Johnson Square is the largest of Savannah’s squares (Chippewa Square almost equals it in size), and also one of its oldest. For most of the city’s history, it has been at the heart of Savannah’s commercial and business center, right next to Bay Street and the river.
Johnson Square’s several monuments – including an Egyptian obelisk honoring Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene and Johnny Mercer’s memorial bench – and a few historic buildings are its primary points of interest.
Surrounding Derby Ward (bounded by Bay, Whitaker, Drayton and Broughton Streets) is dominated by financial and commercial buildings; there is much more to see and do nearby than around the square itself.
Northwards – and in sight of Johnson Square – is City Hall, beside and behind which are the various attractions of Savannah’s riverfront. To the west is Ellis square, around and beyond which are a concentration of places to eat and drink and the shops and art galleries of City Market.
East is Reynolds Square, with one of Savannah’s oldest and most distinctive buildings, the Olde Pink House, plus historic theaters and a few more galleries. Or, continue down Bull Street for Wright Square and the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.
The first of the Bull Street squares, Johnson Square lies on an axis that runs from Savannah’s City Hall down through four more squares – Wright, Chippewa, Madison and Monterey – to the Historic District’s centerpiece, Forsyth Park.
Savannah was founded in 1733, a square laid out in each of the new city’s then four wards. That year, Johnson, Percival, Ellis and St James’s Squares were laid out in a quadrant in what is now the westerly portion of Savannah’s Historic District (the southernmost two have since been renamed: St James’s to Telfair and Percival to Wright).
As one of Savannah’s first squares, Johnson was also one of the earliest settled. Oglethorpe pitched his tent in a spot between Bull and Whitaker Streets; wooden houses were soon thrown up in the streets of the surrounding Derby Ward.
Johnson Square was also the place chosen for most of Savannah’s earliest public buildings: a tabernacle and courthouse, and the public hall. The public oven was built just to the southwest of the square. Public stores stood on Bull Street, facing Johnson Square between Bryan and St Julian Streets.
The current location of Christ Church had already been selected as the spot for Savannah’s first place of worship, with a parsonage behind it on the opposite side of Drayton Street.
Military fortifications too were erected nearby. Palisades ran down from Bay Street to Bryan Street. A guardhouse and cannon were located near the intersection of Drayton and Bay Streets.
What remained of these early buildings at the close of the 18th century was destroyed by Savannah’s devastating fire of 1796, in which Johnson Square was the hardest and most completely hit. Fires, hurricanes and redevelopments have in fact left no 18th century buildings in the immediate vicinity of Johnson Square, though some may be seen elsewhere in the city.
At the heart of the city’s commercial district, the district has seen considerable redevelopment, with many of the buildings fronting directly on the square being of comparatively recent construction.
Through the ward as a whole, the age of the surviving structures roughly increases with proximity to the river. The old commercial buildings fronting on Bay Street date primarily from the early to mid 19th century, now occupied by shops, bars and restaurants.
The centerpiece of Johnson Square is an Egyptian obelisk erected in 1830 in honor of two officers of the American War of Independence: Generals Nathanael Greene and Casimir Pulaski. The monument was rededicated to Greene alone following the completion of Pulaski’s monument in Monterey Square.
The Mercer Bench, commemorating Savannah songwriter and one of the founders of Capitol Records Johnny Mercer, was placed by the Johnny Mercer Foundation in 2003. Another copy of the bench is in Bonaventure Cemetery. A later monument, the 2009 Jonny Mercer Monument in Ellis Square, also honors the musician.
Christ Church Episcopal is Savannah’s oldest congregation, founded soon after the arrival of the first settlers in Georgia. Over the decades that followed, it became one of the city’s highest-status congregations, attended by many of its wealthiest and most influential citizens.
Unlike several of Savannah’s other historic places of worship, which have moved from one part of the city to another, Christ Church has always occupied this spot on the southeast trust lot of Johnson Square. The present Greek Revival style building was completed in 1840.