When 114 European settlers stood on what would be the first planned city in the Georgia colony, they must have had their doubts. The overgrown swamp land populated by alligators, snakes, and mosquitoes wasn’t exactly an ideal location to build a community. But the leader of the expedition, General James Edward Oglethorpe, argued from a practical military perspective that the 40-feet-high bluff overlooking the Savannah River was an ideal place for a city that could be easily defended from the Spanish to the south. This sense of pragmatism spilled over into the planning of the would-be city. Oglethorpe, who believed city environments fostered social ills, proposed a grid-pattern design for Savannah that would provide protection and lend itself to a more egalitarian society filled with industrious self-producers. In short, a better life for all.
Oglethorpe’s original plan consisted of a grid of intersecting streets running east-west and north-south through four wards with a square at the center of each ward. The four corners of each ward included a “tything block” comprised of 10 equally-sized lots for residences. On the east and west flanks of the square were four larger “trust blocks” reserved for cultural institutions such as churches and government buildings. Every structure would be positioned so that the center square became a natural meeting place for the wards as an essential aspect of facilitating communication, commerce, and a strong sense of community.
The Shape of Things
The first four squares—Ellis, Johnson, Telfair, and Wright—were formed in 1733. And while Oglethorpe planned only four wards to accommodate 240 families, a growing population of settlers soon called for two more squares: Reynolds and Oglethorpe. Initially, the squares were not the charming, manicured gardens memorializing historic figures as we know them today; they were utilitarian—muddied and ungroomed grounds for makeshift marketplaces, military exercises, special events, and encampments.
The impending threat of a Spanish invasion from the south pulled Oglethorpe away from Savannah in 1736, yet the city continued to develop as planned. City leaders who understood the benefits of the grid system continued to add streets and squares as the boundaries of the city expanded.
Savannah’s growth eventually led to a total of 24 squares which held firm until 1935 when three squares were consumed to accommodate Highway 17 and the Civic Center. Franklin Square, one of the squares lost to progress, was restored in 1985.
Oglethorpe was correct in his assessment of Savannah’s strategic positioning, and his vision of mixed-use communities with a central gathering place also stood the test of time. In addition to private residences, 13 churches and synagogues rest on the grid of park-like squares, as well as government buildings, inns, small businesses, and cultural institutions like museums and theaters. His hope for a classless society, however, gave way to a growing economy fueled by the desire for materialistic goods and the means to purchase them. Modest, egalitarian homes were replaced by stunning brick and stucco four-story townhomes with private gardens and carriage houses. Many trust lots became coveted locations for spacious mansions that are exquisite representations of Georgian, Greek Revival, and Gothic styles.
The squares were eventually transformed to reflect the polished beauty of the structures around them. In the 1930s, landscape architect Georges Bignault planned a redesign of most of the squares. Between 1951 and 1972, a second landscape architect, Clermont Lee, guided the restoration of five squares.
Today, Savannah’s squares are a space of public beauty—inviting, pedestrian-friendly gathering places, as well as a draw for tourists and historians. The squares boast benches, period lighting, brick sidewalks, seasonal blooms and looming live oaks, palmetto, and magnolias for shade. Most squares also display a center feature such as a memorial, statue, obelisk, or fountain, making each square a unique public garden within the heart of a bustling coastal city inextricably linked to its historical past.
Given Savannah’s extraordinary efforts to preserve its historical sites, structures and spaces, it’s no surprise that city’s historic district, in which the squares reside, was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1966. And while each square and its surrounding structures tells a unique story, a few are so fascinating, they’re worth a closer look.
Named for President James Madison, this square memorializes the location where Revolutionary War hero William Jasper died in battle trying to reclaim the flag from a dying soldier. A statue of Jasper was poised at the center of the square in 1888.
Madison Square is also home to St. John’s Episcopal Church built in the Gothic revival style, and the Sorrell-Weed home reflecting Greek revival. Completed in 1840 for Frances Sorrell, the home was the site of many lavish parties, whose notable attendees included William Sherman and Robert E. Lee during the waning days of the American Civil War.
The Green-Meldrim house, considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic revival architecture in Savannah, was built on Madison Square in 1853 for Charles Green. Green was so afraid his luxurious home would be destroyed in the Civil War, that he rode out of town to meet Gen. Sherman in-person to offer his home as a temporary headquarters, for which it served from December 22, 1864 – February 1, 1865.
Laid out in 1815, Chippewa Square is a remarkable example of how old and new come together. Named for a battle in the War of 1812, this square transformed into a nightlife hub in the 1820s when the Savannah Theatre opened its doors. The theatre was designed by noted architect William Jay and is considered the country’s oldest continuously operating theatre, though it was renovated in 1948 after a fire.
Chippewa Square is also home to two historically significant churches. The First Baptist Church boasts the oldest surviving sanctuary in the city. Independent Presbyterian Church has a more modern claim to fame as the setting for the park bench scenes in the 1994 Hollywood blockbuster Forrest Gump.
Perhaps most notable is the figure looming in the center of the square, Oglethorpe himself. Standing 10-feet high, the bronze statue atop a pink-gray marble pedestal depicts Savannah’s founder in a heroic pose, facing the direction of his enemy—southward to Florida where the Spanish resided. Georgia legislature allotted $15,000 for the statue to be commissioned by Daniel Chester French and his assistant Henry Bacon, best known for creating the statue of “Seated Lincoln” displayed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
John C. Calhoun, who served as vice president to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, visited Savannah in 1819 with President James Monroe for the launch of the USS Savannah steamship. Laid out in 1851, the square was named after Calhoun to honor his support of Georgia. Today, it’s the only square surrounded by all of its original structures.
One such building is the Massie School. Peter Massie, a farmer, provided the funds for the school to educate poor children. The school opened in 1865 and is considered Georgia’s oldest school in continuous operation. General Sherman temporarily commandeered the school in 1864 to use as a hospital, but students returned the following year.
Calhoun Square may also hold evidence of Savannah’s less than laudable past. The area was once considered to be on the outskirts of town, and as such, some historians believe that slaves who died in the 18th century were buried hastily in mass graves beneath the square. In 2004, a utility company discovered a skull four-feet beneath the surface. The age of the skull indicates that the square may be the site of the largest exhumed slave gravesite in Savannah.
History and folklore aside, one thing is for certain, Oglethorpe’s vision of a planned community designed around outdoor spaces as focal points of commerce, communication, and a sense of community proved to withstand the test of time. In fact, the same philosophy is part and parcel of what makes living at The Ford Plantation so inviting with various opportunities to live in planned communities with distinctly different outdoor common spaces. For example, Silk Hope Harbour Village allows members to live near the dock and gather around the fire pit at Ogeechee Outfitters. McAllister Point exudes the southern charm of the central square with plenty of shade and natural beauty. And the new Silk Hope community plan includes a village green, gardens, and large gazebo for special events and concerts. No matter where you call home at The Ford Plantation, everything is within an easy golf cart, bicycle or horse ride away.