Savannah’s parks and especially, its squares, are an integral and unmissable part of the city’s historic landscape.
Some of the squares are as old as Savannah itself, laid out by its founder James Oglethorpe in 1733. Over the next century or so, a total of 24 squares were created – spaced every few blocks throughout the city – in the region now preserved as Savannah’s National Landmark Historic District.
In addition to the 22 of the original 24 squares that have survived to the present day, Savannah has several historic parks. In the Historic District itself, at the end of the Bull Street series of squares, is the beautiful Forsyth Park and its fountain, dating from the 1850s.
The smaller, historically-Irish Emmet Park is in the north of the District, alongside of the eastern end of River Street. Classically-inspired Daffin Park is to the southeast of the city, mostly used by local residents.
Founder James Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah was of a city laid out in a system of wards, each centered on a square that could be used as a gathering place and refuge in times of fire or enemy attack.
The Oglethorpe Plan, as it is now called, allowed for the creation of additional wards and squares in a modular fashion as the growth of the city’s population required it.
Four squares and wards (around present-day Johnson, Ellis, Wright and Telfair Squares) were laid out in 1733, and two more were soon added. By the end of the 18th century, six new wards and squares had been created to the east and west of the original six.
Twelve more squares and wards were eventually added, mostly to the south of the then-settled district ranging along the riverfront. The last few were established in 1851, to make a total of 24.
After this, the plan was abandoned. The lower part of the Historic District preserves the first portion of the city to be developed without its characteristic design, the larger Forsyth Park substituting for the smaller but more frequent squares.
Today the squares are landscaped as small parks, beautiful spaces to rest and relax and admire the architecture of the surrounding streets. Each of the squares has its own character, drawn from the buildings and neighborhood that surrounds it.
Bull Street, leading down from the site of the present City Hall to Forsyth Park through five of Savannah’s most beautiful squares, was a favorite promenade of the city’s wealthy in the 19th century. Many of the most important buildings and places of worship were constructed around these squares, as well as several of Savannah’s most fashionable residences.
One of the most visible and important streets in Savannah, Bull Street’s squares were chosen as the sites of the grandest monuments of that era, with monuments to Nathanael Greene (Johnson Square), William Washington Gordon (Wright Square), Tomochichi (Wright Square), James Oglethorpe (Chippewa Square), William Jasper (Madison Square) and Casimir Pulaski (Monterey Square) all erected between 1830 and 1910.
Along Bull Street, Johnson Square and Wright Square are two of the original four squares of Savannah’s plan. Johnson Square, one of the largest in the city, was historically at the heart of its commercial district; Wright Square is one of the prettiest, with many beautiful old buildings around its perimeter.
Moving southwards you arrive at Chippewa Square, once at the center of Savannah’s nightlife and still home to the historic Savannah Theatre. On Madison Square is the Green-Meldrim House, at the time of its construction the most expensive home ever built in Savannah and later used by General Sherman as his headquarters during the Union occupation of the city.
On Monterey Square are the Mercer-Williams House, famously the home of Jim Williams, subject of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the Mickve Israel Synagogue, which houses one of the earliest Jewish congregations in the country.
Savannah’s eastern Historic District is largely quiet and residential, with many of the oldest surviving homes in the city located on the streets around and between its squares, particularly the region between Warren and Washington Squares.
Although most of the houses in this part of the Historic District were erected on a modest scale, there are some exceptions, with two large historic homes – the Davenport House on Columbia Square and the Owens-Thomas House on Oglethorpe Square – open to the public.
The 18th-century Olde Pink House is on Reynolds Square, one of the oldest squares in the city, where several important colonial-era buildings were once located.
Most of Savannah’s 18th-century homes are lost, but you can see many of those that survived in the streets around the three northeastern-most squares, such as the several restored 18th-century frame houses on and around Warren Square. Some of the houses are in their original locations, others were saved by preservationists and moved from at-risk locations nearby.
The east side neighborhoods were historically favored by Savannah’s Irish and African-Americans, a heritage which you can still see in many of the surviving buildings and landmarks around the eastern squares and their surrounding streets.
Greene Square, in particular, became one of the centers of Savannah’s black population. Several of the city’s wealthiest free black businesspeople lived in the surrounding streets, such as Henry Cunningham, a pastor of the Second African Baptist Church, whose house still stands across from that church, on Greene Square.
The New England character of some of the neighborhood around Washington Square reflects the influence of the seamen who settled in this district; the International Seamen’s House still stands on the square.
The squares on the western side of Savannah’s Historic District have suffered most from Savannah’s 20th-century modernization projects. Two of the squares are lost, and two more were lost and subsequently reclaimed.
Along Montgomery Street, all three squares – Franklin, Elbert and Liberty – were lost to a highway development in the 1930s. Franklin Square, on which the historic First African Baptist Church fronts, was later reclaimed. A small patch of grass is all that remains of both Elbert and Liberty Squares.
Ellis Square was Savannah’s marketplace until the mid-20th century, when the market building was destroyed to make way for a parking garage. Recently, the garage has been torn down and the square redeveloped as an open space. Adjacent to City Market, Ellis Square is popular with tourists, and the site of one of Savannah’s Visitor Centers.
Orleans Square too has lost much of its history to development, in this case of Savannah’s Civic Center (and before that its Municipal Auditorium). A large parking lot fronts on the square, where historic homes once stood, though the Harper-Fowlkes House still stands.
Telfair Square is one of the centers of Savannah’s arts scene, with its two art museums, the Telfair Academy of Arts and the Jepson Center.
The squares to the south of Savannah’s Historic District were laid out and the surrounding neighborhoods developed during the building booms of the 19th century.
Pulaski Square and Chatham Square are both pretty and tranquil, set amidst some of Savannah’s most beautiful residential architecture. Many of the brick-built houses, such as the historic Gordon Row south of Chatham Square, were constructed as rental properties by speculators from the 1850s and onwards.
Calhoun Square provides probably the best example of how Savannah might once have looked, alone amongst Savannah’s squares in retaining all its original buildings. Beneath it and adjacent Whitefield Square Savannah’s earliest graveyard for African Americans, free and slave, once lay.
There are several historic places of worship in this area. Two historic black churches, First Congregational and Beth Eden Baptist, can be seen on and near Whitefield Square. North of Lafayette Square is one of Savannah’s most striking landmarks, the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, its spires rising above the city. On quiet, pleasant Troup Square is the Unitarian Universalist Church. Its organist, James Pierpont, composed Jingle Bells.
Crawford Square, tucked behind Colonial Park Cemetery, is the only square in Savannah with facilities for active recreation, a basketball court occupying its northern half. Unfortunately, many of the historic buildings around the square have been destroyed.
Forsyth Park, one of the oldest urban parks in the country and home to Savannah’s well-known fountain, is one of the city’s most beautiful spots. Only a mile south of River Street and nearer still to many of the Historic District’s other sights, it is an ideal place to sit and take some time out from sightseeing.
Besides the fountain and several monuments, Forsyth Park has a small fragrant garden and a visitor center. It is the venue for numerous festivals and special events each year, including a weekly farmers market.
This small, narrow park, running alongside the northern edge of eastern East Bay Street (see on map), is an ideal spot to sit and relax or picnic near to Savannah’s River Street and shopping district. Steps and a steep cobbled roadway lead down from the park to the river.
Emmet Park is named for the Irish Nationalist Robert Emmet (1778-1803). Since the mid 19th century, many of Savannah’s Irish-heritage residents who worked on the city’s docks and wharves and lived on its eastern side, near the river, used this small space for recreation.
Over the years, Emmet Park was variously known as Bay Street Green, being a continuation of the grassed area running along most of Bay Street, and Irish Green, after its patrons and nearby residents. The city officially recognized the space as a park in 1902, when it was given its current name.
Emmet Park still retains its place in Savannah’s Irish culture. A Celtic Cross commemorates Georgia’s people of Irish descent, and the Tara Feis, a family-focused Irish festival, was until recently held in March as part of Savannah’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Daffin Park is the third – and at 80 acres the largest – of Savannah’s historically-important parks. It forms part of the Daffin Park-Parkside Place Historic District, located somewhat southeast of the the city’s main Historic District (see on map). The park is named for Philip D Daffin, Chairman of the Park and Tree Commission for much of the Commission’s first three decades.
Savannah created Daffin Park on its former city fairgrounds in 1906-1907, in response to the need to provide more active forms of recreation for its citizens. John Nolen, who went on to an illustrious career in city planning, designed the park in the Beaux Arts/City Beautiful style (making it Savannah’s first completed park to be designed by a professional landscape designer from outside the city).
Today, the park is mostly used for exercise, sports and relaxation by local residents, and as an occasional venue for special events. Facilities include a children’s playground, courts for basketball, tennis and volleyball, a swimming pool and a dog park. There are also athletic fields and the Grayson Stadium.