23 May Why Cleo and I Love Savannah

Cleo and I love Savannah, GA, which we just visited as part of our “From Animal House to Our House” book tour. Although it’s often paired with Charleston — they are of similar age and size — it’s quite different. The first difference is Savannah’s elegant, grassy squares, shaded by moss-draped live oaks. The second thing you’ll notice is the city’s seedy edges and artistic funk. Savannah is a city of artists, thanks to the predominance of SCAD — the Savannah College of Art and Design. The college produces architects, graphic designers, painters, sculptors, art historians, city planners, product designers, and all kinds cultural visionaries who are making their mark on Savannah in subtle ways, from the look of shop windows to the curriculum in local schools. The College has also restored 60 historic buldings in town: old factories, town houses, a theater, old department stores, etc., all of it done to the highest standards and all of it repurposed in inventive ways. SCAD started out in 1979 with 71 students in one building and now has campuses on four continents, with over 11,000 students.

Thanks to Joni Saxon-Guisti, “the Booklady,” who owns the charming Book Lady Bookstore, I had the great pleasure of entertaining a group of architects, designers, and old house owners at the home of John and Ginger Duncan, in their jaw-dropping, ante-bellum townhouse just off of Monterey Square. This alone made my trip to Savannah worthwhile because I got to meet a number of people who have helped restore the city to its current historic splendor. Everybody in attendance knew exactly what I was talking about when I described how Jill and I tookn on condemned property with no money, no help, and no knowledge about fixing up old houses.

The next day, Pam and Stark Sutton showed me their lovingly restored 1850s town house, then designer/builder David Bloomquist and architect Algar Thagne showed me a stunning restoration they did for a client whose house incorporates contemporary elements with the old (and will soon appear in Architectural Digest, which is why I can’t show you any photos right now). I then met with Ramsey Khalidi at his Southern Pine Company, which salvages old wood for re-use — including antique logs that have been dredged up from river bottoms. The place is crowded with old wood, most of it yellow pine, also known as “southern pine” or “heartwood pine.” That’s what Jill and I have in our house. The wood is renowned for its resilience and workability (i.e., easy to work with). The great thing about old wood is that it’s from trees that were allowed to grow for, say, a hundred years — which means that the lumber they produce is really strong.

The Southern Pine Company resides in a circa-1900, former laundry facility that used to employ African Americans, many of whose descendants are still living in this modest neighborhood. The building was condemned property and destined for landfill when Ramsey bought it. Ramsey has done a lot of that, saving buildings that nobody thought worth saving. He fearlessly moves buildings too, in part because the first house he bought for himself (in the 1970s) was delivered to him on the back of a truck and Ramsey had to figure out how to plant and anchor the house. Among his many projects, Ramsey has gotten into building sets for movies that are shot in Savannah, most recently recreating (in Savannah) the circa-1970s New York warehouse district for Showtime’s CBGB movie, which recounts the rise of that famous punk-rock club. The cool thing Ramsey does is rent the set to the movie company, then breaks it all down for use again in another set or building.

Savannah is a small town of 140,000 that hosts nearly 12 million tourists a year. Its challenge is to keep from getting overrun by these visitors. The most imminent threat is from cruise ships that want to dock here. The problem with cruise ships is that they disgorge thousands of visitors who trample the landscape but spend very little money (because the cruise ship has got its hands on that money, even to the extent of setting up its own souvenir shop at every port). As it is, the tourists are not nearly as intrusive in Savannah as they seem to be in Charleston, probably because Savannah has more land over which to spread its tourists.

Before leaving, I stopped by the Davenport House museum to talk with Jamie Credle, the museum’s animated and irrepressible director. This is the house that started the preservation movement in Savannah when, in the 1950s, an adjacent funeral parlor announced that it would raze the building to make a parking lot. The house was built circa 1820 and is an excellent example of the Federal style, which means it has painted woodwork, elaborate wall paper, and pleasing proportions. Jamie happens to be from North Carolina and grew up in tobacco country near a house museum (Hope Plantation) that, for her, was an inspiration. She never imagined she’d run such a museum herself one day. But dreams do come true.

On my way out of town, I grabbed a large pizza at Vinnie Van Go-Go’s, which is a wildly popular joint that takes only cash and will make the pizza exactly as you want it — which they did for me. And I ate it all because I have no self-control when I’m on the road. But I shared the crust with Cleo.