Few of Savannah’s squares have survived in a form that even loosely resembles their appearance in centuries past. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, devastating fires that swept across the city destroyed many of the buildings then standing. More recently, the wrecking ball and redevelopments have changed many of the squares – and the streets that surround them – beyond measure.
Calhoun Square, however, not laid out until after Savannah’s worst fires were in its past and otherwise preserved from change perhaps more by coincidence than for any definite reason, provides probably the best example of how Savannah might once have looked.
It alone of all Savannah’s squares still retains each of its original buildings: homes erected in the 1850s and 1860s, the old Massie School house, built soon after the square was laid out, and the imposing Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church.
The square itself, like most parks, has only improved over the years, its now mature trees casting a deep and welcome shade over its lawns and old brick walks.
Calhoun Square is located to the southeast of the Historic District, at the intersection of Abercorn and East Wayne Streets, not far east of the central Bull Street promenade. Surrounding Calhoun Ward is bounded by Jones, Drayton, Lincoln and Gaston Streets. See on map
Westwards is Monterey Square, where you can see the Mercer-Williams House and Savannah’s 19th-century Jewish synagogue, Mickve Israel. East is Whitefield Square, home to the historic black Beth Eden and First Congregational churches; north is Lafayette Square, with two historic house museums and the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. South of Calhoun is the lower Historic District, into which the square plan was not extended.
The square was named for the recently deceased John C Calhoun (1782-1850). A politician and political theorist, Calhoun served as Senator for South Carolina, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. He also served as vice president under two presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, between 1825 and 1832.
An advocate of slavery, a defender of the “minority rights” of southern slaveholders against the non-slaveholding North and the right of states to nullify federal laws that opposed their own interests, besides his support for the expansion of slavery into what would become the American West, Calhoun had many supporters in his native South.
Coming so soon after his death and the Compromise of 1850 the previous year, the naming of one of Savannah’s new squares for John Calhoun was perhaps intended to be one of the city’s most aggressively political commemorative acts.
Calhoun Square was laid out in 1851, one of the last squares – along with Troup Square to its northeast and Whitefield Square to its immediate east – to be created according to Savannah’s plan.
Calhoun Square, like all Savannah’s Historic District squares, was laid out on the city’s common lands surrounding its already built up areas. The specific area in which Calhoun Square is located, however, is believed to have once been the site of an early 19th century burial ground, where Savannah’s African Americans, slave and free, were buried.
The official location of the burial ground was further to the east, under the present Whitefield Square, but in the absence of any clear markers designating the ground and its boundaries, many people were inevitably buried outside of its limits.
A human skull was unearthed in Calhoun Square in the early 2000s, and it is estimated that several hundred people, mostly slaves, may have been buried here and in the vicinity.
The Massie Heritage Center fronts on the southern side of the square. The Center was formerly a public school, operated for Savannah’s white children since 1856, but closed in the 1970s. The buildings (designed by noted Savannah archtitect John Norris and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) have since been put to new use as a museum for promoting the understanding of Savannah’s history.
On the western side of the square is the Wesley Monumental Methodist Church, established in 1868 as a tribute to John and Charles Wesley, early residents of Georgia and founders of Methodism. The current Gothic-style building was completed in 1890.