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Williams delivers conference paper on Savannah pavement

November 1, 2009

On Thursday I had the pleasure of delivering one of the more esoteric topics I’ve ever focused on for a conference paper — “The Curious Case of Savannah Pavement” at the annual meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians held in Jackson, MS.  For years I had noticed these peculiar triangular formations of asphalt blocks in front of our previous academic building downtown.  Asphalt Blocks - Chatham Square_smThe prospect of giving this paper challenged me to do more research and discover an explanation for the curious triangles.  Working mainly with published Mayor’s Reports from the 1850s-1910s, engineering records from the City of Savannah archives and a pavement manual from 1900 found through Google Books, I discovered a rich story of experiments with pavement in Savannah that in many ways mirrored national trends and in other ways was unique.  The city experimented with wood plank roads, macadam, wood blocks, Belgian blocks, granite blocks, oyster shells, asphalt, vitrified bricks and asphalt blocks.  Some of these survive, along with various concrete mixtures (with shells or granite as aggregate), in downtown Savannah today, where my field survey found twelve different kinds of pavement and even some dirt lanes.  Around 1900, pavement was as important as skyscrapers as a symbol of a progressive city, helping reduce disease and mitigate the threat of urban fires (because fire-fighting equipment could move more quickly on paved streets).  The triangles in the pavement (formed by bricks rotated 45 degrees), I learned from a city engineer and confirmed in the 1900 manual, are laid that way to keep bricks perpendicular to the movement of wheels as cars turn at a corner.  Not the rationale I had speculated, but interesting nonetheless.

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