You may have seen them already—in a film, on a book cover, or with your own eyes. Savannah is known in particular for its squares, featuring glittering water fountains, manicured gardens, and inviting benches, and which help create Savannah’s cinematic backdrop. These squares are ideal places to spread out for a picnic, to gather daily textural or color palette inspiration, or to enjoy the natural beauty of Savannah during your visit. And with twenty-two of them throughout the city, you’re sure to stumble upon one often!
The City's History and Future
We asked Luciana Spracher, a preservationist, archivist, and historian currently serving as Director of the City Hall’s Municipal Archives to tell us about the history and future of Savannah’s iconic squares.
When General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Savannah in 1733, one of the first things he did was lay out the town. He set up a unique organizational structure, called the Oglethorpe Plan, which uses a building block module called a “ward”. Each ward has a central square and, around that, a series of building lots. Trust lots sit on the sides of the squares, along with tithing lots, which have residential lots in them. The trust lots were big lots to the east and west, and were originally set aside for public buildings and civic buildings: churches, banks, and the like.
The squares were multi-purpose, as they provided public space for things like political gatherings, markets, wells for fresh water, and military use, such as soldiers’ quarters during times of attack. “Ellis Square was traditionally where our public market was. It had a series of market buildings on it until the 1950s. All the way from the early 1700s through the 1950s, there was a public market downtown,” Luciana informs us.
Originally, Oglethorpe laid out four wards with four squares. As Savannah grew, the land expanded to 24 wards, with 24 squares, by the 1850s. After that, Luciana explains, “The city decided we didn’t need squares anymore, because that was valuable land that we could develop into building lots. We lost three of our squares on Montgomery Street to the highway, and then we restored Franklin Square in the 1980s. So we still have two lost squares that we hope one day to restore: Liberty and Elbert.”
“Our green squares, that’s why people come to Savannah: our squares and the architecture.”
Over time, the squares have evolved, as public use has changed. “They’re more green, passive spaces, now,” Luciana tells us. “They’ve helped us develop this beautiful urban tree canopy that Savannah is so famous for now. Our green squares, that’s why people come to Savannah—our squares and the architecture. People all over the world still study the Oglethorpe Plan for urban planning.”
Luciana enumerates the three lasting benefits of the Oglethorpe Plan and its squares, largely unintentional: “One, it has made Savannah green. A lot of cities don’t have as many trees downtown. We have a lot of green space that you don’t see in a downtown. Two, it has made us more walkable. You can walk from square to square; it’s pedestrian friendly. Three, the squares have a traffic-calming effect that could never have been envisioned. They’re basically traffic circles. They slow down all the automobiles downtown, so that’s an unintended consequence.”
As for the future of these beautiful, well-preserved squares? “We’re still trying to adhere to the original Oglethorpe Plan,” Luciana explains, “We’ve been challenged by development wanting to push the boundaries of the plan. Our National Historic Landmark designation is now in a more threatened status for our historic district. The National Park Service says we’re not doing a very good job protecting the plan, so we’re getting to where we have to push back against development wanting to use our lanes and do bigger projects. We have to say no; otherwise, we might be in danger of losing what makes Savannah different from every other city.”
Based on how well Savannahians have preserved the city’s architectural landscape while looking to the future, it seems the squares are in good hands—just as Oglethorpe intended.