There are just some places that make you feel as if you have stepped back into another time. Historic Savannah is an exquisite kaleidoscope of history, charm, graceful beauty, antebellum architecture and warm southern hospitality. Where it is enough to walk the tree lined streets and sit for spell in one of its twenty-two cobblestone squares. Art and music are immersed in the city at every turn. Add to that an eclectic mix of great food and a lively night scene (including ghosts of centuries past) and you meet the current day Savannah in all of her splendor.
Savannah is quite the storyteller. As you walk through the streets you will meet many of her heroes, memorialized by hundreds of plaques throughout the historic district. Wander with us in time to meet a few of the local residents.
Introducing James Oglethorpe, Founder of Savannah and the Colony of Georgia
James Oglethorpe was a British soldier, member of parliament and a social reformer. During his time in parliament he was active in advocating for the conditions of navy sailors and leading prison reform. As a representative of King George II to the American Colonies, he was sent, at age 36, to establish Savannah and the 13th colony of Georgia. He landed in Savannah in February of 1733 and was carrying with him the original cotton seeds responsible for the inception of the cotton industry in the south. Georgia was considered a key military buffer between the English Carolinas and the Spanish catholics in Florida. James Oglethorpe, with specific ideals, had four distinct prohibitions in the Charter for the new colony.
First, while it mandated acceptance of all religions, and indeed grew from the influx of religious refugees throughout the world, it did prohibit Roman Catholics. The risk that they could be sympathizers or spies for the Spanish in St. Augustine was too great. Second, it prohibited the importation or use of Rum and other hard liquor. Only ale, beer and wine were permitted. Third, lawyers were banned from the colony. Oglethorpe and the Trustees wanted Georgia to be “free from the pest and scourge of mankind called lawyers.” They believed that each colonist should be able to plead their own case. Lastly, it prohibited the ownership and use of slaves in the colony based on humanistic principles.
His charter also had limits on the amount of land that could be owned by a single colonist, and his vision for the layout of the city of Savannah with its squares (known as the Oglethorpe Plan) is still largely in place in downtown Savannah. While he was only in the Colony for ten years, returning to England in 1743, his influence is felt to this day. We found ourselves sitting “with” him quite often in Chippewa Square, facing South.
Meet General Hugh Mercer, Confederate Army
General Mercer was a Confederate Army General whose grandfather and namesake, Hugh Mercer of Pennsylvania, was a General under George Washington in the American Revolution. Following in his family’s footsteps, Hugh attended West Point in 1824, but was expelled for participating in the Eggnog Riot of 1826. After he was pardoned by President John Quincy Adams, Mercer was permitted to graduate in 1828, third out of a class of thirty-three cadets. After spending most of his duty in Georgia, he retired his commission in April of 1835 and settled in Savannah. In 1860 he hired a well-known architect to design a grand home for his family on Monterey Square. Soon after, in 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and was commissioned a Colonel in the 1st Georgia Infantry. By October the same year he was promoted to General and served as Commander of the District of Georgia. The architect he had hired returned to New York when the war broke out and all work on the home stopped. General Mercer fought at Dalton, Marietta and Kennesaw Mountain. After the Battle of Atlanta in 1864 he became ill and was relieved of command. When the war was over he returned to Savannah but sold what existed of the home in progress. The home was completed in 1868 by the new owner John Wilder, so none of the Mercer family ever actually lived in the Mercer mansion. In 1872 General Mercer’s failing health caused him to travel to the spa resort of Baden-Baden for treatment, where he died in 1877. He was buried in the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.
The Mercer House has had a number of different owners. In the 20th century it was also a meeting hall for the Shriners for several decades until 1959 and then it was vacant and in disrepair for a decade until it was acquired and restored by a dedicated private restorationist in 1969.
Meet Florence Martus, Savannah’s “Waving Girl”
In 1887, at age 19, Florence took it upon herself to be the unofficial greeter of all ships entering and leaving the Port of Savannah. She would wave anything… dish towels, pillow cases, hand towels and at night lanterns, never missing a ship for 44 years. Day or night, rain or shine, the sailors on these ships looked forward to this warm welcome in Savannah. It is estimated that 100,000 ships passed in her 44 years on watch. With her brother, who was the Lighthouse Keeper on Elba Island, they also would occasionally perform rescues for boats they discovered in distress.
When her brother retired in 1931 they moved off the island and city officials in Savannah had a welcoming ceremony for her. Her reputation as “Savannah’s Waving Girl” had circulated the globe and small gifts and poems were sent from the many sailors who missed her. In 1938 the city threw Florence a big 70th birthday party with over 3,000 in attendance, including the Savannah Police Band, the U.S. Marine Band and the Coast Guard Cutter “Tallapoosa”. When asked to give a speech she was so overcome with emotion that she could not utter a sound. She passed away February 18, 1943 and on September 27, 1943 the Liberty Ship SS Florence Martus was named. In 1971 the city commissioned sculptor Felix de Weldon (the Iwo Jima Monument sculptor) to create the Waving Girl statue. Her memorial is the only one in a city park of a Georgian woman.
Read more about Florence at Florence Martus
Meet Jim Williams, Restorationist & Designer
No, not Kevin Spacey of “Midnight in the Garden of Good an Evil” … although he did create a remarkable likeness. While Jim has the distinction of being the only person in Georgia to be tried four times for the same crime, which after eight years resulted in an acquittal, this often overshadows his remarkable contributions to historic Savannah as we know it today.
Jim Williams was the son of a barber and studied piano and interior design before falling in love with the 19th century architecture in Savannah. In 1952 he arrived without much money and worked restoring antiques. In 1953 he opened his own antique shop and in 1955 purchased his first of more than 50 downtown buildings he restored through the years. “Downtown Savannah was crumbling as businesses fled to the suburbs. It was quiet and in the 1950s you could buy a nice home for $ 5,000.” In 1969 he purchased the Mercer House, now known as the Mercer Williams House, restored it and made it his residence. In the basement he had his workshop and the carriage house in back was his antique shop. He was said to be quite industrious and would frequently work on his restoration projects well past midnight. He was the Co-Founder of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the President of the Board of Trustees of the Telfair Museum, a life member of the Humane Society and a wonderful musician. Through the years he had mentored and taught several young apprentices whom he thought had talent yet uncovered. Danny Hansford was one such apprentice. While only two people will ever know the truth of what happened that night, Danny had been a very troubled teen, in and out of mental hospitals and attempting suicide on two occasions. At the time of his death his mother had taken out a peace bond against him. In the four trials, the first two convictions were overturned due to police officers committing perjury and for lack of due process. The third trial was a hung jury. Eight long years after the fatal shooting Jim Williams was acquitted. He sat down for an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution (linked below) and spoke of rejoining Savannah’s social circles with a return to his annual Christmas gala. That was to be his last Christmas party as six months after his acquittal he suffered heart failure and died.
In an interview, his sister Dorothy Kingery, remembers …. “When you met him you would never forget him. He was electric. He was good looking, bright, well read and very social.” She shares her brother’s life work in her book “More than Mercer House… Savannah’s Jim Williams and his Southern Houses”, which includes many of his own essays about the homes he restored.
Read the 1989 Atlanta Journal Constitution interview here Atlanta Journal Constitution Jim Williams
See Dorothy Kingery’s interview here Dorothy Kingery on Jim Williams
Here are a few of our Savannah favorites.
Favorite Five – When in Savannah
1) Walk. Walk More. Sit a spell. Enjoy the music and smell the roses.
Downtown Savannah is certainly one of the most walkable US cities I have ever seen. As one of the first planned cities in the country, Savannah is a pedestrian’s dream. Stroll often and meander through River Street, City Market, Forsyth Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the 22 squares and the beautiful buildings. Pick a bench, relax and sit a spell. Within a day and a half you will feel like you are a local.
2) Take a tour.
Walking tours, trolley tours, horse drawn carriage tours… whichever is your fancy. The storytelling on the tours is awesome. You will see two trolley companies. Old Savannah Tours (the white trollies) are locally owned and operated and have options for an overview tour or a hop-on, hop-off pass. According to our guide the Old Savannah tour drivers do not have scripts, so every time you hop-on with a different driver you might get different stories. Walking history tours by Genteel & Bard and walking architecture tours by Architectural Savannah are also great. Savannah Carriage provides historic carriage rides for individuals up to parties of ten.
3) Home Tours & Museums.
Savannah has many options for Home Tours and Museums based on your interests. The Juliet Gordon Lowe House & Museum (Founder of the Girl Scouts), the Prohibition Museum, the Telfair Museum of Art, the Davenport House and the Mercer Williams House are just a few of a long list of options.
4) Savannah Theatre.
The Savannah Theatre has the distinction of being the longest operating live music theatre in the country, first hosting performances in 1818. It is a fun few hours with an entertaining ensemble. The Sunday matinee also provided a reprieve from the heat for a short time.
5) Relax at the pool or go to the beach.
Let’s face it… the heat and humidity are real. Make sure you have access to a pool for a little cool down. Tybee Island is also about a twenty minute drive if you want to have a beach day.
Favorite Five – Local Treats
1) Alligator Soul Restaurant
There is so much delicious food in Savannah but the experience at the top of our list is the farm-to-table cuisine of Alligator Soul. The Chef provided an exquisite meal from start to finish. The Sunburst Salads (one modified), the Candied Bacon, the Diver Scallops, the Filet and the Alligator Soul Banana Beignets were all amazing! We will definitely return next time!
2) Leopolds Ice Cream
This Savannah institution is celebrating 100 years in operation. There is always a line but they keep it moving. The Ice Cream is solid and if you are adventurous, they have their own seasonal flavors that I have never seen anywhere else.
3) Breakfast at the Emporium
My favorite dish by far with the Smoked Spring Mountain Chicken Hash… it was mouthwatering! The Eggs Benedict was another popular choice and when in the south treat yourself to their beignets and the house special .. the apple fritters. Breakfast at the Emporium will be a regular on our list.
4) Peregrin Rooftop Lounge
The Peregrin Rooftop Lounge at the Perry Lane Hotel offers wonderful craft cocktails, daily specials and views for days. It’s a popular spot and can get busy up there so any early happy hour or after dinner drinks are a great option.
5) Byrds Cookies
Their motto is “mini-cookies, mighty flavor.” With several Byrds Cookie stores do a little taste test and find your favorites. The chocolate chip, confetti cookies and lemon coolers all passed with flying colors. Next up to try … key lime, Georgia peach and maple wafers.
The Perry Lane Hotel
The Perry Lane Hotel certainly lived up to its recent award as one of the 20 Best New Hotels in the World. Champagne upon check in, an attentive staff and beautiful décor are just the beginning. With three bars, a restaurant, Bowerbird Coffee Shop, an arcade, gelato stand and a rooftop pool on property it takes the hotel experience to the next level. There are events happening every day for Perry Lane guests- from musical performances to wine tasting in the Library… they’ve got it covered. The refillable jar of Byrds Cookies in the room every day was a big hit also. The Emporium Restaurant had amazing breakfasts and the door staff team could not have been friendlier. The location is very central in the historic district, one block away from Chippewa Square. The Perry Lane Hotel created a fantastic home away from home – thank you team Perry Lane!
Just a Few Tips-
1) Unless you will be doing day trips a car is more of a liability. With downtown parking at a premium overnight parking is very expensive. The uber ride from the airport is about ten miles.
2) That said, easy day trips from Savannah include Tybee Island, Hilton Head and St. Simons Island.
3) The Alligator Soul Restaurant is subterranean so be sure to make reservations and ask for a wine vault or “window” table. (They are not real windows but have been created to add light.)
4) For the trolley tours it is easy to decide on the spot and pay when you get on the trolley. For the more specialized walking tours and horse drawn carriage tours reservations are needed.
Savannah we love you!
Category: Featured, Food, History, The South, TIme, Travel, Uncategorized, USATags: Alligator Soul Restaurant, American Colonies, American Revolution, Byrds, Byrds Cookies, Cathedral of St John the Baptist, City Market, Emporium Savannah, Florence Martus, Forsyth Park, General Hugh Mercer, History, James Oglethorpe, Juliet Gordon Lowe, Lafayette Square, Leopolds Ice Cream, Mercer House, Monterey Square, Old Savannah Tours, Peregrin, Peregrin Savannah, Perry Lane Hotel, Prohibition Museum, River Street, Savannah, Savannah Theatre, Telfair Museum, The South, Travel, Waving Girl, Wright Square