A Guide to Savannah’s First 6 Squares
Savannah is a place rich in both history and beauty, and nowhere is this more evident than Savannah’s squares. The Savannah squares are not only a part of Savannah’s history — they have helped to shape it — as the city was created and has since grown around the squares.
James Oglethorpe originally planned to have Savannah laid out into a grid of 24 squares, but unfortunately for him, he was only able to see 6 of them built. In 1733, the first 4 squares were built in Savannah: Johnson Square, Wright Square, Ellis Square, and Telfair Square. In 1736, Oglethorpe built 2 more squares, Oglethorpe Square and Reynolds Square. The remaining 18 squares, which spread south from the original squares, were developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the time of their development, and that of the city of Savannah itself, the squares were used as centers of the community. People would gather in them for communal activities that ranged from the dramatic, such as victory celebrations or the sheltering of outside dwellers from attackers, to more mundane activities such as gathering water and keeping livestock.
The original layout of the city of Savannah included a basic organizational unit called a ward, and each ward contained a square at its center. The communal activities took place in the square, while the east and west sides of each square were designated as “trust lots,” which were reserved for public buildings. The north and south sides of the squares were divided into 20 “tithing lots,” with a lane down the middle for passage; these lanes form the streets of the downtown Historic District today. The tithing lots made up land granted to settlers; each settler received a 50 acre land grant, which included a tithing lot, a 5 acre garden nearby and approximately 45 acres of farmland outside the city limits.
Scattered throughout the downtown Historic District, these charming enclaves each have their own unique story and appeal. Ask any Savannahian, and chances are they can name their favorite Savannah square without missing a beat, although the reasons can vary from those of nostalgia and sentimental value to simply aesthetic preference. Every square is a piece of treasured Savannah history, and most all of them play host to majestic oaks and lush green grass, but we’ll look at the past and present of the more popular squares. We’ll start by looking at the first 6 squares that James Oglethorpe got to see created in his lifetime.
Johnson Square, the first of the Savannah squares, is named after Governor Robert Johnson, who was the governor of South Carolina and a close friend of James Oglethorpe. Johnson Square was the center of the Derby Ward, which is where the first 40 houses in Savannah were built, and was where the settlers could come and bake their bread. Although the 2 communal ovens no longer exist in the square today, their places are marked by 2 large fountains. Johnson Square is also home to the Nathaniel Greene Monument, which honors the Revolutionary War hero with a tall obelisk in the center of Johnson Square; a sundial dedicated to Colonel Charles Bull, who first surveyed the city of Savannah, and marble bench erected in memory of beloved Savannahian songwriter Johnny Mercer. The Christ Episcopal Church, called the Mother Church of Georgia, is on the east side of Johnson Square, while banks occupy the remaining sides, which is why many locals refer to Johnson Square as “The Bank Square.”
Wright Square, the second square in Savannah, was ultimately named after the last Royal Governor of Georgia, Sir James Wright. On its east side is the old Chatham County Courthouse, which is nearly as old as the square itself. Made of pale yellow brick with terra cotta decorations and an arched doorway, this building, which now houses the Chatham County Human Resources Department, is almost as eye-catching as its neighbor, The Lutheran Church of the Ascension. In the center of Wright Square is the William Washington Gordon Monument, erected in honor of the man who brought great wealth to Savannah with the introduction of the railroad. In the southeast corner of the square, a simple yet striking monument of massive granite stone pays tribute to Chief Tomo-Chi-Chi, a Yamacraw chief who offered peace and cooperation to the settlers.
Ellis Square was named after Sir Henry Ellis, the 2nd Royal Governor of the colony of Georgia and was home to the Decker Ward. The original City Market was built in Decker Ward in 1763, and in the 1850s a brick building was built to house it. In 1954, the building was demolished and a multistory parking garage was built over Ellis Square, which many referred to as an eyesore. In fact, so much of a fuss was made over the parking garage that the Savannah Preservation Movement and Historic Savannah Foundation were created, and they revived City Market with new shops, studios, and restaurants. The parking garage was demolished in 2006 to make way for the new Ellis Square, which features an outdoor chess set and interactive water fountain. A parking garage has been built underground, beneath the square.
Telfair Square is flanked on its northern and eastern sides by the U.S. Post Office and 2 tiled buildings that house the Government Services Administration offices. The buildings, which are called by some (and not affectionately so) “the bathroom buildings,” do, if nothing else, provide a marked contrast to the buildings across the square—The Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences and The Trinity Methodist Church. The Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences, like the square itself, is named for the Telfair family, who used their wealth to contribute to the cultural, religious and social development of the city of Savannah. The Trinity Methodist Church, besides holding regular worship services, also hosts musical shows and concerts, including those that are part of the Savannah Music Festival and Savannah Stopover Music Festival. The Jepson Center, which is part of the Telfair museum family and features modern artwork and exhibits, is on the southwest corner of Telfair Square.
Reynolds Square was named for John Reynolds, the first colonial governor of Georgia, which is rather interesting since Reynolds was considered to be the least popular of the colonial governors. Reynolds Square held the House of Assembly, where the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Georgia took place, and it also served as the center of colonial government. The Filature for silk making was located on Reynolds Square, but due to the failure of the silk industry in Georgia (the humidity kept the silkworms’ cocoons from maturing properly), the Filature was converted to use as a meeting house. In the center of the square is a statue that serves as a tribute to Reverend John Wesley, who is known as the “founder” of Methodism and was one of the first rectors of Savannah Christ Church (located off of Johnson Square). The Filature does not stand today, but The Habersham House, built in 1789, stands on the west side of the square, although most people now know it as The Olde Pink House, or “The Pink House”, a fine-dining restaurant. On the south end of Reynolds Square is The Lucas Theater, which was built in 1921. “The Lucas,” as it’s known by locals, was originally designed for silent films and vaudeville shows; today, it’s a popular venue for a variety of musical acts, as well as film festivals and award shows.
Oglethorpe Square is the last Savannah square laid out by James Oglethorpe while he was in the colony of Georgia. The Owen-Thomas House Museum is located on this square, and it is a testament to the talent and influence of William Jay, an English architect whose influences are clearly visible throughout the Historic District. The Owens-Thomas House was owned by a wealthy banker and cotton broker, but he unfortunately lost the home shortly after its completion. George Welshman Owens purchased the 8 years later, and his granddaughter, Margaret Thomas, bequeathed the house to the Telfair Museum in 1951. Many Greek revival-style homes, row houses, and paired houses surround Oglethorpe Square, inluding the house on the east side of the square, which has since been restored and converted into the President’s Quarters Inn.
So there you have it — the first six squares in our journey around Historic Downtown Savannah. Next time, we’ll take a look at a few more of the squares, and examine both their colorful pasts and the appeal that they still hold to both locals and visitors today.