When most people think of the architecture of Savannah, they think of the stately Owens-Thomas House, the beautiful dome of City Hall, or the ultra-modern Jepson Museum. Maybe they have a favorite house overlooking one of our famous squares. But the architecture of Savannah finds its highest expression in the city’s plan itself. With the layout of the wards, each centered with a square full of trees, this plan was an embodiment of James Edward Oglethorpe’s enlightened vision, a creation of social order, and a worker’s paradise.
On that day in 1733 when General Oglethorpe landed on the high bluff of what he would call Savannah, he met a cheif named Tomochichi, and their world views could not have been more different. The Yamacraw natives lived in harmony with the natural world they inhabited, so much so that it takes an archaeologist to find evidence of their existence today. The British General was an aristocrat, but had a plan for a utopian society based upon merit, not privilege, and the desire to impose that plan on the landscape in ways that were permanent. Surprisingly, the two became friends, and Savannah was born.
Since then, the architecture of Savannah has become synonymous with civility. This stems from its abundance of wide tree lined boulevards, slow moving streets, spacious public parks, and the incomparable squares that are just a stroll apart. These have witnessed 280 years of urban evolution, and taken it all in stride. This abundance of public space has also allowed Savannah to have the most extensive urban forest in America, and perhaps in the world today. In a climate where shade is priceless, this allows people to walk, even in summer’s heat. Savannah’s pace remains slow compared to most other cities, so people have time to speak to each other, and to sit for a while before they move on.
The architecture of Savannah should be something that can be an example for the rest of America as it seeks to find alternatives to automobile dominated planning. Our city’s neighborhood layout, and traffic calmed streets, and urban forest should be a model for other cities and developers to emulate. We must preserve more than just the old buildings, we must preserve a way of living, so that the beauty, order and harmony of Oglethorpe’s architecture can survive for future generations, and Tomochichi’s descendants can rest assured that their hospitality was not in vain.