Picturesque: The city attracts visitors with pre-Civil War gentility and post-'Good and Evil' notoriety


July 14, 1996|By Scott Ponemone | Scott Ponemone,SUN STAFF

I swear it's true. I wanted to go to Savannah, Ga., before that book came out. That book, of course, is "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt.

His vivid, reconstructed account of a locally prominent murder trial and three retrials has carved for Savannah its own place in the American psyche. Among the book's fascinations is the city's isolation, cultivated in particular by members of its genteel class.

So, yes, I've read that book. And it is at the request of the lender of a copy autographed by the author of that book that I have a mission while in Savannah: Find her a trinket derived from the photograph on the book's jacket. It shows a cemetery statue of a winsome girl, her head tilted shyly to the side.

My own quest is Savannah's historic heart, its largely intact pre-Civil War residential district, the home of that same genteel class when cotton was king and slavery was a foregone conclusion.

Gracious is the word that seems most appropriate to describe this district of brick or stuccoed free-standing houses and town houses. A city planner today might call it "pedestrian friendly." True, a series of squares makes it nearly impossible for motorists to speed through most of the area, but the city's layout predates the automobile, in fact predates the bicycle and the locomotive as well.

Savannah apparently existed in the imagination of its English founder, James Oglethorpe, before he set ashore on the south bank of the Savannah River a few miles inland from the Atlantic in 1733.

Upon a bluff some 50 feet above the river, he laid out his grid system of streets meeting at right angles interrupted in an orderly fashion by a series of small squares. On the east and west sides of the squares lots were set aside for public buildings and churches. Citizens could build houses on the north and south sides. His plan is largely intact today.

Nearly everywhere I walk in the historic district I found myself saying: "I could live here. I could live here." You would too if you like the late federal and classical revival styles presented on a very human scale. Imagine block after tree-lined block of three- or four-story houses, many in indigenous gray brick, others stuccoed and painted a delicate pink, some with porticoes, most with Greek key or anthemion (stylized honeysuckle blossoms) detailing above windows and doors, and nearly all fancied up with some combination of wrought-iron window balconies, stair railings or fences invariably painted a subdued green.

Much to salivate over. To capture Savannah's allure, I plan to sketch elements of these buildings, combining them in playful ways yet managing, I hope, to give a feel of the place.

The city's visitors' center is easy to find and easy to use. Just a few hundred feet from an Interstate 16 off-ramp, the center is in the city's restored 1860s rail station.

Besides offering a visitors' handbook with maps for walking tours, thumbnail descriptions of historic sites and listings of accommodations, besides fielding trick questions by yours truly on how to get into a house that's not normally open to the public, this facility has free parking. Yes, there are plenty of trolleys to wheel tourists to most of the sites, but the station is only two blocks from this city's compact historic section. Too bad an ugly whale of a civic center stands in between.

Day 1: Two historic houses, a missing city market and a Harborplace equivalent.

The first of my four days in Savannah begins with a visit to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. This building began as one the most innovative houses designed by a young English architect, William Jay. Completed in 1819, Telfair has a rather severe front facade: stuccoed brick, few windows but a dramatic lunate one above the front door, and little ornament save for a one-story, four-column front porch.

Telfair was remodeled and enlarged in the 1880s to become Georgia's oldest public museum. Only the formal rooms on the first floor have been restored to approximate their original appearance. These include a small octagonal library with walls painted to look like oak. The dining room and parlors have a wonderful crown molding of nearly free-standing anthemions and swags.

A few squares away stands the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House, another Jay design but more conservative. It looks like an intermediate step between a Federal house with strong Georgian detailing and Telfair, which anticipates the full-blown Greek Revival period.

A side porch, entered from a first-floor window, was the site of Marquis de Lafayette's 1825 speech to the citizens of Savannah. I used elements of this porch to create a watercolor homage to this house.

Nearby Davenport House has tour buses parked in front. Fearing a crowd, I take a rain check. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," I'm sure, is responsible. Except for some homes of presidents, like Jefferson's Monticello or Washington's Mount Vernon, visiting historic homes is not a popular sport.

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