- since 2011 -

On Savannah and Charleston

Friday, 25 March 2011

Touring two Southern belles, by the book...

I'll have to sit down, can't be doing with this - forty degrees and humid like you wouldn't believe. Last night someone said you get higher temperatures in Arizona or wherever but not heat like this, like being in warm water.

The 'owl' girl said the same thing in the travel agent in town thousands of miles away. I was booking the holiday, fly-drive to Atlanta. Dates, flights, car hire, hotel, insurance, results, please wait. In comes a family wanting a fortnight in Florida. Kid with scruffy hair in last season's Liverpool top, can't keep still, swinging from something. Mam nods at him. "He's not going on holiday with his head like that." Nan desperate to take the weight off her feet. "I'll have to sit down."

Sat down, ready to go again, knocking back another bottle of water as sweat dribbles down the small of my back. Late September in Savannah has brought the back-end of a prolonged American heat wave that's kept everyone in T-shirts and shorts when they thought they'd be layering up. Then no sooner do I wander into Monterey Square and look up from my book to face the Mercer House - the famous Mercer House - than the skies darken and rain sheets down to the rip, rumble and boom of Deep South thunder. The timing couldn't be more deliciously gothic.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

'The Book', as they refer to it in these parts, is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the best-selling exposé of high and low society in this beguiling city with a beautiful name on the Georgia coast.

Savannah. I was sold on the sound of it alone. Like Sevilla, the jewel of Andalusia. There's a novel by Sebastian Faulks called A Fool's Alphabet that I re-read recently because of a chicken-and-egg supposition that made me think: 'The alphabet was the means by which a place became articulate. Without a name, it was no more than a collection of buildings or a natural landmark. But although places were given this access to articulacy, their single utterance was void of meaning. Even names whose derivation was clear, like Newtown, did not reveal the character of the place. A given arrangement of letters from the alphabet broke the silence, but meaning could be grasped only by some more patient human process'.

Can the actual spelling and pronunciation of a placename give that place its identity? And if this place has a completely different name in another language - Chinese, for instance - what then? Which version, which experience of the place, is more real? Get on that.

The Mercer House on Monterey Square

The Mercer House on Monterey Square

Back on Monterey Square, my eyes scan down the page to a description of the house right in front of me: 'an Italianate mansion of red brick with tall, arched windows set off by ornate ironwork balconies' which is 'aloof behind its apron of lawn and its cast-iron fence, not so much looking out on the square as presiding over it'. The sudden downpour makes sinister sense, given what happened here - though for those yet to experience the delights of John Berendt's true-crime classic, that would be telling.

Savannah is a straightforward 250 interstate miles and a world away from Atlanta, the Peach State's capital and superstar city. En route the highways are sprinkled with magical yellow butterflies and span ancient rivers with Native American names like Ocmulgee, Ogeechee and Oconee. The deeper you delve into this sultry Lowcountry of the southeastern United States, the warmer it gets - subtropical in high summer. The cuisine, too, becomes more exotic. Seafood specials like wild shrimp and she-crab soup share top billing with other regional favourites like fried green tomatoes (sensational), benne seed wafers and, of course, grits.

Savannah's streetscape is just as enticing. It's... un-American. The historic downtown district (three square miles) has no skyscrapers or subway but a wealth of exquisite architecture (like the Mercer House) on a human scale. French magazine Le Monde once called it 'la plus belle des villes' of North America. What makes it truly special are its squares - 21 of them, dating back to the original settlement founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733, in what was to become the first city of Britain's 13th and last American colony, Georgia.

Exploring one feels like wandering through a theatrical tableau vivant - a 'living picture' of buildings dressed in period costume: antebellum chateaus, villas and townhouses seemingly frozen in time and dramatically lit by sunshine filtered through oak trees whose silvery-green Spanish moss doesn't so much hang as drip from their branches. (It's neither Spanish nor a moss, they say, but a member of the pineapple family that lives off moisture in the atmosphere and minerals from the trees).

Berendt describes the squares as 'the jewels of Savannah... no other city in the world [has] anything like them'. One of the finest, Telfair Square, has an art gallery that displays the haunting 'Bird Girl' statue from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The book isn't a prerequisite read but it is synonymous with the city, doing for Savannah what the Beatles did for Liverpool - putting a historic port back on the map. A bronze tablet on Savannah's City Hall commemorates 'the first steamship to cross the ocean', from here to my hometown in 1819. Near it, another tablet remembers the John Randolph, 'the first iron vessel seen in American waters...made by John Laird of Birkenhead' in 1834. Fancy that.

Savannahians are surrounded by history. In 1793 the invention of the cotton gin (separating seed from fibre) on a nearby plantation allowed the crop to be processed faster and enabled vast fortunes to be made by a nascent 'tidewater aristocracy'. Margaret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind: 'All of the world was crying out for cotton... Wealth came out of the curving furrows, and arrogance came too - arrogance built on green bushes and the acres of fleecy white - if cotton could make them rich in one generation how much richer they would be in the next'.

The city was name-checked by Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, in a description of Liverpool's effervescent docks in Redburn, his 1849 novel: 'Here lie the noble New York packets and the Savannah cotton ships and traders...'

The River Street warehouses that once stored all that cotton for export have long since been converted to hotels, shops and restaurants, still linked by old tramlines and now served by trolley and horse-drawn carriage tours of everything from homes and gardens to ghosts and legends (the American Institute of Parapsychology has officially named Savannah as 'America's Most Haunted City' - a tourism board's dream). Behind them are the steep alleyways of Factors Walk, named after cotton brokers and built from ballast stones discharged from European ships, and today honeycombed with eclectic gift shops and galleries.

Time to sit down again. River Street is book-ended to the west by Hyatt Regency Hotel, too steep to stay in but ideal for cooling off with iced tea and watching steamboats from the balcony of its swish bar. Berendt's book describes a campaign against the Hyatt - 'a squat, modernist building' - going up in this sensitive location. It was a rare defeat, pride in the past being a catalyst for one of earliest urban preservation movements in the country. At the beginning of the last century Savannah suffered like every other American city when her middle classes fled to the suburbs and left their downtown houses empty, derelict and prey to the wrecking ball. She became, in Berendt's words, 'a beautiful woman with a dirty face'.

It took the mobilisation of half-a-dozen dismayed local ladies to save the day. In the mid-1950s they formed the Historic Savannah Foundation to buy endangered properties and resell them to individuals or groups who agreed to restore them. To date over 350 buildings have been saved, and several of them are open to the public. The Foundation continues to preserve and protect the city's heritage, most recently engaged in a campaign to prevent Savannah's iconic orange 'lollipop' bus-stop signs from being replaced. Its motto: 'They're not good because they're old - they're old because they're good'.

South of Broad, Pat Conroy

Across the nearby state border with South Carolina and roughly 100 miles north-east - no more than two hours by car - is another southern belle serenaded in literature and safeguarded by a prominent preservation group. Where Berendt calls Savannah a 'secluded bower of a city on the Georgia coast', novelist Pat Conroy likens his native city of Charleston to a 'Mansion on the River'.

Actually it's on two rivers, the Ashley and Cooper, which converge at the Atlantic coast. Charleston's historic centre inhabits the peninsula between them, surrounded by a string of barrier islands whose salt-marsh ecosystems are havens for wildlife.

Day One, a touch overcast and the walking is easy. I've only gone half-a-mile or so when I see a sign for Prioleau Street, French Quarter - after the same family that made its mark in Liverpool. Around 150 years ago Charles Prioleau lived at 19 Abercromby Square, now University of Liverpool property near Hope Street, and worked down by the Mersey at 10 Rumford Street (off Chapel Street) for Charleston cotton merchants Fraser Trenholm. To this day the Star Spangled Banner flies next to the Union Jack outside this unprepossessing little building.

While Savannah is 15 miles inland from the coast, Charleston is at the very edge of the deep blue sea. A cruise ship stop-off for 40 years, serving mainly the Bahamas, its Union Pier passenger terminal is currently undergoing a major makeover. By late 2012 a restored granite wharf at the foot of the monumental US Customs House will link the shoreline to the heart of the action on bustling Market Street.

The city doesn't have a standout book by which to define itself, but there are contenders like Conroy's recent South of Broad, a rites-of-passage saga of a charismatic group of Charlestonians over two decades. The title is taken from a labyrinth of tree-lined lanes south of Broad Street - all gas lamps and fanlights - that meets the sea, and the setting is as much a protagonist as the novel's narrator who swoons at Greek Revival houses on the waterfront 'lit up like theaters' from which he can hear 'the voices of families talking on their verandas and porches'.

This is another paradise for flaneurs, or urban explorers on foot: a genteel stage on which to wander and pause, or take advantage of a plethora of guided-tour options. Charleston's beauty runs through its streets like the peal of bells, of which there are many - more than 400 churches, the legacy of an egalitarian attitude to worship, make this the self-styled Holy City.

Overall there are 1,200 architecturally significant buildings, many of them with explanatory plaques. In 1931, a good two decades before Savannah's sisters rallied around the preservationist banner, private buildings in Charleston were first designated as worthy of protection from demolition.

Among them were a number of Charleston's celebrated double and single houses, so-called because the former have front doors with one room on either side, and the latter are only a single room wide to make the most of cool breezes in summers which Conroy claims can 'blister the paint off moving cars'. No kidding.

Visitors can enjoy a Spring or Fall Tour of Homes & Gardens, some of which are open to the public all year round. The months of March and April come particularly recommended for their flower-fest of honeysuckle, camellia, jasmine and magnolia. For Spanish moss, read palmetto - South Carolina's emblematic tree - along with sweetgrass, from which craftswomen weave their baskets for sale in a tradition begun by ancestors of slaves from West Africa.

Unlike Savannah, urban development has been the least of Charleston's worries down the ages. Founded over half-a-century earlier in 1670, the city has a history of radicalism during the Revolution, trauma throughout the American Civil War and turbulence - literally - when Hurricane Hugo came to town in 1989. No wonder it knows how to party, with art gallery open-houses and rooftop cocktail bars - providing live music and lambent sunsets - all the rage at weekends.

As the Jazz Age home of Porgy and Bess from George Gershwin's African-American opera, it's a city with soul, and as the birthplace of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind it effortlessly cuts a dash. Like a really good book, the only downside for vacationers is having to reach the end - even though it only takes a Beatles piano medley in a bar at Atlanta Airport to start me pining for home.

My images of Savannah and Charleston are at:

Savannah pictures
Charleston pictures

'Exploring one feels like wandering through a theatrical tableau vivant - a 'living picture' of buildings dressed in period costume: antebellum chateaus, villas and townhouses seemingly frozen in time and dramatically lit by sunshine filtered through oak trees whose silvery-green Spanish moss doesn't so much hang as drip from their branches'


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A painting. A mystery. A ping in the inbox
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Old Dock: it's about time
Happy 300th birthday to where it really all began
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Spain: art and soul
At the football, on the seafood, dodging conkers
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Somerset iron and the cinnamon river
The man who made the Shankly Gates, and other people
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All Play and No Work
Meaningfully employed - you're having a laugh
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Peel on wheels
Mind that cyclist - the Liverpool Waters juggernaut is picking up speed
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Walk on Water
Featuring winter sunsets and local wildlife
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Blue jays over Botetourt
After the tall ships, a tranquil bower of heritage in a busy American city
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All Play and No work

Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

World cities: some works of art

'I have no idea what other people do'

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

Blog on the grog

Did you hear that too?

A cherub astride a what?

A time to dance

Ghosts of Mount Urgull

Postcard from San Sebastian

El Camino, with knobs on

'Of the city, by the city, for the city'

Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?

Still small voice

On the waterfront

Raise the botanic

Old man of the sea

What a carve up

Gates to the city

Brand of hope and glory

Two of a kind

Kingdoms of Heaven

Green and serene

Seville for divvies

Ride a Black Swan

The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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