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The Isaiah Davenport House

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It’s impossible to imagine Savannah without the stunning mansions which adorn so many of its squares and streets. But the city’s architectural heritage was once in real danger of disappearing completely. The struggle to save Savannah’s soul began in 1955, at the Isaiah Davenport House.

Davenport House

In the mid-20th century, Savannah was a very different place. Many of its homes stood vacant and derelict, and there wasn’t much value placed on preservation. Why maintain an abandoned old house, unique as it may be, when the valuable downtown lot can be sold for parking? From north to south, east to west, Savannah’s historic squares were coming under assault from the most hideous sort of re-development.

In 1955, when a parking company announced its plans to buy the Isaiah Davenport House on Columbia Square, certain members of Savannah’s society stood up and said, “enough.” This house was one of the country’s most important examples of American Federal architecture, and the idea that it could be demolished for yet another parking lot was too much to bear. Under the leadership of Katherine Summerlin, a group of seven women united as the Historic Savannah Foundation, and raised enough money to purchase the property. They restored the Isaiah Davenport House, and opened it as a museum in 1962.

Davenport House

And they didn’t stop there. Over the next few decades, the foundation snatched up property after property, quickly settling into a comfortable rhythm of buy-restore-sell, which allowed them to continue until over 500 of Savannah’s most notable houses had been saved from the wrecking ball.

After taking a tour of the Davenport House, it’s clear why this property was the catalyst for action. It would have been a travesty for it to have been lost. Isaiah Davenport was an architect by trade, and his house was built as both a residence for his family, as well as an advertisement for his skills. We loved our tour, which brought us into the family’s living quarters and salons. Each room has been designed to mimic an 18th-century residence, with period furniture and wallpaper copied from period patterns.

If you want to understand Savannah’s history, a visit to the Isaiah Davenport House is a must. Today, the necessity of preserving important works of architecture seems self-evident, but it’s important to remember that this hasn’t always been the case. Without the tireless work of a few dedicated individuals, Savannah would be a very different place.

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Davenport House Museum – Website

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April 7, 2016 at 10:47 am Comments (0)

The Georgia State Railroad Museum

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The Central of Georgia Railway company was founded in 1833, connecting Savannah to Macon and Southeast America’s budding train network. The company’s Savannah headquarters were closed in 1963, and today the grounds have found a new life as home to the Georgia State Railroad Museum.

Train Museum Savannah

Located in Tricentennial Park, the former headquarters of the Central of Georgia are considered one of the most well-preserved antebellum train complexes in America, and the entire site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The site is comprised of a handful of old buildings, most of which can be visited. The highlight is the old roundhouse. Railway cars in need of repair were able to roll into the center of this circular construct, where there was a massive rotating disk that would spin around until the car was pointed at its proper stall.

We joined a tour of the former Coach and Paint House, which currently holds some historic wagons, tram cars and a caboose. Neglected for decades after the company’s closure, this building and the entire yard had been occupied by homeless people, who accidentally started a major fire. Today, a lot of restoration has been done, but you can still see the signs of the paint house’s rougher days, most particularly in the graffiti decorating its walls.

Train Museum Savannah

Many of the company’s most historic trains have been restored, and the most impressive ones are displayed in the roundhouse. Unfortunately, almost all of them are off-limits to visitors, unless you’re part of a tour. Luckily, such tours are both free and frequent. Regardless of what time you show up, you’ll likely be able to join one. If you have kids, you might want to ensure that the tour you join includes a ride on the still-functioning handcar.

Location on our Map
Georgia State Railroad Museum – Website

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April 6, 2016 at 10:51 am Comments (0)

Lady Hats at the Mansion

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“Lady Hats at the Mansion” is a suggestive title, yes? Is it a metaphor? A play on words? Well, apologies for being so literal, but in this case, we’re referring to actual lady hats. As soon as we learned about this bizarre collection, we raced over to the Mansion on Forsyth. Nothing gets our blood pumping like dainty hats for lady-folk!

The “Kessler Collection Celebrating a Century of Hats” is a permanent exhibition found within the stately halls of the Mansion on Forsyth Park. Even if you’re not into hats, you should still step inside this red-brick, Victorian Romanesque mansion, which is among the most beautiful buildings in the city. Today it operates as a hotel, and the lobby is a study in elegance. The Mansion is also home to 700 Drayton, a popular restaurant on the ground floor.

But we were here for the lady hats. We’ve always been drawn to oddball exhibitions, and have visited museums dedicated to witchcraft, brothels, parasites and private parts, so this collection was right up our alley.

A few glass cases in a first-floor hallway of the Mansion contain dozens of bonnets and fedoras dating back to the 1860s. Some of them are pretty, while others are just insane. And whether or not it was intentionally designed this way, you can position yourself so that your reflection appears to be wearing the hats. Have I always wondered what I’d look like in a sassy silk bonnet? Well, not really. But it turns out I look like a cross-dressing psychopath.

Even if you’re not an aficionado of antiquated fashion, the Mansion’s Lady Hat collection is a sight which is fun, free and bizarre… and somehow feels right at home in Savannah.

Location on our Map
The Mansion on Forsyth – Website

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Mansion Hat Collection
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April 5, 2016 at 9:52 am Comments (0)

The Beach Institute

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Opened in 1856, the Massie School may have been the city’s first public school, but many of Savannah’s aspiring students would have to wait eleven more years for the founding of the Beach Institute: Savannah’s first school specifically for black children. Today, the school has moved into a more modern facility, and the old house has evolved into a cultural center and gallery.

Savannah Beach Institute

When the Beach Institute opened in 1867, it was staffed primarily by white women who had come down from the North. It was a private institution at the time, funded primarily through the beneficence of Alfred Ely Beach, the editor of Scientific American. A few years later, it became a public school, under the control of the Savannah Board of Education.

The Institute closed in 1919, but the house remained standing in its downtown location on Price Street, where it now operates as a cultural center dedicated to promoting and preserving the city’s black heritage. With exhibits on three floors, some of which are temporary, it’s a great place to take a break from the city’s heat and see both great artwork, and the interior of a classic Savannah house.

For us, the best collection inside the Beach Institute features the work of Ulysses Davis, a Savannah barber who taught himself wood-carving, and created new pieces when he didn’t have any customers. His work displays a crazy sort of imagination, with bizarre, fantastical creatures, and ideas that might have come straight out of a dreams. The highlight is a collection of presidential busts, from George Washington to George Bush III, re-imagined with black facial characteristics. Unknown throughout his life, Ulysses achieved a certain measure of fame after death, and his work has been featured in major venues, including Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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March 28, 2016 at 9:39 am Comments (0)

The Gullah-Geechee Legacy of Pin Point

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Found along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia are communities known as the Gullah-Geechee, who are descended from freedmen and former slaves. Historically isolated due to the ultra-rural environment and their own choice, these are people who developed their own culture and language. We went to the Pin Point Heritage Center to learn more about them, their work and their lives.

Pin Point Heritage Center

The origins of Pin Point date back to the earliest days of our country, when black men and women who had secured their freedom were looking to get away from the society which had enslaved them. And so they went as far as possible into the marshlands, and built a community in the coastal backwaters. Gullah-Geechee culture developed on a sort of side-branch of American culture, with strong African influences and a creole language. For most of history, Pin Point was a dead-end road which outsiders had little reason to visit. And the residents liked it that way.

Almost all of the other former Gullah communities along the coast have disappeared… this is prime coastal real estate, after all, and has become valuable land. So far, Pin Point has resisted, but the danger of dying out is real, as its well-educated sons and daughters move away from the low country into larger society.

Historically, the people of Pin Point worked in the oyster and crab business, and the largest employer by far was the Pin Point Oyster company. The Gullah people knew the coastal waterways better than anyone, so the men were hired as fishermen, the women as oyster shuckers. Today, the small factory has closed its doors, but continues serving the community as the Pin Point Heritage Center, which opened in 2011.

Pin Point Heritage Center

After being greeted at the doors of the Heritage Center, we sat down to watch an excellent 35-minute documentary about the people of the community. We then moved on into the factory’s main building, where men would shovel oysters from their boats into chutes, delivering them to the women inside, who would shuck, clean and ice them. As we followed the oyster’s journey from boat to can, we learned more about the individuals who once worked here.

In other rooms, we learned more about the Gullah language, as well as their games and traditions. All of Pin Point’s residents grew up with nicknames which were far more important than their birth names. This is a practice thought to come directly from Africa, where people would keep their true identities secret, as protection from dark magic. If a witch doctor didn’t know your real name, he couldn’t hurt you.

The nickname of Pin Point’s most famous resident is “Boy.” But if someday you have the honor of meeting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, you probably shouldn’t call him that. Clarence Thomas grew up in Pin Point, and his ascension through the ranks of law to one of the highest offices in the land epitomizes the work ethic and ambition of this small neighborhood. In the documentary, we learned that even though the community struggled financially, every penny went into the education of their children. And it’s paid off in spades. Their parents might have been fishermen and oyster-shuckers, but the children of Pin Point are lawyers, engineers and educators.

Gullah is thought to derive from “Angola,” the country from which many slaves were taken, while Geechee probably refers to Savannah’s Ogeechee River. And this combined term is a great reflection of the people themselves: with its roots in Africa, but definitely American. The truth is, it’s hard to imagine a group of people who embody American values more than the hard-working, faith-driven, and community-based Gullah-Geechee.

Location on our Map
Pin Point Heritage Center – Website

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March 25, 2016 at 10:06 am Comments (0)

The Massie Heritage Center

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Located on Calhoun Square, the Massie School opened its doors in 1856, and was the first public school in Georgia. Today, it’s been converted into the Massie Heritage Center, featuring an overview of Savannah’s unique urban planning, and exhibits dedicated to the most important aspects of the city’s culture, from architecture to the Native American influence.

Massie Heritage Center

The Massie Heritage Center provides a great introduction to Savannah. In the first room, you’ll find a large-scale model of the historic district, complete with a laser show that highlights important events in the city’s history. Just as interesting is a walk through the various architectural styles which can be found in Savannah. From Colonial to Contemporary, seventeen styles are detailed, with their periods of prominence and photographic examples from around in the city.

The Heritage Center is spread across two floors in three buildings. The central building was the former schoolhouse, while the buildings to the left and right were the boys’ and girls’ dormitories. Exhibits in these side buildings include an introduction to the work of the Historic Preservation Society, which rescued many of Savannah’s most lovely buildings from the wrecking ball of progress, and a tribute to the Creek and Yamacraw people who lived in the region long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Massie Heritage Center

Perhaps our favorite section was the old classroom, found on the top floor of the schoolhouse. With old-time desks and chalk slates to write on, this room doesn’t seem to have changed much over the course of the years, and it’s not hard to imagine a group of fidgety kids learning their arithmetic here. In the teacher’s office, at the front of the room, visitors are allowed to ring the school bell, which once called the children in for class.

We really enjoyed our visit to the Massie Heritage Center, but wish we had seen it when we first arrived in the city. It provides an easily-digestible introduction to Savannah, and should be one among your first stops.

Location on our Map
Massie Heritage Center – Website

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March 16, 2016 at 9:02 am Comments (0)

The Savannah History Museum

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Found in the old railway shed of the Central of Georgia, the Savannah History Museum is a good place to stop for an overview of the city’s development through the ages.

Civil War Savannah

The Central of Georgia railway house dates from the 1850s is the nation’s only remaining iron-roof structure, and has today been named a National Heritage Landmark. Today, it houses the museum, a tourist information center, the Georgia State Railroad Museum, and a café set inside an old passenger car.

Visits to the museum begin with a twenty-minute video on history of Savannah, from Oglethorpe and the settlers up into the present-day. Well, almost the present-day. The video is at least twenty years old, and its idea of modernity is amusingly stuck in the late 80s, with a power-suited businesswoman meant to represent “progress”. The exhibits are hit and miss. For every item of interest, such as one of the country’s few remaining Crestmobiles, there’s something disappointing, like the Forrest Gump bench. Hey now, I liked Forrest Gump as much as everyone else, but this isn’t even the actual Forrest Gump bench; just a replica of what it kind of looked like. You know, a bench.

The museum doesn’t take long to get through, but it’s cheap, and there are a lot of hands-on activities. It seems designed to especially appeal to families with children, but for an engaging overview of the city’s history, it might be better to visit the Massie Center.

Savannah History Museum

303 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Location on our Savannah Map
912 651 6825

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Forrest Gump Bench
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January 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm Comments (2)

The Telfair Academy

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Found on on the eastern side of Telfair Square, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences occupies a Regency style mansion built in 1818. It’s been a public art museum since 1886, which makes it the oldest in the South.

Telfair Academy

The museum blends its artwork seamlessly into its historic property, and the mansion itself is just as interesting as the paintings which adorn its walls. One of the most impressive rooms has no artwork at all: an octagonal study outfitted with 19th century furniture. We also liked the kitchen gallery, which featured some modern art alongside old cooking equipment.

But our favorite room was the main rotunda, with high ceilings, giant canvases and a plush bench in the center, where visitors can relax and study the artwork at leisure. I spent at least ten minutes taking in Julian Story’s seventeen-foot long The Black Prince at Crecy.

We’d be remiss not to mention the Bird Girl statue, famous as the cover to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Telfair Academy snatched it from Bonaventure Cemetery to “protect it,” and have displayed it prominently in their museum (snugly behind their paywall). Removed from the cemetery, the statue has lost all of its haunting magic. And it’s aggravating that this work of art was taken from a public place, and put somewhere that forbids photography … “Heavens, no photos in the museum! But please, feel free to buy a postcard.”

Entrance to the Telfair Academy will set you back $20. That’s a crazy price, though it also gets you into the Owens-Thomas House and the Jepson Center. Still, the fact that you can only buy the package deal is exploitative. Why not offer cheaper admissions to the individual spots? What if you’re only interested in classic art? Or if you only want to see a historic home? Well, too bad! We severely disliked the Owens-Thomas House, and blew through the gleaming, sterile Jepson Center with its pretentious modern art in about five minutes. The Telfair Academy is definitely the highlight of the bunch, but at $20? I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Location on our Savannah Map
Telfair Museums – Website

The Savannah College of Art and Design: Restoration of an Architectural Heritage

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December 17, 2010 at 3:42 pm Comment (1)

The Scarborough House: Ships of the Sea

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On MLK Boulevard near River Street, one of Savannah’s most historic houses has been converted into a museum called The Ships of the Sea. The 1819 Scarborough House was designed in the Greek Revival style by architectural wunderkind William Jay, who was responsible for many of the city’s best houses of that time period.

Scarborough Savannah

William Scarborough was an early American from North Carolina, who made his fortune in shipping. He was perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the famous S.S. Savannah, the first steamship to successfully cross the Atlantic. Although it was one of the city’s proudest moments, luring even President Monroe to commemorate the occasion, the venture was a commercial failure and Scarborough fell into bankruptcy. His handsome house was sold off at auction, and would serve as both an orphanage and Savannah’s first public school for black children, before finally being abandoned and falling into ruin.

In 1972, the Historic Savannah Foundation stepped in and begun restoration on the house. Keeping in mind Scarborough’s line of work, the house was converted into a maritime museum. The Ships of the Sea boasts large scale model ships, and a wealth of information about the lines which operated out of Savannah, and famous ships from around the world.

I’ve never been the least bit interested in boats, so I didn’t expect the museum to impress me. But it did. We really enjoyed our visit to the Scarborough House, which is just as interesting for its architecture as for the exhibition pieces. The model ships were incredible, their stories interesting, and we loved the collection of nautical equipment and scrimshaw.

Ships of the Sea – Website
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Scrborough Museum
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Big Boy Egg
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Titanic in Savnanah
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November 17, 2010 at 5:25 pm Comments (7)
The Isaiah Davenport House It's impossible to imagine Savannah without the stunning mansions which adorn so many of its squares and streets. But the city's architectural heritage was once in real danger of disappearing completely. The struggle to save Savannah's soul began in 1955, at the Isaiah Davenport House.
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