Landscape History, Parks, Public Realm

Savannah: City of Parks and Squares

March 21, 2014

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“A Sense of Urgency and a Need for Simplicity.”  That is what Birgitte Svarre, coauthor of the book How to Study Public Life, posits in a recent post about cities and the field of “public life studies” on Gehl Architects’ blog, Cities for People.   You might be thinking (since more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities) that of course, cities are for people and wonder what the sense of urgency is all about.  Or you might wonder how public life studies, which according to Svarre “deals with people’s behavior, the built environment and how we can make cities better for people” relates to simplicity.

That’s why a visit to Savannah was such a delight.   Last May I attended the symposium “The Historic Center and the Next City: Envisioning Urban Heritage Evolution” sponsored by US/ICOMOS.  A goal was to advance recommendations adopted in 2011 relating to the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), an initiative encouraging the use of a landscape approach to study, conserve and inform decisions for future development in cities, their broader urban contexts and geographical settings

Savannah, a city whose cultural identity is intimately linked to its historic squares and parks, provided the perfect backdrop in which to explore the ideas discussed at the symposium.  Here, more than two hundred and seventy-five years ago a plan, widely lauded as the most intelligent grid in America (if not the world), was developed that in its simplicity became a model for the integration of open space and built form.

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Designed by Colonel James Oglethorpe in 1733, Savannah’s layout is simple, elegant and innovative.  It provides, according to urban planner and author Edmund Bacon, “one of the finest diagrams for city organization and growth in existence.”

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Perched on forty foot bluff overlooking a bend on the Savannah River, Savannah was founded by Oglethorpe as the last colonial capital established by Britain in the United States.  An English philanthropist and member of Parliament, Oglethorpe was involved in prison reform and hoped, according to Elizabeth Barlow Rodgers in Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History,“to transport incarcerated debtors who wished to seek a fresh start in life as well as persons experiencing religious persecution and others eager for economic opportunity.”  His social philosophy, elucidated in his democratic design for Savannah, was informed by ideals of the enlightenment.

Wards, 600 feet to a side in the north-south direction, and 540 feet to 600 feet in the east-west direction were established and streets and building lots within each ward were organized around a central open space or square. Each ward was named and organized as an urban neighborhood with garden and farm lots sited in an expanded regional plan system. Individual house lots were 60 x 90 feet with a 5 acre garden plot. Four “trust” lots on the east and west sides of each square were reserved for public buildings, including churches.

The image below, of Peter Gordon’s 1734 engraving depicts the city a year after it was founded with the first four wards, squares and building plots.

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As the city expanded squares were added at regular intervals. Today twenty-two of the original twenty-four exist providing a green infrastructure that, in its logic and accessibility, is a model for the design of cities today.

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Johnson Square, the largest, was laid out in 1733.  Named for the Royal Governor of South Carolina when Georgia was founded, it served (like many of the early squares) “as a marketplace and haven for people and animals in the event of an attack by the Indians or by the Spanish of Florida.”

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The square contains two fountains, an obelisk commemorating Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and a sundial, dedicated to Colonel William Bull, credited with assisting Oglethorpe in the layout of the city and after whom Bull Street is named.  It is seen below in an undated postcard.

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Selected by the American Planning Association as one of the Great Streets of America, Bull Street serves as Savannah’s central spine.  Four squares, Johnson, Chippewa, Madison and Monterey are located along its route before it terminates in Forsyth Park.

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J.W. Hill’s 1855 birds-eye view of Savannah looking north from Monterey Square up Bull Street to the State House.

Although conceived as a whole, each square has a unique identity based upon its history and embellishments which vary depending on the age, location and civic function of the space.  For those who like their history tidy keeping it all straight can be a bit of a challenge. For example although there is an Oglethorpe Square the monument commemorating Oglethorpe graces Chippewa Square.

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Oglethorpe by American sculptor Daniel Chester French dated 1910

While there is a Greene Square Nathanael Greene is buried in Johnson Square.

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Johnson Square

Although there is a Pulaski Square the monument to Pulaski is located in Monterey Square.

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Georgia troops parade before the Pulaski Monument in Savannah (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 1861)

Monterey Square is also the location of the Mercer House the setting for the 1994 John Berendt novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  The house, visible at the right in the photo below, is open to the public.

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Wright Square, the second square established in 1733, provides a particularly poignant example of how, over time, each space has evolved.  Originally named for Lord Percival, 1st Earl of Egmont, who as a colleague of Oglethorpe with an interest in prison reform became the President of the Trustees empowered by George ll to found Savannah in 1732, the square was renamed in 1763 in honor of James Wright, the last of Georgia’s Colonial Governors.

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More poignantly the square was also the burial site of the Creek Native American Tomochichi, friend of Oglethorpe, who ceded the land upon which Savannah is built. Upon Tomochichi’s death, at the direction of Oglethorpe, he was buried in what was then Percival Square.  ln 1882 a monument to William Washington Gordon was erected in the square and Tomochichi’s remains were relocated.   A monument to Tomochichi was later added to the square.

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While all of the squares contain civic elements some are more deeply embedded in neighborhoods with a more intimate feel. Troup Square, completed in 1851, contains a large iron armillary sphere, mounted on six turtles. While I am unaware of the significance of the turtles, the sphere is described as a “modern” feature.  Named for Georgia Governor, Congressman and Senator George Troup, the square is the site of the Myer’s dog fountain, the centerpiece of an annual “blessing of the dogs.”

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Whitfield Square, completed in 1851, was the final square to be built.   A gazebo serves as its focal point.

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Forsyth Park, 30 acres in size was begun in the 1840’s in response to the southern expansion of the city.  It is one of the city’s most popular spaces and an important component in the open space system.

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As noted in the sign above, the park’s original 10 acres of land were donated by William Hodgson.  The park was expanded to its current size through a land contribution by Governor John Forsyth and named for him in 1851.

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With a distinctly European feel, Forsyth Park was thoughtfully designed to provide a dramatic “green” terminus to Bull Street.  Its  broad tree-lined promenade leads to an ornate water fountain installed in 1858 and modeled after a water feature found in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

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While Forsyth Park contains walking paths, a cafe, children’s play space, a fragrance garden for the blind and Savannah’s Confederate war monument it is the open areas and remarkable trees that are (at least for me) its most compelling feature.

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According to the Forsyth Park Arboretum Self-Guided Walking Tour, Savannah’s history is intimately linked with its trees and the city, along with Philadelphia, was the first in America to ‘plant trees in an organized manner along streets and boulevards and in parks and squares.”   Savannah takes its trees seriously with an advocacy organization, The Savannah Tree Foundation empowered to promote “through direct action and education, an awareness of trees as vital environmental resources and an important part of our cultural heritage.”

The diversity of trees planted in Forsyth Park is evident in the plan below.

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Savannah is beautiful with a simple and clear plan that integrates open space and built form within a framework that, through its legibility, allows for creativity.  Its squares share a simple form yet are profoundly unique, informing a sense of place in which that which is ordinary becomes extraordinary.

For more information about Savannah’s Squares:

New Georgia Encyclopedia: Savannah City Plan

Visit Savannah: Squares and Parks

City of Savannah: Tour Guide Manual

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Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Francine Coughlin March 21, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    I really enjoyed this, Patrice! My bridal party took me on a surprise bachelorette trip to Savannah and it was one of my favorites. Touring the city’s squares was a fascinating experience. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited! Thanks for this great read.

  • Reply Gallivanta April 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

    What a beautiful city.

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