Ellis Square, historically and still today at the center of Savannah’s business and shopping district (at the intersection of Barnard and West St Julian Streets, see map), is one of the Historic District’s most popular squares, near to River Street and City Market. One of Savannah’s downtown visitor centers is in the square.
Once one of Savannah’s four lost squares, it has recently been reclaimed and redeveloped, presenting a far more modern and open appearance than the other, older squares. The surrounding streets and wards are of a resolutely commercial character, with few surviving historic buildings.
North of Ellis Square are Bay Street and River Street; east is Bull Street’s Johnson Square. West is Franklin Square, with more places to eat and drink and the historic First African Baptist Church. To the south of Ellis is Telfair Square, home to the Telfair Academy and Jepson Center, art museums displaying traditional and contemporary art, respectively.
Ellis Square was one of the first four squares laid out in 1733, in accordance with Oglethorpe’s plan of Savannah. In 1763, it was designated as the site of the city’s public market, a role it would fulfil, and which would define the use and form of the square, for almost two centuries.
Savannah’s public market served as a place to sell food and other goods, most of which was brought in from the regions around the city. Slaves too sold produce in the square, as some enslaved people’s owners allowed them to keep all or a portion of the money they made selling vegetables and animals raised outside of their plantation work hours.
Commerce dominated the surrounding streets of Decker Ward as well. In the late 1840s, for example, the stores fronting on Ellis Square included a “Gentleman’s Furnishing Store,” selling clothing and shoes, a grocery store, and a saddle and harness shop.
Ellis Square’s first market building was destroyed by fire, in 1788. The second succumbed to the same fate, a casualty of Savannah’s great fire of 1820.
The third market building was demolished after the Civil War, during which it had been employed as a place to tend to casualties of the war.
The fourth and longest-lived building, a large Romanesque-style brick structure, was completed in 1872. It stood until the 1950s, when it was finally torn down to make way for a parking garage, marking the culmination of Ellis Square’s long history as Savannah’s marketplace.
Ellis Square was also near the heart of Savannah’s slave trading district. Slaves were sold in Wright Square, and held in slave yards near Johnson Square. The offices and business places of those who were either directly involved in the slave trade or whose fortunes were based on slave labor were located on and around Ellis and Johnson Squares and the streets in their vicinity.
Although slavery was prohibited in the very early years of Georgia’s history, that principle was soon overturned. Planters, who wanted to use slaves’ labor to grow more profitable crops, campaigned to make slavery legal. From 1751 until 1798, when Georgia banned the slave trade, Africans were openly imported into Savannah and sold in its slave markets.
Officially, no more slaves brought over from Africa were sold in Savannah by the 19th century (slaves were imported illegally until the 1850s), but local trading continued, with people sold in the city’s auction houses until the Civil War.
Ellis Square was never a square in the same sense as Savannah’s other small Historic District parks, the entire space occupied for almost all of its history by a succession of market buildings.
In 1954, however, the square was lost completely, when the final and historic city market building was razed to make way for the multistory Robbie Robinson Parking Garage.
Three squares (Franklin, Liberty and Elbert) had already been lost in the 1930s, removed to make way for a highway project. In the 1980s, Franklin Square was restored to its former function.
After 50 years of use, the parking garage in Ellis Square was removed, allowing for the redevelopment of the square as an open space. Savannah has since restored Ellis Square, which is now one of the largest in the city.
The renovation project was completed in March 2010. The old garage was taken down in January 2006, replaced with the underground four story Whitaker Street parking garage and a new, open square, with live oaks and fountain.
City Market is the main draw in the area around Ellis Square. In addition to its numerous art galleries, it has a good selection of places to eat and drink, evening ambience, sometimes with live music, and shops (frequently tourist-oriented) for gifts and other items.
Ellis Square’s monument is a life-size bronze statue of Savannah musician Johnny Mercer (1909-1976). The memorial was created by local Savannah artist Susie Chisholm, and unveiled on November 18 2009, the 100th anniversary of Mercer’s birth.
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On-street (metered) parking is available in the vicinity of Ellis Square, but it will often be easier to find a suitable space in one of the several nearby parking garages.
The nearest (and most expensive) is the Whitaker Street Garage, on the northeast corner of Ellis Square (entrance at Whitaker Street and West Bay Lane). If there are no spaces there, the nearest alternatives are the Bryan Street Parking Garage north of Reynolds Square and the Robinson Garage to the west of Telfair Square. All are city-owned.
Savannah’s free downtown shuttle stops right on Ellis Square. A couple of regular paid city bus services also stop within a few blocks of the square, along Broughton Street. Get public transport directions