Strolling Through Savannah
Savannah, Georgia, is a popular travel destination, renowned for its elegant squares, antebellum houses, unique urban plan, and graceful live oaks. Visitors can tour the city in a variety of conveyances – carriages, trolleys, even hearses – but walking may be the best way to get to know the historic downtown area.
As the owner of Architectural Tours of Savannah, Jonathan Stalcup has conducted walking tours around the city’s storied National Historic Landmark District since 2005. He also has written a book, Savannah Architectural Tours. According to him, traversing the city on foot enables visitors to experience Savannah the way its first residents did – and to appreciate its unique urban design and history.
Savannah’s Unique Urban Plan
Savannah, founded in 1733, is known throughout the world for its urban design.
“When the city founder, James Oglethorpe, laid out Savannah, he planned it as a series of squares and wards forming a grid,” says Stalcup. “The blocks that form the grid are small because they are on the human scale. If today’s visitors are able to walk through the city rather than ride in a carriage or trolley, they will have a much more thorough understanding of how the city was meant to be experienced.”
Oglethorpe’s plan established 22 squares, with facing properties slated for residential, government, and commercial use. Most of the squares still exist today and are surrounded by museums, cafés, shops, homes, and churches built throughout the city’s nearly 300-year history.
Savannah’s Must-See Buildings
Downtown Savannah is full of buildings notable for its architecture, history, or both. Asked what his favorite building is, Stalcup mentions this abundance.
“It’s hard to pick a favorite building out of all the great architecture in Savannah, but I do feel that the most important building in the city is the Owens-Thomas House,” he says. “It is the most intact 19th-century site in Savannah and the first designed by a trained architect. One of the many reasons the Owens-Thomas House is so important is because it was extremely modern when completed in 1819.”
The house, which stands at 124 Abercorn St., was designed by British architect William Jay. Now operated by the Telfair Museums, the English Regency building is open to visitors.
Walking Through Savannah History
In addition to its unique squares, Savannah’s downtown is filled with structures designed and built from the colonial era to the present. During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman spared Savannah after burning many other cities throughout the state.
As a result, many of the original structures remain intact, and new buildings have been integrated into the overall urban plan.
“The many changes in architecture through the last few centuries have all been adapted to this urban grid,” Stalcup says. “People often remark about how surprised they are to find such a diverse range of styles in Savannah. Savannah has never frozen in a certain era, and therefore one of its strongest traditions is being able to keep current.”
A particularly noteworthy new building – and one that perfectly illustrates the city’s historical continuity – is the Jepson Center, located at 207 West York St. on Telfair Square. Designed by noted architect Moshe Safdie, the center opened in 2006 as part of the Telfair Museums. Across the street from the Jepson Center stands the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former residence that opened as a public art museum in 1886.
“Aside from visiting the Owens-Thomas House, visitors should take time to walk the major arteries such as Bull Street and Abercorn Street,” Stalcup suggests. “Other important buildings that show the tradition of keeping current include the old Chatham County Courthouse, the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, [and] The Scottish Rite Temple.”
Visitors should avoid walking alone, particularly at night, and should always be aware of their surroundings.
Because of its small scale and the richness of its history, downtown Savannah is well suited for walking. A mild climate, flat terrain, and the shade provided by abundant live oaks add to the appeal. Visitors who walk through the squares can experience the beauty and symmetry of Oglethorpe’s original plan and can see how the city has adapted and innovated without losing its unique charm.