Photography courtesy of HISTORIC SAVANNAH FOUNDATION
“DON’T IT ALWAYS seem to go,” sings Joni Mitchell in her hit song “Big Yellow Taxi,” “that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Mitchell could have been singing about an alternate history of Savannah, one where city leaders razed our historic buildings in the name of progress.
What must James Oglethorpe have thought of the term “progress” as he stepped foot atop the high bluff of the Savannah River in 1733 and imagined a city in the place of a maritime forest? Before a single structure was erected, he envisioned a grid of wards containing buildings for both housing and civic purposes, all situated around a common square. For centuries afterward, majestic, stalwart Savannah, America’s first planned city, survived wars and fires and outbreaks of disease. But would it always survive the latest notion of “progress,” when it appeared?
By the 1950s, city leaders across the country wanted parking lots for the post-WW2 automobile boom. Savannah seemed to be headed in the same direction. Oglethorpe-designed Ellis Square and historic City Market were demolished in favor of a modern four-story parking garage. In an Op Ed, the Savannah Morning News argued to run Georgia’s slice of President Eisenhower’s new interstate highway system, I-95, right down Bull Street. Savannah’s future was in peril; its past was threatened to be erased.
The 1950s marked the pivotal moment in Savannah’s preservation movement, and at the center of it stood seven stubborn women and the former home of Isaiah Davenport.
Built in 1820, the Federal-style Davenport House, with its stately bricks and curved double-staircases, was once a jewel of Columbia Square; however, by 1955 it had fallen into such disrepair that it was set to be bulldozed in order to, quite literally, put up a parking lot. That’s when Anna Colquit Hunter gathered six of her friends — Lucy Barrow McIntire, Elinor Grunsfeld Adler Dillard, Nola McEvoy Roos, Jane Adair Wright, Katherine Judkins Clark and Dorothy Ripley Roebling — and formed the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF). The Seven Ladies, as they’ve come to be known, leveraged their social ties and political connections to successfully block demolition.
For the Seven Ladies, the Davenport House represented more than just a building. It stood for history. It symbolized Savannah itself. These visionary women knew that progress and preservation go hand in hand. Buildings tell stories, not just of the people who built them or lived there, but of entire communities. It gives one the opportunity to ask, “What do we value? What makes us unique?”
What began as a campaign to save a single building soon grew into a passionate, community-wide movement.
“Our mission is about preservation, but equally, it’s about community,” says Sue Adler, CEO and president of the Historic Savannah Foundation. “We save buildings, but we also save neighborhoods.”
HSF prides itself on advocacy and education, and has long been considered a national leader in historic preservation. Following its formation in 1955, the organization started a Revolving Fund to save endangered historic properties, now totaling nearly 412 buildings. HSF continues to build capacity within its operations, secure new financial resources, improve its image and visibility, and increase public policy efforts to protect Savannah’s historic districts.
Adler took the helm of HSF in 2020, and two weeks later the pandemic hit. She quickly recognized the need for the organization to evolve while faithfully maintaining the mission, and her leadership paved the way for new initiatives still rooted in that first brave act that saved the Davenport House.
Although HSF is perhaps best known for its work in the historic downtown Landmark District, the foundation’s mark can be found all over the city. HSF even has several Revolving Fund projects in the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood, one of which they are restoring themselves.
“We aren’t just coming in and buying big buildings and selling them to the highest bidder; we’re really trying to make a difference. We are making a difference.” – Sue Adler
The Seven Ladies would be thrilled.
“There is such a need for affordable housing in this city,” says Gaye Reese, executive vice president at United Community Bank and HSF Secretary of the Board. “We aren’t just coming in and buying big buildings and selling them to the highest bidder; we’re really trying to make a difference. We are making a difference.”
Revitalization efforts can sweep quickly through an entire neighborhood; even a few restored houses can entice others to invest in an area. Once the Cuyler-Brownville restoration is completed, HSF will work with the City of Savannah’s Dream Maker program, which provides financial assistance for first-time homebuyers.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re a community,” says Reese.
Today, millions of tourists flock to Savannah to stroll the streets lined with moss-strewn oaks, to admire the architecture that lends Savannah its sense of wonder and whimsy, like a place out of time. The moldering downtown of the 1950s is now one of the nation’s largest historic districts. Businesses have been drawn by Savannah’s thriving port area, too, causing some to speculate that Savannah’s population will double in the next 30 years. New Hyundais will soon be built right up the road.
“With so many new people moving to the region, it brings different perspectives, ideas and challenges,” says Reese. “And that’s a good thing.”
The Seven Ladies of the Historic Savannah Foundation didn’t stop progress, they channeled it. By saving a building, they saved a neighborhood; by saving more neighborhoods, they saved a city.
“They wanted Savannah to stay Savannah,” says Reese.
When the next city leader creates a Davenport House moment, the current membership of the Historic Savannah Foundation will be there with a few questions.
DID YOU KNOW
May is Preservation Month. Established in 1973 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Month is co-sponsored by local preservation groups, state historical societies, businesses and civic organizations across the country. Locally, the Historic Savannah Foundation kicks off the month’s calendar of events with the annual Historic Preservation Awards. Held May 4 at the Charles H. Morris Center, the event honors individuals and organizations whose contributions demonstrate excellence in preservation in Savannah and Chatham County. For more information about HSF and Preservation Month events, visit myhsf.org.