The grandest architecture of the antebellum South is centered around Charleston and Savannah, which survived the Civil War a lot better than Atlanta -- which, of course, General Sherman burned to the ground.
The epitome of Southern graciousness, the plantation culture of Charleston, Savannah, and its surrounding Low Country spans 2 centuries that saw everything from a glorious antebellum past (for the landed gentry, not the slaves) to depression, decay, and the passing of a way of life.
The most remarkable buildings were constructed between 1686 and 1878 along the South Carolina coastal plain centered at Charleston.
Many of these once-elegant structures still stand today to enchant us, although they are in varying states of preservation, some no more than ruins. Only the camera has captured some of these stately Low Country manses for posterity. From churches to gardens, chapels to memorable homes, plantation houses to graceful frame structures, Charleston and Savannah have it all.
Savannah's Architecture & Art
Savannah's greatest collection of evocative architecture lies in the Historic District, where you can admire the old buildings, churches, and squares. Some structures are from the Colonial era; others were perhaps inspired by the Adam brothers or built in the Regency style. There are tons of ironwork and antique buildings in brick or clapboard. Even modest town houses from the 18th century have been restored to become coveted addresses.
Because many of its residents lacked money in the final decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, antique structures were allowed to stand, whereas many American cities destroyed their heritage and built modern buildings. When Savannahians started thinking about tearing down their old structures, a forceful preservation movement was launched -- and just in time.
What you won't see, as you travel through the Low Country around Savannah, is a lot of plantations where cotton was king. Many of these have "gone with the wind."
The First City -- In 1733, at the founding of Savannah, James Oglethorpe faced a daunting challenge. He not only had to secure homes for trustees and colonists, but he also had to construct forts around the new town of Savannah to fend off possible Indian raids, even though the local Native Americans were friendly.
Since they weren't well built and were later torn down to make way for grander structures, none of the founding fathers' little wooden homes remain today. But the town plan envisioned by Oglethorpe back in London still remains. He wanted an orderly grid composed of 24 squares. In case of rebellion he also wanted "mustering points" where troops could gather to squelch the problem.
Nine years after the colonists arrived in port, they had enough money and building materials to construct their first church, which quickly became the most elaborate structure in town. Called "The Orphan House," the church took its name from the Bethesda Orphanage founded by evangelist George Whitefield in 1738. Along with Oglethorpe, Whitefield believed that rum drinking caused a yellow fever-like disease but that beer drinking was acceptable. This philosophy was expounded to the congregation of Georgia's first church. Unfortunately, this landmark building no longer stands.
After the Revolutionary War, the port of Savannah began to grow rich on profits it made shipping sago powder, beef, pork, animal skins, tar, turpentine, and other exports. Money generated from this thriving trade with Europe, especially London, was poured into architecture. Grander homes began to sprout on the squares of Savannah. Still, none of these early structures equaled the glory of the rival city of Charleston. While visiting the family of Gen. Nathanael Greene, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, bringing even greater prosperity to the area, which led to grander building.
Little post-Revolutionary architecture survived a disastrous fire that struck in 1796, burning block after block of the city. Built by James Habersham, Jr., in a Georgian style, the remaining structure is a solid brick foundation covered in pink stucco. Today it is a well-recommended restaurant and bar, known as the Olde Pink House Restaurant, open to the general public at 23 Abercorn St.
In 1820, another devastating fire swept over Savannah, destroying architectural gems that had been erected by builders from both Charleston and the North. The fire erupted just at the time an epidemic of yellow fever broke out. Thousands of slaves died from the fever, temporarily slowing down building efforts because they provided the hard labor on the construction projects. Work on rebuilding Savannah was further slowed by a cholera epidemic in 1834.
But through it all, Savannahians survived and prospered and continued to pour money into elaborate structures, many of which remain today, especially those constructed of brick. The Federalist style was very prevalent, as it was along the east coast of America. Some builders, perhaps those with Loyalist hearts, preferred the Georgian style. Locals continued to spend money on churches, notably the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, whose architectural beauty competed with that of some of the finest churches of Charleston.
The Regency Style Sweeps Savannah -- The cotton planters with their newfound money invited William Jay of London to come to Savannah in 1817. He introduced the Regency style, which became all the rage in Savannah.
Some of his structures still stand today. His greatest achievement is the Owens-Thomas House, the best example of English Regency architecture in the United States. Inspired by classical buildings, the flourishing style was named for King George IV, who ruled as prince regent from 1811 to 1820. The house overlooks Oglethorpe Square and was standing in 1825 to welcome the Marquis de Lafayette when he was the guest of honor in Savannah. The French war hero addressed a crowd of Savannahians from the cast-iron veranda on the south facade of the building. This landmark building was constructed in the main from "tabby," a concrete mixture of oyster shells, sand, and lime. The Grecian-inspired veranda on the southern facade was the first major use of cast iron in Savannah. As an architectural device, cast iron later swept the city.
Jay also designed the Telfair Mansion in a neoclassical Regency style. It was constructed in 1818 for Alexander Telfair, the scion of Edward Telfair, a former Georgia governor and Revolutionary War hero. The mansion was bequeathed to the city for use as a museum, and it was formally opened in 1886. Many notables attended; most of the crowd's interest focused on Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy.
The Irish-born architect Charles B. Cluskey (1808-71) arrived in Savannah in 1838 and stayed for almost a decade, becoming known for his antebellum architecture influenced by the Greek Revival style. The elite of Savannah, prospering from neighboring plantations, hired him to design their town houses, including the Champion-McAlpin-Fowlkes house in 1844. He served as city surveyor of Savannah from 1845 to 1847, when he went to Washington with plans to renovate the White House and Capitol (few of his ideas were carried out, however).
Another antebellum architect, John Norris (1804-76), flourished in Savannah between 1846 and 1860. His most famous landmark is the Savannah Customs House, which was constructed between 1848 and 1852 in the Greek Revival style, with its mammoth portico. He also designed many more notable structures throughout the city in the same general style, including the Andrew Low House in 1849.
A competitor of his was John B. Hogg, who hailed from South Carolina. Hogg's most notable structure is the Trinity United Methodist Church at 225 W. President St. The church was built of the famous "Savannah grays," or stucco-covered gray brick. The building became known in Georgia as the "Mother Church of Methodism."
As Georgia, along with South Carolina, moved closer to the horror of the Civil War, Savannah architecture stood at the peak of its beauty and charm. A visitor from London claimed, "Savannah puts on a hell of a good show. It's not London but not bad for a colony."
War, Reconstruction & Preservation -- Unlike Atlanta, Savannah was not burned to the ground. Even in 1864, after all the wartime deprivation suffered by the long blockade of its port, Savannah was a worthy "gift" when Sherman presented it as a Christmas present to Lincoln.
The Civil War introduced most Savannahians to poverty, and the decades of Reconstruction meant the end of opulence. Oglethorpe's original town plan had stretched from 6 to 24 city squares. Architects of renown avoided building in Savannah, going to richer cities instead.
The famous "Savannah grays" ceased production in the 1880s. Many buildings fell into ruin or decay. Modern structures outside the historic core were haphazardly constructed, although the Victorian era produced some notable architecture to grace the cityscape.
Just when it appeared that Savannah was going to rot away in the hot Georgia sun, the 1950s preservation movement arrived. Historic Savannah was subsequently saved and restored during the latter part of the 20th century.
The Art of Savannah -- In antebellum days, portraiture was the most common form of art. Any moderately well off family commissioned idealized portraits of its family members, at least the gentleman and lady of the house. Most were either in oil on canvas or in watercolor. In some rare instances, the portraits were done on ivory. The subjects of the portraits are attired in their "Sunday go-to-meeting" garb. Backdrops were romanticized -- an elegant drapery, a Grecian column, a distant view of the ocean.
With the coming of the deprivations caused by the Civil War and the lean years of the Reconstruction era, Savannah was more in survivalist mode than in the mood for painting.
As time went on, a number of self-taught artists emerged in Savannah and the Low Country. Many of them were black, working in a folk-art medium. Sometimes they painted on unpainted clapboard from some abandoned barn or other structure. The Telfair Museum is the showcase for these self-taught artists, displaying Low Country art in various temporary exhibitions.
Among the other artists who have distinguished themselves in modern times is Leonora Quarterman (1911-79), who became one of the best-known watercolorists in the South. Her silk-screen prints of Savannah and Georgia coastal scenes are highly prized by collectors today.
Christopher P. H. Murphy (1902-69) was a native of the city who became known for drawings that captured both the cityscape of Savannah and the coastal landscape of the Low Country coastline. His originals and reproductions are as sought after as those of Ms. Quarterman.
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