Remnants of Oglethorpe’s Utopian Vision Survive in Savannah’s Squares

James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green
James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green

James Oglethorpe, founder and planner of Savannah, Georgia, was educated during the height of the Enlightenment. Influenced by John Locke and Isaac Newton, he was a visionary who sought to use “scientific laws to establish the ideal city,” explained Steve Smith, with the Massie Heritage Center, during a tour at the Congress for New Urbanism.

Upon the approval of his petition to create the colony of Georgia, named after King George II, Oglethorpe set sail for the American south with 100 settlers, with the goal of establishing an “anti-urban settlement, a low-density, agrarian community,” said David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Oglelthorpe thought cities were the root of all social ills. Removing people from a productive relationship with the land and a healthy connection with nature resulted in bad morals, crime, and debt. He sought to create a new colony for people who had suffered in urban debtors’ prisons, but ended up attracting many merchants, artisans, and others to his venture.

In his new colony of Savannah, established in 1733, Oglethorpe organized the community along an unusual layout — now known as the Oglethorpe Plan — characterized by wards made up of 40 60-feet-by-90-feet lots on either side of a central square, framed by “tithe lots” where churches and civic centers were found. At no time in history has there been an urban plan like this.

Original Oglethorpe plan / Connect Savannah

In this village format, each colonial family would get a lot, which included a garden and a 50-acre farm outside the town center. Ogelthorpe originally envisioned four wards, with a maximum of 240 families.

According to Gobel, the utopian plan of Ogelthorpe was a failure. “He took people from the urban core of London and told them they will become farmers — in clay soil in the southern heat.” Oglethorpe was also very restrictive — alcohol wasn’t permitted; families were restricted to the property they were allocated; lawyers and Catholics weren’t allowed; and due to his moral opposition to slavery, that evil practice was banned.

As we heard from Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a local historian who gave a tour of the African American history of Savannah, Oglethorpe eventually succumbed to the slave culture established in nearby South Carolina. “The first settlers were lazy, drinking, and didn’t do anything. Oglethorpe had to borrow slaves until 1741” to clear the land and construct the city. By the time Oglethorpe returned to Georgia in 1752, his utopian vision was in ruins; he had been “overwhelmed.” And the reality was that “slaves built the city.”

By 1750, “slavery arrived with a vengeance.” Between 1761 and 1771, some 10,000 slaves were sold in the markets near the wharfs, where boats loaded with suffering human cargo would arrive from the Caribbean and Africa. The first slaves worked rice plantations and then later cotton fields. By 1810, some 44 percent of the workforce was enslaved. In 1860, the population of the city was 22,000, with some 17,000 enslaved people and 700 free blacks, many of whom owned slaves themselves.

The anti-materialistic, equitable vision Oglethorpe had for the city wasn’t realized; and the physical form of his idealism was corrupted as well. Oglethorpe envisioned a maximum of four wards, but beginning in the 1790s, the ward system was replicated and eventually expanded to 24 wards (there are now just 22). “Savannah became a city filled with squares; it’s almost ridiculous,” Gobel said. But these squares are now what helps draw millions of tourists to Savannah every year.

Historians in Savannah have long wondered: why squares? The Massie Center is a believer in the “Turin theory,” posited by Cornell University professor John Reps, which contends that Oglethorpe modeled the squares after the Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy. But Gobel believes Oglethorpe instead modeled them after squares created in London in the 17th century. “London was square-crazy then. There were more than 20 in the West End, where the trustees of the colony had homes.”

Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy / @rtisan Traveler, Pinterest
St. James Square, London / Eric Parry Architects

Still, the Savannah squares aren’t like their possible Italian or English inspirations. “The Savannah square is nothing like an Italian piazza, because there are lots of openings. There is a porosity to the squares, with all the streets that come off them, which breaks down the sense of an enclosed space. And unlike the squares of London, the Savannah squares are open, with no fences.” (Gramercy Square in New York City is more like an old English square, with its private key for residents who live beside it).

Porosity of the squares of Savannah / Jared Green
Fountain in square / Jared Green

The squares were originally completely utilitarian. “They were used as pasture, marketplaces, for exercise or as military encampments. They started as left-over, residual spaces.” The primary feature of many was simply a well. According to Goode-Walker, African Americans certainly weren’t allowed in the squares — “slaves stayed in the lanes behind houses.” And back then, the lanes and streets were filled with mud and horse excrement, which is why most whites lived in the upper levels of the homes they built.

But slowly the squares evolved into important spaces of public beauty. By 1810, there were mentions of “how lovely the squares were,” said Gobel. Curbs separated them from the streets; trees were planted; and north-south and east-west pathways were established. In between this matrix of paths, the city erected giant monuments to heroes of the American Revolutionary War.

Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green
Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green

There have been “many changes to the squares over the years. They have been gussied up; today, they are more like garden parks.” Landscape architect Clermont Lee renovated and restored five squares from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 2010, EDAW (now AECOM) restored Ellis Square to the original plan, after the old City Market built over it was torn down. Today, a team of landscape architects — who work for the city government in a group distinct from the parks department — maintain the squares.

In their beautification, the squares have transitioned from places of recreation, commerce, and civic action into places to relax and commune with nature and the community. “The goal today is to prevent any active use. Monkey grass was put in to keep out kids,” Gobel fretted.

Not play-friendly Savannah Square / Jared Green

The squares wouldn’t be the draw they are without the amazing Live Oaks that were planted more than 150 years ago. The original trees of the squares — the Pride of India or “China berry” tree, a relative of the Mahogany — were all killed off in a hurricane in the 1850s. A towering canopy of Live Oaks, Palmettos, Magnolias now oversee the squares, which feel heavy with history, but where, today, all ethnicities can be seen together.

Live Oak in a Savannah Square / Jared Green
Magnolias and Live Oaks in a Savannah Square / Jared Green

According to Gobel, there is a history that still needs to be more deeply explored: “a landscape history of the city has never been done.” A story needs to be told about the horror of the landscape of East Upper Factors Walk, which was created by Irish sailors with ballast from ships, where slaves who had just been purchased were kept, a haunted place Goode-Walker said she doesn’t bring tours.

East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green
East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green

And the story of the amazingly resilient natural and cultural communities that define the character of the city — the diverse trees that shade the city, and people who built Savannah and shaped its evolution.

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