthy poor" and the "distressed Protestants in Europe" to America.
Bray established missions in America, including work among Indians, and Oglethorpe volunteered to lead the Savannah expedition. A citizen-soldier himself, Oglethorpe envisioned a colony of citizen-soldiers owning small plots and without slaves producing crops and learning trades while protecting the colony-a prosperous, humanitarian buffer settlement between the Carolinas and Spanish Florida. Some called it an experiment in social utopianism. Oglethorpe, widely known for iron determination, planned to make it work.
Within 10 days of arriving on the bluff-then occupied by Indians-Oglethorpe issued to each family an iron pot, a frying pan, wooden bowls, a Bible, and a Book of Common Prayer. Resettling the group of mostly impoverished small merchants, artisans, unemployed laborers, and their families from one of the most crowded urban areas in the known world to a forested frontier in the still mostly unknown world proved difficult. But by spring workers had completed a blacksmith's forge, two huts, and nine framed houses. The houses were 16 feet wide by 24 feet long-centered on town lots that measured 60 feet wide by 90 feet deep. Oglethorpe's plan had begun.
The precision kept by Oglethorpe remains the genius of historic Savannah today. The general, who likely had studied Roman and other parade grounds, laid out the city in wards-each an area that could serve 40 family structures, four public functions, with a central open space or square of one acre.
Think of each ward consisting of four quadrangles. Each quadrangle contained one-fourth of the public square, one trust lot, and one tithing lot. The tithing, or tything, lots were so-called because they subdivided into 10 residential lots. The trust lots were reserved for public buildings and common purpose: Oglethorpe designated those lots for a church, a store, and often a mill or forge. The streets bounding each square were through-ways that allowed unimpeded traffic flow, but the internal streets stopped at the square, making them pedestrian-friendly, and the lanes became alleyways for servant's quarters and deliveries.
Urban historian John Reps describes the result as "America's most unusual city plan." It "used the power gained through municipal ownership of the common to shape growth in the public interest."
What Oglethorpe sought to accomplish-and in remarkable ways did-was to combine public and private space in the tightly knit neighborhoods of each ward, to blend socioeconomic classes, and to give attention to economic, social, and spiritual needs. And all of it he intended to have a human scale (or to put it another way, to be walkable).
In many ways it's what cutting-edge urban planners-most recently, New Urbanists-have been trying to accomplish ever since. "They don't copy Savannah, obviously, but they are trying to unlock its secrets," said Jonathan Stalcup, owner of Architectural Tours of Savannah, who earned his master's degree from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). "One thing they often miss is Oglethorpe's mixing of socioeconomic classes. He was trying to make everyone equal, but his utopian plan did not work out the way he wanted it to."
By the end of the 18th century, Savannah was a center of trade in the Americas with a commanding East Coast port. Prominent cotton merchants bought up some of the trust lots to build early renditions of 21st-century McMansions. Families living in the tithing lots acquired servants, and in some cases slaves (though Savannah had a thriving class of black freemen leading up to the Civil War). These tithing lots were divided-wealthier families facing the square, with servant classes living in the back lot by the alley.
While some trust lots were given over to housing, a few tithing lots became sites for churches. Independent Presbyterian Church (PCA) and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist are examples of churches built on tithing lots that remain vibrant houses of worship today. Christ Church, the first church apportioned a lot by Oglethorpe, today sits on the same site where it began in 1733 and is under the newly formed and theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America (see "Bricks and mortar").
The city did become a melting pot of diverse religious and ethnic groups, as Oglethorpe envisioned. In addition to the early Anglican settlers came Scottish Presbyterians, Moravians, Salzbergers, Irish Catholics, and even Jews from Portugal. But many wards became segregated, ghetto-like. Irish immigrants took up residence in newer wards at the outskirts of the city. "Free persons of color" had their own ward, too.
But "diversity within a logical framework," an Oglethorpe motto, also remained: In Monterey Square Jewish residents built a synagogue in the 1870s-one of the oldest in America and of rare Gothic style-on a trust lot flanked by the famous home of Confederate general Hugh Mercer. Today the square retains all its original buildings, except a trust lot that's now home to United Way offices. New Urbanist architect John Massengale, who keeps a popular architectural blog called Veritus et Venustas, calls Oglethorpe's original conception "the most intelligent grid in America, perhaps the world."
In addition to Oglethorpe's four original wards, or squares, eight were added in the 18th century and 12 in the 19th century-for a total of 24. What's striking is how much of the original plan-and original buildings-remains: Only two squares are considered by some preservationists as "lost" after 20th-century highway "improvements" paved over them.
What's also striking is how little of the Savannah plan has been copied elsewhere. Oglethorpe himself tried to lay out similar cities in the Georgia colony, but growth quickly overran his system.
The secret to Savannah's preservation? "It was too poor to modernize," said Stalcup. "It had its economic down periods at just the right moments."
In the 1950s and '60s, for example, while many cities cut into their core to widen roads for newer automobiles and bypasses, Savannah was an over-the-hill cotton town with a lapsed seaport and declining tax revenues. City fathers wanted the highways, said Stalcup, but lacked resources to build them. The squares all became overgrown, just waiting to be paved.
That's when preservationists, spurred by firesale prices, moved into the old neighborhoods and began to restore the 17th- and 18th-century residences. They formed neighborhood historical societies and garden clubs and began to care for the squares themselves. In 1966 they secured a National Historical Landmark designation for the downtown area, with further protection and a historic review board established in 1973.
Today the 22 preserved squares have matured into a leafy canopy of parks and public spaces that surpass any greenspace envisioned by postmodern, smart-growth urban planners. "It's a fascinating laboratory," said Stalcup. "There are parallels all across the country, but in Savannah it's all here."