Lost and Found in the Savannah Squares
When I decided almost ten years ago to go back to school for an M.A. degree, the Savannah College of Art and Design was first on my list of places I wanted to go. At the time, this was almost exclusively because of the school’s location. After nearly a decade of living in Nashville, Tennessee, I was utterly fed up with having to get in my car to do absolutely everything, and the idea of opening a new chapter in my life in a walkable, mixed-use, and beautiful city like Savannah was very appealing. I knew that the city had an innovative network of squares, but that was really about all I knew—and to be honest, while my first love was urban design, I was rather set on studying 3D digital design at SCAD because I thought it would be a good way to experiment with urban environments.
I could not have been more wrong about my suitability for SCAD’s digital design program, but when it came to the city of Savannah and SCAD in general I was so very right. After making a joyous switch over to the Architectural History program, I suddenly found myself not only in a great city, but also in a great program that was equipping me to discover and deeply explore that city. It is rather clichéd to say that the urban environment is the best classroom, but in Savannah’s case I think it is literally true; the city’s globally unique network of civic squares presents outdoor public living rooms that are perfect for teaching, debating, reading, and just about anything else.
When it came time to choose a topic for my M.A. thesis, I briefly entertained the notion of doing a project on postwar reconstruction in Dresden, Germany…before slapping myself in the face and realizing, in a near panic, that the best possible topic was not only right in front of my face, but also under my feet and all around me: Savannah itself! Specifically, the squares—and more specifically, the three squares that had been demolished decades ago, to the consternation and confusion of the city’s modern inhabitants. Everything I could ever need was all there, right at my fingertips: faculty experts, newspaper microfilm reels, civic records, the sites themselves, local civil society archives, old phone books, everything. Living not only with but also in my topic helped me to finish the document in a timely fashion, and I was happy to graduate, if sad to leave.
Little did I know that, even as I departed Georgia for a job in an architecture firm in Virginia, my life in the Savannah squares was not going to end anytime soon. First, I learned that my paper had won SCAD’s Graduate Thesis Document Award. Then, one of its chapters played an instrumental role in my being accepted to the Ph.D. program at Brown University’s History of Art and Architecture department. Soon after arriving at Brown, I began to present my recent and ongoing research at scholarly conferences, and it seemed that everywhere I went—from Ireland to Hawaii, from Beirut to Boston—fellow students and senior scholars were eager to hear about Savannah. And why shouldn’t they be? The city is amazing! Its unique and elegant layout is a rare manifestation of the Renaissance Ideal City tradition that dramatically embodies the rise and fall of its founders’ utopian dreams, creating a civic realm that has alternately been the site of progressive humanitarianism and cruel bigotry, of reformed egalitarian peace and bitter internecine war. As I learned when writing my thesis at SCAD, Savannah’s grid of squares had also been the site of some profound Depression-Era debates about the nature and value of modernity, highlighting the ongoing relevance of the Savannah Plan and its evolution in the twentieth century and beyond.
Image courtesy of the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan.
Ultimately, my thesis was broken into two parts for publication. The portion on the twentieth-century civic conflict over “Savannah’s Lost Squares” was released in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. The other portion, which was on the ideological origins and formal precedents of the network of squares, was published in an edited volume entitled Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Somewhat ironically, this second publication was profoundly enhanced by my move to Providence and Brown University, where a brilliant collection of original documents from colonial Georgia is housed in the John Carter Brown Library. Furthermore, while doing research at Brown for my dissertation on the architecture of utopian literature, I came across an ideal town plan [see figure] from a 1718 book by Leonhard Christoph Sturm that, to me at least, clearly resembles the 1733 Savannah grid and is a prime contender for the definitive influence. When I got a hold of the original book and saw that it had been dedicated to the commanding officer of James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah, while Oglethorpe was serving in the military, I nearly lost it.
My only regret was that I could not celebrate these discoveries or publications in Savannah itself, face-to-face with the faculty of the Architectural History department, whose kind instruction and counsel were indispensable to my career and indeed to my intellectual development in general. Savannah is not only a great classroom, it is also a fantastic research topic. I am utterly sure that much remains to be discovered and explored in Savannah, and that countless pages of great architectural history could be written on its buildings, streets, and above all its squares. At risk of riddling this essay with urbanistic clichés, I must say that a part of my heart remains in Savannah due to its important role in transforming my life—and in fact, twenty-four parts of my heart remain in Savannah, one for each square, including those that have been lost and those that have been found again.
Editor’s Note: Nathaniel Walker (M.A. 2006) is currently completing his Ph.D. in architectural history in the History of Art and Architecture department at Brown University.