Unlocking the Secrets of Savannah's Historic Buildings

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Unlocking the Secrets of Savannah's Historic Buildings
By Kelli Nottingham








The buildings are talking. From their wooden rafters to their iron window frames, they speak. I hear them whisper of times long ago, of faces now forgotten, of the history of the everyday that their tall facades have witnessed. Today an interpreter, one who understands the language of these edifices, helps me to hear them. Now, with his assistance, the shape of a window, the style of a doorway, and the tilt of a roof all declare to me the era in which these buildings were created.

Dirk Hardison, an architectural preservationist, loves these buildings, these bastions of Savannahís history, and they speak to him like to no one else. And today he introduces me to them, so that I can learn what they have to tell.

I stare up at the tall walls, their faded facades reflecting a gentility and elegance that Iíve seen before but not understood. What stories they have to tell! From the historic Davenport House, which started the renovation movement in Savannah, to the stunning Beaux Arts Masonic building, the history of our beautiful city opens up to share itself.

Hardison knows these buildings intimately and enjoys to sharing their stories with those of us who donít know much about architecture. He offers in depth tours through his company, Savannah Rambles. Iím on Hardisonís tour, The High Points, and I confess to him during our two hour tour that I feel so ignorant! So many times Iíve walked through these squares, peering up through the moss to look at the buildingsí details, appreciating their beauty. But until today, I had no idea of the intricacies I didnít see, the architectural elements hidden, not out of sight, but out of a lack of appreciation. The modern additions onto the marble courthouse, for example, made during a work program during and after the Great Depression, are invisible until he points them out.

Hardisonís quiet eloquence informs and entertains. He relates history through anecdotes and stories of the people who built and lived in these homes, as well as modern narratives about those who fight to protect these architectural treasures from the ravages of time.

My interests lean toward the everyday lives of Savannah residents from colonial through Victorian times, and Hardison eagerly describes how locals would have lived day to day, from preparing meals to religion to business ventures. His stories bring these buildings to life, and I imagine the romance of top-floor ballrooms and candlelight, of newlyweds looking to starting a life together in their new home, and of strong-minded women, like Mrs. Marshall, who worked to build structures at a time when such behavior was unusual for her gender. One intriguing detail pertains to the wallpapers of many older homes, which appear garish and bright to modern eyes. These papers were designed to be seen by candlelight, not bright bulbs, and thus their garishness was necessary to be seen in such low light.

As we meander through the tree-shaded squares, Hardison points out detail after detail, and itís not long before Iím able to identify different building styles as well Ė Italianate, Second Empire Ė and can understand the distinction between Federal and Georgian architecture. He points out how efficient and ďgreenĒ many of these buildings are, using straightforward techniques to keep the residents cool in the Savannah heat. I knew that shutters were designed to protect from the sun, but small window-filled additions on the tops of many old homes helped to create a draft of cooler air flowing through the lower windows.

He also shares secrets with me, about the large homes that look like theyíre made of large stones (most are actually stucco-covered brick), about wooden burglar bars (hint: they arenít actually for burglars, but for something else), and why many of the large chimneys on homes have peaked tops built onto them (hint: itís not for rain). I can honestly say Iíve never enjoyed a tour so much. Iím amazed by his ability to identify and discuss any building I point out and his deep knowledge of Savannahís history and former residents. He points out places that most tours only pass right by, or that tourists see but donít know the back story, such as the Kehoe House. This particular home was constructed to impress: everything on the outside of the building that appears to be wood or stone is actually iron, and was constructed this way as an advertisement for the local ironworks. Frequently I shift from awe to laughter, and Hardisonís charming sense of humor makes for a wonderfully pleasant afternoon. His descriptions of the true old Savannah, not the romanticized version we often read about in books, are comical, from the loud merchants and brothel owners on the streets to the sandy roads and rough neighborhoods that actually existed.

Iíve toured through Savannah with other tour companies, both walking to riding tours, but I can honestly say that I havenít learned as much in all of those tours combined as I did in one afternoon with Hardison. His expertise is unmistakable and his approach is not simply to entertain visitors with questionable tales of ghosts and hauntings. In his non-assuming way, he says, ďIíd really like for people to see what it was.Ē Instead of sensationalized stories, he opens up the true history of Savannah like a book, translating the buildings you see into a narrative you can understand, and in the process, he brings old Savannah back to life.

For more information or to schedule a tour with Dirk, check out his website at: www.savannahrambles.com

Photos by Kelli Nottingham
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