Lifestyle · Travel

September in Savannah

 ColonialCemetery1.Very early American: A colonial-era cemetery in Savannah. (photo: Susan B. Johnson)

Thirty-five years ago, my husband and I bade farewell to our family and friends in Chicago and set sail aboard our 40-foot ketch across the North Atlantic—a passage five years in the planning. Our voyage took us from Oxford, Maryland, to Bermuda, the Azores, and England. In Holland, we took down our two masts and headed south, traversing the European subcontinent under power through Belgium and France via their canals and rivers. It was a life-changing adventure that tested our skills, forged new friendships, and taught us much about ourselves.

After traveling for more than two years, we agreed that it was time to sail home. But where was that? We had already relinquished our Chicago apartment and put our household goods in storage. Oddly, although we had always been inveterate planners, we’d made no definite plan for life after the voyage.

Fred needed ocean, I needed warmth, and we both needed jobs. Our long journey from the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean provided ample time for debate. Charleston, South Carolina, which we had once visited by automobile, seemed to fill all our requirements. Neither of us remembers why we decided on Savannah, Georgia (est. 1733) instead, but it turned out to be the right choice. We rented a little house and settled in.

As newcomers we had never experienced July and August in the Deep South, so we weren’t prepared for how brutal those months could be. Now we know that days are often so hot and humid that on Fridays at 5 p.m., when we habitually meet about 20 of our neighbors in Washington Square to chat and enjoy a glass of wine, few show up. It’s so blistering that we have to bribe our dog, Lucy, to leave the house.

We avoid the heat by doing inside jobs—making household repairs, organizing closets, laying in firewood—the kind of home maintenance we did in Chicago during January and February to avoid the cold.

When at last September arrives, Savannahians emerge from air-conditioned hibernation like bears from a cave. Our Friday gatherings resume, and everyone is welcome. Oldsters sit on the wooden benches to chat; children tag each other and ride tricycles around the perimeter sidewalk; various neighborhood dogs, all of whom know one another, romp amid the happy chaos, and the rest of us bring our libation of choice into the shade of ancient liveoaks and catch up on each others’ news.

 Our_gardenThe backyard garden of the author’s colonial cottage in Savannah’s Historic District.

This kind of spontaneous, open-armed bonhomie is characteristic of Savannah. Fred and I immediately felt accepted by everyone we met. The same is true for our two African-American neighbors and their Caucasian wives. They join us regularly in our Fridays-in-the-square and are accepted without hesitation. One of the couples recently lent Fred and me their two little girls, ages four and six, for a fun afternoon at the Barnum & Bailey circus.

Savannah was in its “pre-renaissance” period in the 1980s. We were immediately drawn to its historic beauty—those verandah’d Victorian mansions, those 22 parklike squares in America’s largest historic district, and all those pastel-colored antebellum houses. (They exist because, in 1864, Savannah’s mayor “gave [William Tecumsheh] Sherman’s men the run of the city if they promised to leave it untorched.”) See a charming display of some of those historic houses at http://www.savannahbest.com/savhist/Houses.htm.

800px-The_Olde_Pink_House_in_Savannah,_GeorgiaThe Olde Pink House, an eighteenth-century mansion-turned restaurant in Savannah.

We also liked the flavor and leisurely pace of the small city (current population estimate, 142,000.) But, attractive as sleepy Savannah was back then, it did need a renaissance. We were disappointed to discover how little there was to do. No movie theaters existed in the central city. About the only sources of entertainment were one museum, a few art galleries, and a struggling orchestra that ultimately gave up the ghost.

Two things profoundly increased Savannah’s popularity. The first was the metamorphosis of the Savannah College of Art and Design from a small, private, one-building school in downtown Savannah into a major university with campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France. The old city began to revive when the school’s owners acquired rundown historic structures and renovated them tastefully into classroom, administrative, and recreational spaces.

In the years since, SCAD has positively impacted Savannah in myriad ways. For 13 years it has sponsored an October film festival that draws more than 50,000 guests to enjoy feature films, new releases, documentaries, lectures, workshops, and celebrity appearances, some of which are free.

Thanks largely to SCAD, the city is now rife with art exhibits and other events at its newly built museum, drawing tourists from all over the world. They come to stroll the quiet squares beneath century-old trees draped with Spanish moss, to eat “Suthren” in the many outdoor restaurants, to walk along the Savannah River and watch the sun go down.

 450px-SCAD_Sidewalk_Arts_Festival SCAD sidewalk art festival, Forsyth Park, 2004.

The second happening was the publication of John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994, concerning a murder that took place in Savannah. It won the 1995 Boeke Prize and was short-listed for the Pulitzer, becoming an instant best seller that drew thousands of tourists from all over the globe. The cover photo of The Bird Girl, taken by Fred’s and my good friend Jack Leigh, caused the actual statue in Bonaventure Cemetery to become so attractive to vandals that it had to be moved to the Telfair Museum for safekeeping.

Today, the Savannah Philharmonic, established five years ago, is flourishing. Its fall-season opening  concert (Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak) takes place on  September 13. October events include the big “Moon River” concert (an all–Johnny Mercer concert on Mercer’s former estate, which happens to be right on the eponymous river) and the annual Picnic Concert in Forsyth Park.

And. speaking of music, one hasn’t heard jazz until one comes to the Savannah Jazz Festival during the last week of September. Hundreds of music lovers bring blankets and picnics to the Forsyth Park Bandshell to hear Blues under the Stars.

For baseball fans, our local team—the indefatigable Savannah Sand Gnats (Class-A affiliate of the New York Mets)—holds its annual championship series in September, and inevitably the after-game fireworks send our Lucy under the bed. (A recent headline from the Sand Gnats website: “Sand Gnats Team President to Get Prostate Exam While Singing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame.’” He enlisted his doctor “to lend a helping hand and administer the exam,” the website notes.)

The city plays host to national golf tournaments, some of which occur in September. On September 4, there’ll be the last of the wonderful summer cabaret performances at the Lucas Theatre, the restored 1921 moviehouse that hosts the Philharmonic, the Film Festival, and great old movies.

Even after 33 years, Fred and I open our bedroom windows at night to hear the rustle of the wind in the old oaks and the occasional clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage coming down our tabby street.

As you can see, fall is a lovely, lively time to visit our vibrant city, where the locals are welcoming and the livin’ is easy.

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  • Lynne August 26, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I love Savannah, Georgia. I just recently moved, however, to Asheville, NC. I have never lived in the South and am an out west person, so I’m feeling a little shell-shocked, but many parts of the south are beautiful and have a homey feeling that the west does not have. As a single woman over 40, I appreciate that kind of warmth. I decided I loved the south for this sort of feeling when I sent to visit the city twice. And now I am not so far away so will get to visit Savannah more often. May check out the jazz festival. So glad you like it!

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  • Mary August 26, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Lovely piece, Susan. Did you ever write about your sailing adventures? What boat did you take across? Double-handed?
    (I’m also from Chicago. In 1992, my husband and I sailed from Norfolk to St. Thomas in a 32′ Westsail, part of the Caribbean 1500. Some went on to England; we came home and continuted working. Now at least one of us is retired…have downsized to a Morris 26, but still dreaming.

    Reply
  • Roz Warren August 26, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Sounds fabulous. Love the photos.

    Reply