Savannah Smiles

Touring the historic city: Part one of a two-part report

There's more to Savannah than ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night, although the city's fabled Historic District certainly has more than its share of those.

But Savannah offers much more. The 2.2-mile Historic District, one of America's largest, is a marvel of architectural design and natural wonder. Designed in the 1700s, the district was built around 23 garden squares, sort of like mini-Central Parks, each surrounded by elegant buildings, many of them imposing mansions.

The parks are resplendent, with tall oaks draped in Spanish moss, fountains, imposing statues of Savannah's heroes, park benches and plenty of greenery. They reflect the gentility and charm associated with the Old South.

A plethora of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues dot the district, many of them gathered in City Market or along River Street. The latter, at the north end of the city on the Savannah River, offers an afternoon or evening of fun strolling down cobblestone streets and watching huge freighters sailing out to sea. At City Market, the atmosphere is decidedly family-friendly, with live music and street performers entertaining shoppers and patrons at open-air cafés.

Savannah has been labeled among the "top 10 walking cities" in the country, so the best way to see it is on foot, although there are a variety of vehicular tours available. To see it on foot, though, you must stay inside the district at one of the hotels, historic inns, bed-and-breakfasts, or private homes available for rent.

We first visited Savannah in 1997, our trip prompted by reading John Berendt's bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a true story that describes the city in great detail and lays bare all the wonderful eccentricities of its inhabitants. The Book, as it became known in Savannah, occasioned a rush of tourism.

We spent only a day there -- a side trip from Hilton Head -- at the same time Clint Eastwood was finishing up his film version of the The Book, and we fell in love with the marvelous old town.

For our return trip last month, we wanted to stay in the historic district for several days, if possible renting one of the city's many townhouses. We found the perfect Web site for such an endeavor, www.savannahgetaways.net, organized by Ron Purser, who offers numerous privately owned homes for rent to tourists or business people.

Ron's Web site encouraged us to make an extended stay.

"Plan to stay several days to take advantage of all the attractions in and out of the district," the site says, "highlighted by the ongoing restoration of many historic buildings spearheaded by the Savannah College of Art and Design (whose campus is scattered in more than 40 buildings throughout the historic district, the beaches of Tybee Island just 20 minutes away by car, haunted houses, ghost tours, riverboat cruises, personalized boat charters, dolphin watching, art museums, cemeteries, outdoor music, and old forts."

Ron has more than 50 town home suites, garden condos or historic district vacation homes, all neatly arranged and described on his extremely user-friendly Web site. You can select a house or apartment from a large variety listed on one page of the site with a brief description, which links to another page with full details and colorful photos. Sun photo by Sherry Mearns River front: Cobblestone streets, shops and restaurants dot River Street on the Savannah River.

Selecting one proved difficult, since all were elaborately furnished and equipped with all the modern conveniences. We settled on a townhouse owned by Elizabeth "Liz" Seymour called "Midnight in Garden," located at 120 West Taylor St. in the heart of the district on Chatham Square. It's only a block from Forsyth Park, the town's largest square and site of the Savannah Jazz Festival the weekend we were there.

Liz's house is two blocks from the Mercer House, made famous in The Book as the family home of songwriter Johnny Mercer (Moon River, etc.) and of Jim Williams, a prominent antiques dealer whose involvement in Savannah society -- and murder -- make up the heart of The Book.

The seven-hour drive to Savannah from Port Charlotte is easy and relaxing; straight highways most of the way. On the way up, we listened to the abridged audio version of The Book. It left out many of the characters and stories that make "Midnight" so memorable, as did the movie, but recaptured enough of the the spirit to get us in the mood.

Liz's three-story Taylor Street townhouse, built in 1892, turned out to be a real showplace. It consists of two apartments, one of the ground floor, the other occupying the top two floors. They are comfortable and homey, full of wrought-iron, paintings, flowers, candles and nice decorative touches. Out back, trees overlook a cozy, bricked-in garden courtyard with a fountain.

Liz owns two other rental homes on Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach. A Savannah native, she spent most of her adult life away, then came back about 15 years ago and started buying and refurbishing the places as a means of satisfying two of her passions -- real estate and decorating.

"I traveled a lot, and I'd let friends stay at first," she said in a pleasant Southern accent. "Then I started buying and decorated. I traveled so much, I felt like I knew what people wanted in a place to stay."

How right she was. Her Taylor Street home was first-rate, a warm and lovely place to come home to after a day and night of walking the streets of historic Savannah.

Out and about

To guide us on our four-day holiday in Savannah, Ron hooked us up with Jill Smith, owner of Destinations Southern Style, a reservation and information service. Jill describes her firm as a "concierge of the city," making reservations, advising on restaurants and tours and setting up cultural activities, all free of charge.

"I do everything from dinner and theater reservations to negotiating discount rates for inns, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in Savannah," Jill said. "I can work with groups -- it may be a garden club, whatever. I arrange meals and tell them my favorite places to stay."

Destinations Southern Style also plans weddings, with couples arriving in a horse-drawn carriage to take their vows outdoors in one of the historic squares, followed by a reception under tents by one of the city's gourmet caterers. She'll also arrange a honeymoon in a quaint inn or River Street hideaway where couples can view the river from their French balconies.

"I can do the whole shooting match," Jill said. Among many sites, our shooting match included the following:

Telfair Museum of Art. Designed by the English architect William Jay in the 19th century for the son of Georgia Gov. Edward Telfair and bequeathed by a descendent to the Georgia Historical Society, it is the oldest art museum in the South.

Among the many valuable paintings and sculptures on display is Sylvia Shaw Judson's "Bird Girl," known for its appearance on the dust jacket of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Also known as "Little Wendy," the statue originally stood on a family burial plot in Bonaventure Cemetery. She was moved to the museum after attracting so much attention when The Book came out. (Incidentally, a receptionist we met at Telfair, Nancy Worth, has a daughter, Catherine Emery, who lives in Port Charlotte. Talk about a small world.)

Bonaventure Cemetery. The former home of the "Bird Girl" is the resting place of many of Savannah's most famous citizens, most notably Johnny Mercer, Edward Telfair and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Conrad Aiken.

Owens-Thomas House. Like the Telfair Museum designed by William Jay, this historic mansion has been renovated with care, providing a trip back in time to the 19th century. It contains an elaborate plumbing system virtually unheard of in 1819. Guests included the Revolutionary War hero Lafayette.

Inside are many authentic and recreated architectural gems, including a brass-inlaid staircase, a patterned window of amber glass and a domed dining room. Outside is the carriage house, with slave quarters intact, and an expansive and well-appointed courtyard.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. As impressive as any large cathedral we have seen, this church was built on Lafayette Square in 1876. It holds many historic and beautiful artifacts, including stained glass, an 8,000-pound marble baptismal font, marble altar and a series of intricate, finely designed wood carvings depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Savannah Theatre. Arguably the oldest operating theater in the United States, this playhouse opened in 1818 and was designed by -- who guessed it -- William Jay. The theater has been restored in classic 1940s art deco style. On display are artifacts, photos, playbills and newspaper articles about some of the actors who performed there, among them Edwin Booth (and possibly his brother, John Wilkes Booth), Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and Lilian Russell.

The current production, "Lost in the '50s," is a Broadway-style musical that has become the longest-running play in Savannah. Featuring an eight-member ensemble of young and talented singers and dancers, plus a spirited band, the two-hour show covers the biggest hits of the era, all played out in creative vignettes dealing with love, cars and rock 'n roll.

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