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BRO Leaves Town: Savannah Georgia, WOW! WOW! WOW!

From Memphis, the Buffalo Rising southern states tour headed east to Savannah Georgia. I cannot  give enough wows in the title to impress on you how beautiful this city is. With the Congress for the New Urbanism holding its 22nd annual conference in Buffalo next week this is a city worth examining for its truly wonderful urbanism. It is the city all others should study to find out how to do things right.

Savannah, population 142,000, anchors a small metro region of only 366,000 people.  It was founded in 1733 as a British colonial capital for the province of Georgia.  A few historic tid-bits; it was a strategic port in the American Revolution; Savannah resident, Juliette Gordon Low, started the Girl Scouts of America in one of the out buildings of her Savannah estate; and General Sherman took up camp in Savannah after he burned his way through the south on his way to the sea. Thankfully, he spared Savannah and presented it as a gift to President Lincoln after moving his headquarters into the Gothic style Green-Meldrim House, which still stands on one of the city’s gorgeous squares.

Another interesting historic house is the  Mercer-Williams House. It was the scene of a famous high society murder, which inspired a major book and movie starring Kevin Spacey, titled Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  The book and movie played on the beauty, pageantry, and age-old southern mystique of Savannah. The city truly is a garden. Interestingly, the murder involved  Jim Williams, a city socialite and early preservation pioneer in Savannah. He was accused of killing his assistant / lover, Danny Hansford.  He was finally acquitted of the crime after 4 wild trials filled with sexual scandal and police incompetence.  Williams is credited with having started the preservation movement, which saved the city from urban reewal and demolition by neglect.  In 1955, at the age of only 24, Williams purchased and renovated the first of what would eventually be 50 buildings over the next 35 years.  His early efforts were looked on as foolish at mid-century.  But, he amassed a fortune renovating buildings and soon many people followed his lead.  Today Savannah is an unbelievably beautiful historic city, due to the wisdom of Jim Williams and those that followed.

As with every American city, Savannah is surrounded by a halo of sprawltastic junk, built over the last 60 years.  But, once inside the old city center the story is very different.  This is one of the most urban, most walkable, most beautiful cities in the world.  This is not an exaggeration in any way. I knew this was going to be a pretty city but, I was not ready for just how beautiful it is. Beautiful is not really an adequate word.  It might be as perfect an urban place as you can possibly make in modern-day America. It is a stunningly gorgeous city; and small though it is, Savannah exudes a sophistication and walkability that is typically found only in the largest American cities.

The magic of Savannah (and Magic might be the best way to describe it) is great architecture, gorgeous trees, and smart planning combining in a magnificent singular urban unit.  The individual parts that make up Savannah are beautiful on their own.  But, the way these parts make a unified city entity,  is what is extraordinary.  The magic that pulls together the city’s buildings and public spaces is sprinkled on this city in the form of elegant southern landscaping.  At the heart of this landscape magic is the southern  live oak tree.  Live oaks grow to very old age, spreading their massive branches horizontally, to create wonderful outdoor rooms. The ancient Savannah live oaks forest covers the city in a roof of green to form one of the most satisfying architectural spaces anywhere in the world. It is hard to convey the beauty of the Savannah streets in words or pictures.  Photos do not capture the true complexity and three-dimensional perfection of this natural architecture.  Throw in streets lined with block after block of immaculately restored 18th, 19th, and 20th century buildings and you are no longer in a city but in a dream-scape of prefect urbanism.  But, wait.  That is not all.  Savannah was planned with a regular grid of 24 public squares.  These squares are closely spaced so that no portion of the old city is more than a block from a park.  The squares slow traffic, making the city into a place for pedestrians, for people.  In the 20th century, plans were made to start removing the squares, to allow cars to flow through quickly.  Three squares were eventually destroyed.  Recently, one of the destroyed squares was restored with a modern design, sitting above a multi-story underground parking garage.

One of Savannah’s many beautiful public squares with a roof of live oaks.

So, you are thinking, that is all well and good but, Savannah is nothing more than a cute tourist resort full of fudge shoppes and trinket stores; not real; Disney. This kind of urbanism is not practical for real cities, right?  Real cities can’t be made for people, right? Certainly, tourism is a major industry in Savannah but, tourism is just one aspect of this city.  Savannah is not dominated by tourism fakery and I did not see one single fudge shoppe  (or any shoppes for that matter). Savannah is in fact a real 21st century working city with a complex diverse economy.

An art gallery designed in a city friendly modern style works perfectly well in this  historic city.

A major government investment in infrastructure, in the form of a new taller bridge crossing the Savannah River, has allowed the city to receive the largest ocean-going container ships. It is now one of the largest shipping ports on the Atlantic.  The giant container ships now cruise just feet from the old city and its original 18th century docks; a sight worth a visit to the city on its own.

But that is not all.  There is also SCAD.  Walking around the city, you see these letters all over the place.  This is the abbreviation for the Savannah College of Art and Design.  Founded in 1978, SCAD has grown quickly to become one of the largest art schools in the country, with branch campuses in Atlanta and abroad.  Instead of creating an isolated campus of buildings separated from the city, SCAD has shrewdly  purchased underutilized buildings all around the old city center to renovate them for school use.  The result is streets filled with young people walking from building to building with the city squares acting as campus quads.  SCAD has converted former synagogues, movie theaters, department stores, and shuttered city schools, among many others.  This is a tremendous gift to the city and another example of what real working cities do. SCAD did not move out to a green field site. SCAD strengthened the city it was in and strengthened itself in the process.

SCAD is an integral part of the city.

So, for those asking; what does this have to do with Buffalo (because someone always does)? Here are four Savannah lessons for Buffalo:

  1. Pay attention to your history and make it part of your future. Buffalo is starting to pay attention to this lesson.  But still, far too many buildings, even in prosperous popular areas of the city, are allowed to rot and degrade.  Buffalo can no longer afford  to lose its irreplaceable historic assets. Demolition by neglect should no longer be tolerated.
  2. Make your public spaces special and abundant. That means, don’t use them for  highways. There is no reasonable argument for why  Buffalo’s parks and parkways should be used to move large volumes of cars in and out of the city at high-speed. Destruction of Humboldt Parkway and a large area of Delaware Park for cars did not save the city.  It just made it easier to abandon the city.  The highways are not going to bring the suburban hoards back into the city as promised. Stop chasing them and start  making the city good for the people who want to be in the city.
  3. Don’t treat buildings as isolated standalone events. Each building needs to build on the one next to it. Do this with architecture and architectural landscape. This does not mean that buildings need to blend in.  The buildings of Savannah are exuberant Victorian wedding cakes that demand attention.  But, they also work together to make a unified whole. Too many buildings in Buffalo are isolated islands surrounded by parking lots and silly decorative shrubs and lawns.  Buffalo once had the wonderful natural architecture that Savannah has, in the form of its cathedral-like streets lined with elm trees. The incredible architecture of the long gone elm trees has never been replaced.  It was a unifying feature for Buffalo’s incredible wealth of buildings. Buffalo needs to start linking its architectural masterpieces into a singular whole again with this kind of landscape.  For a local example of how powerful this is see Timon Street, on the east side. Timon, with its rather ordinary buildings,  is transformed into one of the most beautiful streets in the city by its trees and the architecture they create.  More of this please.
  4. The colleges and other institutions ARE economic development tools.  Make them part of the city.  Don’t isolate them. The UB Amherst campus was a disaster and continues to be so, for both for the city and the university. Why continue with that mess? The first tenuous moves by UB into downtown have already proven to be positive. Why not double down on that? Buffalo State needs to send some tentacles of academic activity into the surrounding city and break down barriers that isolate that campus. It is a lost opportunity on its island campus.  Move the student book store to Elmwood.  Why not?  Erie Community College needs to stop its plans for expanding on its bland and isolated suburban campus. Fear based 20th century planning is already a proven failure.  Why are they still doing it?




Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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