In the past week, 2000 new SCAD students from 115 countries and 49 states have begun to realize that Savannah is so much more than a collection of squares. As they get their first glimpses at the creative freedom and opportunities afforded to them by the Hostess City, they will be walking on streets built nearly three hundred years ago on ideals of equality.
Robin Williams, Ph.D., SCAD chair of architectural history, gave his “Discover Savannah: Understanding the City’s Significance” for the thirteenth time last Friday to an audience predominantly composed of these new students. Every quarter he distills his popular “Architectural History of Savannah” course into a one-hour lecture answering the question, “How can a city be so small and yet so significant?”
Ranked as America’s 180th largest city, Savannah welcomes nearly fourteen million tourists a year, the majority of whom are compelled by James Oglethorpe’s distinct urban plan.
In 1733, Oglethorpe formed a small group of men who chartered for a thirteenth colony in America to serve as a safe haven from religious or financial persecution. “They were reformers. They wanted to make society better… [They] aspired to have everyone as equal as possible,” Williams said.
Their idea was to have a small, utopian society of a couple thousand people. At the time, most cities were designed with power concentrated around a single landmark, such as a palace, a courthouse or a church. Oglethorpe instead wanted to give everyone an equal piece of the power. His solution was a unique unit of land called a ward. “I like to think of it as a recipe,” Williams said.
Each ward had eight “tithing” lots, comprised of ten identical, modest houses. In between those lots were four public lots commissioned for buildings that would serve each civilian equally like churches, courthouses, or banks. Weaving between civic, or public, streets were smaller service streets, the 18th century equivalent to a junk drawer, where a household stored its unsightly components. Finally, each ward centered around a square, part beautiful civic space, part utilitarian storage for water towers, cisterns, soldiers and even cattle.
Oglethorpe only planned for six wards. However, as more people sought freedom in Savannah, it needed to grow. Between 1790 and 1850, Savannah expanded six times, eventually evolving into a grid of 24 wards. “A typical planned city is big, way beyond the needs of the moment and it often evolves and develops in ways that take it away from the original vision,” Williams said. “Savannah started incrementally and only grew as a need was developed. I don’t know of another city that grew this way.” Because of this, Savannah today closely mirrors that of Oglethorpe’s ideal colony of equals.
SCAD has helped to further his ideal by rehabilitating tricky historic preservation projects like abandoned department stores, power plants and militia companies. The university has spread its positive investment throughout the city, each building becoming an anchor for neighborhood revitalization and a space for free artistic thought.
For a deeper look into Savannah’s architectural history, pick up Dr. Williams’ book, “Buildings of Savannah,” or follow his continuing research on historic street pavement by visiting his website.