Savannah, Hostess City of the South
A Lillis Photography Blog
Savannah has been described as “brutally romantic.” This southern gem had tempted me many times, and this year I made a decision to spend some quality time in this historic town where it is rumored that the dead never truly depart. Planning a week in Savannah with my son took intense preparation, the top priority being watching the famous movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, an adaptation of the book by Jim Berendt directed by Clint Eastwood. This film stars Kevin Spacey and Jude Law and focuses on the juicy facts about a famous murder case involving Jim Williams. Williams was a wealthy Savannahian, an American antiques dealer and a historic preservationist who played a significant role in the restoration of Savannah’s historic district. After four trials for an alleged murder that occurred in his house, he was acquitted. In watching this film, we learned some very intriguing things about Savannah. As a city, Savannah is easy going, tranquil, and can be compared to a young woman on a spring day, strolling down the sidewalk in a billowous, floral maxi dress carrying a traveler filled to the brim with a cocktail called the Savannah Smash. This particular drink is a concoction created from ingredients like bourbon, Rainwater Madeira, lemon, and peach shrub, and garnished with fresh mint. Savannah has fabulous lax open container laws, a policy which officially only applies to the Historic District, which states that a person is allowed to carry a plastic container of up to 16 ounces of alcohol on a stroll throughout the city. This policy allows for a plethora of wild and wonderful drinking hours that are sure to enhance otherwise mundane daily activities. Savannah would actually be lying down if it were any more laid back. In spite of this tranquility, we learned that Savannahians can have very complicated lives. The locals have been said to take their parties quite seriously. And, like a cherry topping on your exotic traveler, the city is billed as the most haunted in America. Some say this is due to the city being constructed over a mass grave of Civil War soldiers and yellow fever victims.
Upon our arrival to Savannah, we unloaded our suitcases, foodstuffs, and camera gear exactly five minutes after check in time at our hotel, The Old Harbor Inn, so we would still have time to capture late afternoon photos of some of the nearby squares. There are 22 squares in town, located across a one square-mile area of the Historic District. Each square is about 200 feet long and 100 to 300 feet wide. I made it my personal mission to photograph each square and to find the historic details that distinguishes each from the others. On this day, we were able to get a good sense of the layout of the city and explore several blocks illuminated in gorgeous dappled sunshine before it was time for a dash of southern comfort food for dinner.
One very interesting thing I noticed about Savannah is how extremely polite the people are. At one point, we were preparing to cross the street from one of the gorgeous, shady squares. We are conditioned from living in Northern Virginia to beware of oncoming traffic and be very careful when stepping into a road. Out of habit, we waited until all cars had finished passing before we started to cross. On one occasion, a young man in a sporty corvette convertible stopped traffic and waited for us to cross the street before he passed through, a smile on his face. This has never happened to us before. We were shocked. So, we crossed the road, and waved him Adieu as he patiently waited.
Before our trip, I had made advanced reservations for a home tour of the Mercer-Williams house. This lavish red brick home on Monterey Square is infamous for being the scene where Jim Williams allegedly shot and killed 21 year-old Danny Lewis Hansford on May 2, 1981. The house tour was glorious and showed all of Jim Williams’ personal furnishings and antiques exactly as he left them after his early death following the intense stress of four murder trials before his eventual acquittal. At one point in the tour, I asked in which room Danny Hansford was murdered. The guide quickly replied that I was standing on the very spot where his body fell after he was shot. I looked down to see if there were any blood stains, but the staff had sponged these clean back in 1981. This home tour is highly recommended as this residence consumes an entire city block. The carriage house behind this gorgeous home is full of wonderful trinkets, artwork, and a much needed toilet for those who had too much coffee before taking a long stroll to see all the city squares. Some other quite notable historic homes I recommend visiting include the Davenport House, the Kehoe House, the Owens-Thomas House, Harper-Fowkes house, Armstrong House, Andrew Lowe House, Juliette Gordon Low House, and the Green-Meldrin House. The latter of these fabulous homes has a lush garden with an intricate wrought iron gate, which was delightfully left open by a distracted gardener, allowing me to take countless close up photos of the formal garden. Photographing these glorious old homes, these treasures of time, was a thrill for me. The architectural styles such as Federal Colonial, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Regency, Romanesque amongst others are all so grand and photogenic.
After walking about seven miles around the Historic District, we had worked up quite an appetite. I had planned ahead and made reservations six weeks early for the most popular restaurant in town known as The Olde Pink House, Savannah’s only 18th century mansion. This house is located on Abercom Street on Reynolds Square. This home was actually purchased and restored by Jim Williams in the middle of the 20th century. The cuisine and service here cannot be topped. We had a traditional southern meal spilling over with comfort and style. The Olde Pink House is known for such specialties as fillet mignon in pepper sauce, grilled pork tenderloin with bourbon molasses, crispy scored flounder with apricot shallot sauce, cornbread fried oysters, candied sweet potatoes, and homemade key lime ice cream. We dined in the second floor ballroom surrounded by painted murals, and mirrors reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles near Paris. This house is also rumored to be eerily haunted. My son later told me that he felt a swishing of a satin ball gown as a ghostlike figure of a woman passed us on the steps.
Some other charming eating establishments I highly recommend include the Napoli Café, a lively Italian restaurant staffed with friendly waitresses dressed entirely in black, including platform combat boots, corsets, and a myriad of tattoos. The pasta dishes and garlic bread are superb, and made two weary travelers very happy. On another day, we enjoyed high tea at the Gryphon Tearoom located at the corner on Bull Street across from Madison Square. We had a very sophisticated three-tiered serving dish of dainty crustless sandwich triangles, various petit fours and of course a variety of fruity scones on the top tier. We unfortunately chose a rather blustery day to have high tea outdoors on the sidewalk, and we suffered a minor casualty as one cranberry raisin scone flew off into Madison Square mid meal. Our waiter’s name was Adonis and he lived up to his name. Our tea was impeccable. I highly recommend the Gryphon Tea Room for a spot of England in historic Savannah.
We enjoyed various other cafés at breakfast time. Some were downright southern in menu selection while others were a bit Parisian. We had one breakfast at a small place on Factor’s Walk called Two Cracked Eggs, which is how we felt after our long walks each day. Here you can order shrimp and biscuits, where the biscuits, without exaggeration, are larger than your head. Eggs come in almost any style, along with waffles, peachy French toast, and savory crepes. Their motto is “Life is too short for bad coffee”, a statement I whole heartedly endorse. The Parisian place, named Café M, is located nearby at 128 East Bay Street. They serve French pastries, macarons, gourmet salads, quiches, and breakfast sandwiches. The ambiance here creates a feeling of being transported to a café near Notre Dame in the heart of Paris. If you prefer to satisfy your inner Japanophile, the restaurant Yatai is a perfect option. With five TV screens upon which Anime is streamed throughout the day, and depictions of numerous characters from famous Manga and Anime series adorning the walls, the scene is set for a culinary experience like no other. The menu contains all that a ramen lover would require. My son is particularly fond of Takoyaki, which are ball-shaped appetizers made of octopus and fried to a golden hue. He refused to share.
The shopping in Savannah provides ample retail therapy for anyone who has been in withdrawal. A large number of shops are scattered along Broughton Street where you will find small boutiques and some familiar chain stores. A magnetic draw for customers is a place called Leopold’s that is famous for serving a creamy homemade super-premium ice cream. Leopold’s is a parlor with a marble soda fountain that also serves soups and sandwiches. Be prepared for a 30 minute wait in line for this ice cream! Bring a book or make sure your phone is fully charged. As a rule, I always enjoy photographing shop fronts from any of the cities I visit, as the shops reveal lots of character and charm. Each shop is different, and the window dressings can be distinctive, with the shop owners pulling out all the stops and using their creativity to entice visitors. One bath shop featured a naked mannequin in a tub surrounded by a highly proficient bubble machine.
We also visited a small area called the Design District which features a handful of small businesses that sell things like hardware, womens’ fashions, and specialized lighting. Yes, shopping is always a good idea, and even more so in Savannah. Don’t forget to check out the SCAD shop, a unique gallery for artwork and designs created by artists from Savannah College for Art and Design. One of our favorite shops is called E. Shaver Booksellers. This small shop was built in 1842 as a personal residence. It was an antiques shop in the 1950’s and then became a bookseller in 1975. The most interesting thing about this shop is that it is inhabited by a trio of playful, fluffy cats named Bartleby, Mr. Eliot, and Skimbleshanks. This trifecta of furry felines is often found sunbathing in the various windows amidst bestsellers. They have become the shop’s literary devices creating literal, verbal and visual elements as they intensify mood and feeling.
The old City Market is a place to add to your itinerary. The area offers several souvenir shops with locally made products including body creams and spices. If you want a local history lesson, you can visit the Prohibition Museum and explore the Temperence Movement exhibits and peruse the posters, pamphlets and propaganda that influenced the American people to vote the country dry. Learn all about this turbulent time in history and on your way out, stop at the speakeasy inside the museum and order a sazerac to enhance the remainder of your afternoon. After all, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt “what America needs right now is a drink”.
If you have seen the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you will recall the most colorful character in the film as The Lady Chablis. She was also known as the Grand Empress and the Doll, and was an American actor, author, club performer, and transgender icon. Although she is deceased, there are still ample posters of her around the city. She was a shining light during her time and performed in many clubs around town. Her most famous quote is “It’s like my mom always said: ‘Two tears in a bucket, mother f*ckit’.”
One of my favorite things to photograph in Savannah are the stunning Belgian draft horses that pull the constant flow of carriages around the Historic District. Like a river that has filled from a heavy rain, these magnificent creatures ebb and flow through the streets like clockwork. The horses are friendly enough to pose for the camera. One such horse named Rooster seemed to follow me around the city. He sported a red striped bridle and I would swear he winked at me as I would run out into the street to capture him in full stride. He pulled a carriage filled with relaxed tourists soaking in the driver’s history lesson about a nearby house. The horses seemed content to stroll around those shady squares each day. They add an irresistible element to the city.
The most famous square in Savannah was made known by the movie Forest Gump. This movie shows Tom Hanks seated on a wooden bench holding his infamous box of chocolates as he waits for a bus in front of Chippewa Square. In reality, there is no bus stop on this square, but in our Hollywood minds we clearly understand there was a bus stop and that life truly is like a box of chocolates. We spent almost an entire hour on Chippewa as it is one of the most attractive squares, lined with colorful mansions, and live oak trees hundreds of years old. These squares are rarely crowded and each one provides a welcoming respite. There are multiple ways to capture each square with my camera. The views inside looking out are always stunning, but the views looking in can also be equally photogenic. If you have a obsession for live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, these squares will be the essence of your dreams. The oak trees decorate each square with intricate branches that shade and protect everything within. At first glance, the 22 squares in the city look alike, but then after learning about the history of each square, the distinctions become evident. The centerpieces of each honor different people and historic events, allowing these squares to make up the steady heartbeat of Savannah.
Forsythe Park, and particularly the Forsyth Fountain, are popular highlights of Savannah. The park is bordered by Gaston Street on the north, Drayton Street on the East, Park Avenue on the South and Whittaker Street on the West. It contains walking paths, a children's play area, a garden for the blind, a large fountain, tennis courts, basketball courts, areas for soccer and frisbee, and the home field for the Savannah Shamrocks Rugby Club. From time to time, there are concerts held at Forsyth Park to the benefit of the public. The fountain is of particular interest as it is the most photographed fountain in the country. Interestingly enough, it was ordered from a mail order catalog 160 years ago. Located at the north end of the park, the fountain was added in 1858 and is reminiscent of fountains in Paris in Place de la Concorde. You may have seen this fountain in various movies such as The Longest Yard and Cape Fear. Not far from Forsythe Park is the Victorian District. My son and I visited this area to see some of the outstanding examples of Victorian architecture, and to have waffles and hot coffee at a small cafe one Saturday morning.
Not far from the Historic District lies the popular Bonaventure Cemetery located on a scenic bluff of the Wilmington River. This cemetery was made famous when it was featured in the 1994 novel by John Berendt. Upon entering this cemetery, we immediately felt a serene and soothing atmosphere. The old roads are lined with centuries-old live oaks covered in Spanish moss and has earned a reputation as the most aesthetically pleasing cemetery in the US. The days we were there were balmy and warm, and the tombs were illuminated with golden sunshine. I could hear the muffled voices of cemetery tour guides with small flocks of people following them down narrow paths. I, too, followed their voices and was able to come across some significant graves. The first I encountered were of Johnny Mercer, an American lyricist, songwriter, and singer, and his entire family. He was a record label executive who co-founded Capitol Records. On his gravestone and memorial bench, are the engraved lyrics to many of the songs he wrote. Not far from the Mercer family plot, I found a number of glorious stone angels on several graves, some of which were larger than life. One extends her hand upward and points to heaven, while another inspects a stone scroll to see if the deceased is on the list for heaven. One of the most memorable female statues in the cemetery is that of Corinne Lawton. As the legend goes, when Corinne was of age, she met and fell in love with a man whom her parents did not approve. They were dead set against the marriage and made an arranged marriage instead with a wealthy man of Savannah society. Corinne told her parents she could never love him. On the day before her wedding, she was despondent and heartbroken, so she rode her father’s horse to the banks of the Savannah River and drowned herself in a final act of defiance. Her parents commissioned the famous sculptor Benedetto Civiletti from Sicily to create her statue. She is depicted sitting forlornly by a cross wearing a long gown with one shoulder bare. Her eyes have no pupils and a garland of flowers has slipped from her fingers. She appears as sad and lost as she was in her final weeks. Her father’s grave is behind hers, depicting an enormous archway into heaven with Jesus standing next to it. In the afterlife, he appears to be looking over Corinne.
Slipping into this city is like living in a dream in antebellum times. Savannah’s architecture has either been carefully preserved or lovingly restored. There are over 1100 historical buildings here. Savannah is the United State’s first planned city having been divided into a precise grid-like format. The Historic District is two square miles which makes a visit here ideal for a walkabout. Our overall impression of Savannah is that it is a lovely, classic reverie of cobblestone streets, the sounds of hooves on the pavement from the horse-drawn carriages, and legendary stories of her people. People in the city are so very hospitable and polite. We noticed time and again how strangers are very kind. This city has flourished over time like greenhouse plants nurtured by a doting gardener. Eccentric people have thrived here over the decades. Savannah is a lush haven from other more hectic urban environments. John Berendt put it quite well in his book when he summed up his feelings on Savannah: “If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask is ‘What’s your business?’. In Macon, they ask ‘Where do you go to church?’. In Augusta, they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah, the first question they ask is ‘What would you like to drink?’.”
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)