I was ambling along Factors Walk in Savannah when it dawned on me that I had no idea what the 19th-century equivalent of strip malls would be. This got me to thinking about urban redevelopment (or revitalization) in general, and how it often eradicates the old in favor of the new. Quite often, it makes new things that are meant to look like old things but are made with inferior materials and thin, acoustically unacceptable walls.
The reason I was thinking about this pressing topic was that I figured that at some point, someone in Savannah must have resented the construction of Factors Walk. Factors Walk would have obliterated the view of the river. The Cotton Exchange, a beefy three-story building, was designed for dominance; it was the high-rise of its day, shouldering smaller structures out of its way.
Factors Walk is a network of commercial buildings connected by iron walkways and bridges, and it would have stood between the river and the residential areas. Somewhere, there would have been a tavern (“Ye Olde Fish Haus” or somesuch) that would have been the fast food of its day, and over in the residential squares someone would have constructed an eyesore of a Gothic Revival mansion. It’s just the way things are, although what might have been questionable in the 19th century is aesthetically pleasing today.
I decided to photograph Savannah’s leafy squares and then realized that without macro lens, one leaf looks pretty much like another leaf. I turned my eye to buildings. Upon close inspection, quite a few are run down, and at ground level of one I found the telltale marks of homeless encampment. Nevertheless, you still get a good idea of what this city was like from antebellum days through the Victorian era.
The historic district and its squares is the main reason to visit Savannah. Much like Boston’s Beacon Hill, the district is a time-capsule of gracious living. Original plans called for 24 squares, with each square central to a ward. Six of the squares were built in the early 18th century with the rest following in the late 18th to early 19th century. The architecture is such that you can follow the progress of the city around the squares.
It seems to me that much of what we have built in the mid-to-late 20th century and forward into the 21st century is not designed for either beauty or permanence but for convenience. This includes long-span stores like WalMart and Target, most airport terminals, and above all low-cost condominium villages. If, as Michelangelo said, beauty is the purgation of superfluities, this idea has not borne itself out through time as respects structural design. Stripping things down is the order of the day as we box ourselves in and attempt economy of pocket and aesthetic.
It’s important to note that in most instances, taste is sacrificed to economy.
This is a good enough reason alone to visit Savannah, where there is plenty of robust adornment and healthy embellishment, especially in those houses and commercial buildings erected during the Victorian era. Many of these have been parted out as apartments and some seem to have lost a bit of former luster, but there are plenty of stunning examples remaining. As there are gaslights; venture into one of the squares at twilight to enjoy this outmoded and romantic illumination.
I plan on returning in the fall, when the weather will be cooler and the sun less sharp. I struggled with a foggy lens and lens flare and I came away from the trip with a new understanding of what locals call “Georgia weather.” Georgia in general is a destination of interest for me and over the coming year I am planning trips to the northern part of the state, to the Columbus area, and back to the vast, swampy tracts in the bottom southeastern corner.