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A Tour of Savannah's Historic Bull Street

From City Hall to Forsyth Park, a walk downtown is a tour through history.

Great planning has made good urban areas great, but in the case of Savannah, Georgia, it literally saved the city. The beautiful port city was founded in the early 18th century with utopian ideals by a group of British colonists including James Oglethorpe, who laid out the city in a series of orderly grids that balanced public space, parks, lanes, and wards in a manner that created walkable, bucolic urbanism. When General Sherman stormed through Georgia during the Civil War more than a century later, he couldn’t bear to destroy such a beautiful city, instead gifting it to President Lincoln.

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Roughly 150 years after Sherman spared Savannah, the city has greatly expanded, but fidelity to what’s known as Oglethorpe’s Plan have kept the historic downtown’s character intact. Stylish architecture has sprouted amid the palms, live oaks, and Spanish Moss that create a green canopy above the streets, and the city’s public squares, set in the middle of the main arteries cross-crossing downtown, have become gathering spaces that maintain a collegial atmosphere and easygoing pace. The layout, centuries ahead of today’s ideas of walkable urbanism, has become a much-cited example of getting things right.

"While everyone talks about it, nobody has been able to replicate it," says historian David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). "This plan requires a lot of public space, and that costs money. For many, that’s not viable."

Savannah has no shortage of beautiful building and streets, but Bull Street, the main north-south street downtown, offers a showcase of what makes this part of the city special. With help from Robin Williams, chair of architectural history at the SCAD, and Gobel, two of the authors of the guidebook Buildings of Savannah, we put together a leisurely stroll through the city’s historical downtown that provides an introduction to the city’s charms.

Savannah City Hall

Designed in 1904 and opened in 1906, this domed, Beaux-Arts structure stands at the north end of Bull Street, the start of our tour. While it’s more than a century old, this civic structure represents modernity in downtown Savannah, according to architectural historian Robin Williams. Capped in paper-thin 23-karat gold, the building was inspired by the structures of the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago’s famous White City. Inside, visitors can see other hints of than cutting-edge building and design, including an open-cage elevator with a wrap-around staircase. (Photo by Ron Cogswell: Flickr/Creative Commons)

Custom House

While Savannah’s current seat of power sits across the street, this building symbolizes where much of the port city’s power originated, trade and commerce. This lot on Bull Street was once home to the founder of the colony of Georgia, James Edward Oglethorpe, who built a wood-frame home here in the early 18th century, as well as the Tabernacle where John Wesley, the famous Methodist preacher. The current federal Custom House building, designed by New York architect John Norris, was finished in 1852. One of the oldest metal-framed structures in the United States, the blocky, imposing structure has a roof made of wrought iron plates. Take a close look at the fence and you’ll see an ancient reference to government power: the Roman fasci pattern, wooden rods bound with a leather strap that symbolized unifying power of the Senate. (sfgamchick:Flickr/Creative Commons)

Johnson Square

Named after Georgia’s first governor, Johnson Square is, along with Chippewa, the largest square in the city, and host to the Nathanael Greene Monument, celebrating a Revolutionary War general. The creation of the 50-foot marble obelisk, one of many civic monuments across the country erected in the 1820s to commemorate the Revolutionary War, was inspired by the Marquis de Lafayette’s nationwide tour in 1824 and 1825. At first, the monument, highlighting the trend of Egyptian structures found in other European cities at the time, such as the Place de la Concorde in Paris, was a military monument. But in 1902, Greene’s remains were interred below, making it both a military and memorial monument. (J. Stephen Conn: Flickr/Creative Commons)

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