In the beginning

"In the beginning" Continued...

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

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."


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