Let’s Visit the Squares of Savannah

Anyone who has spent time in Savannah understands how special its city squares are. So much more than a feature of the landscape, the well-known and history-imbued gathering places contribute to the soul of the Hostess City.

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.

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 districts ranging along the waterfront. These 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.

Twenty-two of the original squares have survived to the present day; Liberty Square and Elbert Square are the “missing two” of Savannah’s original 24 squares. In total, the city had lost four of its squares – Liberty, Elbert, Franklin, and Ellis, all in the northwest of the Historical District – but Franklin Square and Ellis Square have since been reclaimed.

All that now remains of Elbert Square is a small strip opposite the Civic Center, the construction of which resulted in the loss of much of adjacent Orlean Square’s historic surroundings. Another small grassed area reflects the former location of Liberty Square.

Sadly, in the 1930s, Liberty, Franklin, and Elbert Squares were sacrificed to make way for a highway redevelopment project intended to allow US Highway 17 (also known as the Atlantic Coastal Highway) to cut straight through Savannah on its route down the eastern seaboard from New York City to Florida. The plan was intended to bring investment and tourist money to Savannah during the difficult depression years. However, in the end, its economic benefit was minimal. This loss of the squares was a heavy one for the predominantly Black population then living in the city’s west side. Contentious even at the time, the squares’ destruction was deeply regretted in the years to follow.

Franklin Square was reclaimed in 1985, but besides the small grass strips at the site of Elbert and Liberty Squares, little has been done so far toward restoring either of them to their former function.

Savannah visitors typically begin walking tours in the oldest squares near the river and proceed out toward Monterey (made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and the last line of squares farthest from the river. In our discussion of the squares we will proceed in that geographical order.

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Franklin Square

Franklin Square (1790) is named for Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers and Georgia’s personal agent in London from 1768 to 1777. The City of Savannah water tower stood for many years at its center, so this square has also traditionally been known as “Water Tank Square.” In the early 1980s, this square and much of the surrounding Franklin Ward were largely renovated.

Trees line the perimeter of a large brick plaza and interconnected sidewalks. At the center, the Haitian Monument is the prevailing attention getter. The monument is dedicated to a group of Haitians who fought for the Patriots at the siege of Savannah during the American Revolutionary War.

Near this Square: The City Market on West Saint Julian Street houses numerous restaurants, artist galleries, and handicraft shops in very old but renovated warehouses. The First African Baptist Church (1859) at 23 Montgomery Street and the First Bryan Baptist Church (1788) at 575 West Bryan Street house the oldest black Christian congregations in the United States.

Ellis Square

Ellis Square was one of the original squares laid out in 1733, and one of the first demolished in the name of progress. In 1954 the park was upended to make way for a parking garage. But, in 2006, the city began rebuilding the square as a public area. The parking garage was relocated underground and Ellis Square was rebuilt on top, and the finished result was revealed in an official ceremony in 2010.

The modern square features open areas lined with cement seating areas, along with cafe-style tables and chairs sprinkled under trees along its perimeter. A dancing fountain lies at the heart of the square, shooting up to 10-foot jets at various intervals. A glass-walled visitor’s center with restrooms and a bronze statue of beloved Savannahian and songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Autumn Leaves”) are located on the west side of the square.

Near this Square: The City Market with lots of retail shops and local dining.

Johnson Square

Of the original six squares laid out in 1733, Johnson Square is the oldest. It is named for the Royal Governor of South Carolina who protected Georgia’s first colonists. In 1733, the first church service and the first Georgian colonial birth (of a girl named Georgia Close) both occurred near the square. In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette dedicated the obelisk in the center of this square for General Nathaniel Greene who, in 1901, was exhumed from Colonial Park and re-interred under the obelisk. Greene was second in command of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was involved in numerous major battles during the war.

The sundial on the southern side of the square honors Colonel William Bull who first surveyed Savannah.

Near this Square: Christ Episcopal Church (1897) at 28 Bull Street is “Georgia’s Mother Church” because a church building has occupied the lot since Oglethorpe’s day. The Savannah Bark Building (1911) at 2-6 East Bryan Street was Savannah’s first “skyscraper.”

Reynolds Square

Reynolds square, laid out in 1733, features oak trees and manicured flower gardens between the crisscrossing brick pedestrian paths.

It is now named for the first Royal Governor of Georgia, but originally it was named Lower New Square. On August 10, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first read to Georgians inside the colonial Council House beside the square.

The statue in the center of the square honors the Reverend John Wesley the “founder” of Methodism and one of the first rectors of Savannah’s Christ Church. According to Savannah legend, Wesley quickly lost popularity with the colonists because he regularly walked around Savannah, wrote down the sins he saw other colonists commit, and then recounted those sins before his congregation.

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Near this Square: The Habersham Pink House (1789) at 23 Abercorn Street survived the great Savannah fire of 1796, and today houses a fine restaurant and bar and is listed as a national landmark.

Warren Square

Warren Square (1790) is named for the Continental Army General Joseph Warren, an American Revolutionary hero who died during the Battle of Bunker Hill. This is one of the few squares in the city that does not feature a statue, monument, or fountain of any kind. The large expanse of grass in the middle is frequently used by locals to relax or read a book.                                                                                                        

Near this Square: The John David Mongin House (1793) at 24 Habersham Street served as a hospital during the 1876 yellow fever epidemic.

Washington Square

Washington Square (1790) is named for George Washington, the first American President. On August 10, 1776, after first hearing the Declaration of Independence in Reynolds Square, Savannahians celebrated their first Independence Day on the land that became this square.

Located on the eastern edge of downtown Savannah, this park was completed one year before Washington visited Savannah. Similar to Warren Square, Washington Square does not feature any statues, monuments, or water fountains.

Near this Square: There are no attractions surrounding this square.

Telfair Square

Telfair Square (1733) is now named for merchant and three-time Georgia governor Edward Telfair and his philanthropic daughters, Margaret and Mary. Originally, this square was named after St. James Square in London and many mansions were built beside it.

Although the park features no statues or monuments, it is stunning in its beauty. Flower gardens line the perimeter and fill the brick walkways with color.

Near this Square: The Telfair Museum of Art (1818) at 121 Barnard Street occupies the former Telfair family mansion designed by noted American architect William Jay. Statues of Phidias, Raphael, Reubens, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt now stand in front of the Telfair, one of the oldest museums in the South.
Near this Square: Trinity United Methodist Church (1848) on Barnard Street is Savannah’s oldest Methodist Church.

Wright Square

When this square was laid out in 1733 it was initially called Percival Square. In 1763, it was renamed Wright Square for the last Royal Governor of Georgia. However, Savannahians have often just called it “Courthouse Square” or “Post Office Square” because a courthouse (now serving as a post office) has stood beside the square since Oglethorpe’s day.

In 1883, Savannah erected the Gordon monument in the center of the square to honor William Washington Gordon, who built the Central Railroad of Georgia into what was once the longest, one-company railroad in the world.

Georgia granite rock in the southeastern corner of the square honors Tomochichi, the Yamacraw Indian chief who befriended Oglethorpe and the colonists. The rock replaced Savannah’s first monument, a ballast stone pyramid that the colonists built in the center of the square to honor Tomochichi.

Near this Square: The Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout National Center (1818) at 142 Bull Street was the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America.

Oglethorpe Square

Oglethorpe square (1734) is now named for Georgia founder, James Oglethorpe, but originally it was named Upper New Square.

In the northeast corner of the square, a marker honors America’s first Moravian colonists. The Moravians were musicians and religious pacifists who started a school for Indians in the nearby community of Irene in 1736. Unfortunately, when war erupted between England and Spain in 1740, the Morovians sold their musical instruments to finance their relocation to Spain.

Near this Square: The U.S. Customs House (1852) at 1-5 East Bay Street housed the infamous Wanderer Slave Ship trial in 1859. The owners of the Wanderer were tried for bringing slaves to Georgia in 1858, fifty years after slave importation became illegal. The Old Cotton Exchange (1886) at 100 East Bay Street houses Solomon’s Lodge, the third oldest Masonic lodge in the United States.

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Columbia Square

Columbia Square (1799), like the District of Columbia, is named for Columbia, the female personification of the United States and of liberty itself. 

In 1971, a descendant of Noble Jones, one of Savannah’s early settlers, restored a fountain from Wormsloe Plantation (the estate of the Noble Jones) and placed it in the center of this modest square.

Near this Square: The Isaiah Davenport House (1815-21) at 324 East State Street was the first house saved and restored by the seven ladies who eventually formed the Historic Savannah Foundation. The Kehoe House (1893) at 1231 Habersham is a bed and breakfast with a predominantly brick facade, but everything painted white is made of cast iron. The Bonticue House (1850) at 418 East State Street has an unusual “eyebrow” window.

Greene Square

Greene Square (1799) is named for the American Revolutionary hero Nathaniel Greene (though unlike Johnson Square there is no monument) whose heroics during the war earned him the title “Savior of the South.”

For his contribution to the war effort, the state of Georgia gave him title to the Mulberry Grove Plantation near Savannah. Greene died soon after moving to the plantation but his wife stayed and raised their children. In 1793, Eli Whitney (while tutoring Greene’s children) invented the cotton gin during his residence at the plantation.

This square is one of the least decorated in Savannah – few trees and a smattering of benches.

Near this Square: The Second African Baptist Church (1925) at 123 Houston Street now stands where an 1802 church once stood.

Orleans Square

Orleans Square (1815) commemorates Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

On October 7, 1988, Savannah celebrated its first German American Day and broke ground on the German Memorial Fountain in the center of the square. Exactly one year later, the German Heritage Society officially dedicated this magnificent reflecting fountain.

Near the Square: The Harper Fowlkes House (1844) at 230 Barnard Street is one of the beautiful house-museums operated by the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah.

Chippewa Square

Chippewa Square (1815) honors Major General Jacob Jennings Brown’s victory at the Battle of Chippewa (Canada) during the War of 1812.

In the center of this square, a statue of Georgia founder James Oglethorpe stands facing Spanish Florida with his sword unsheathed, but pointed downward. Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon designed this statue in 1910, then later designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A park bench was created and placed on the eastern side of this square in order to film the park bench scenes in the movie Forrest Gump. The famous bench is no longer there, but people still visit the square for the chance to see the filming location.

Near the Square: Independent Presbyterian Church (1817) at 25 West Oglethorpe Avenue has the cast iron steeple visible in the “falling feather” scenes of Forrest Gump. The Savannah Theatre (1948) at 222 Bull Street occupies the site where noted American architect William Jay’s theatre once stood (1818).

Crawford Square

Crawford Square (1841) is named for William Harris Crawford, a Savannahian who was a governor of Georgia, an American Foreign Minister to Napoleon, and Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Although it was completely renovated with a basketball court and a playground park in 1979, this square harkens back to yesteryear. First, near the gazebo in the center of the square, a cistern cover reminds visitors that after the Great Fire of 1820 water cisterns were installed under every Savannah Square. Second, this square alone has a cast iron fence around it, but at one time every Savannah square was similarly fenced. Finally, there is a lot of tabby pavement around the square. Tabby was a favorite colonial building material made from sea shells, lime, and water.

Near this Square: Habersham Hall (1887), a building owned by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) at 235-239 Habersham Street looks like a mosque but was originally the Chatham County Jail.

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Pulaski Square

Pulaski Square (1837) is named for Count Casimir Pulaski, the highest ranking foreign officer to die in the American Revolution. Pulaski won many revolutionary battles against the Russians in his native Poland, but was eventually forced to live in exile. Benjamin Franklin met Pulaski in Paris and recruited him to fight for the American Revolutionaries. On October 9, 1779, Pulaski died during the siege of Savannah. Savannah honored Pulaski with both a monument in Monterey Square and his own square. In the 1960s the Historic Savannah Foundation renovated many of the homes surrounding the park.

Despite not featuring a single statue, monument, or water fountain, this square is a charming idyllic spot.

Near the Square: The Francis Bartow House at 116 West Harris Street belonged to the Confederate hero from Savannah who died during the first Battle of Bull Run.

Madison Square

Madison Square (1837) is named for James Madison, the fourth American President.

Seldom are enlisted soldiers honored with statues, but in the center of Madison Square stands a statue of Sergeant William Jasper, a three time Revolutionary War hero. Because he was illiterate, Jasper declined the officer’s commission that he was offered after rescuing his fallen regimental flag at the Battle of Fort Moultrie in 1776. Later that year, Jasper and John Newton rescued twelve American prisoners from the British at what became Jasper Springs, South Carolina. On October 9, 1779, Jasper died from wounds that he received while (once again) rescuing his fallen regimental flag during the Siege of Savannah (when Patriot forces attempted to retake Savannah from British control).

On the southern side of the square, two cannons commemorate the colonial highways to Darien, Georgia, and Augusta, Georgia.

The large brick plaza and interconnecting pedestrian paths beneath giant oak trees make this a don’t-miss square.

Near this Square: The Green Meldrim House (1857) at 14 West Macon Street served as Sherman’s headquarters when he occupied Savannah after his “March to the Sea.” Until the twentieth century, this house was the most expensive ever built in Savannah.

Lafayette Square

Lafayette Square (1837) is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who served as Washington’s Aide de Camp during the American Revolution and later dedicated the Greene Obelisk in Johnson Square. Until 1846, the Savannah City Jail was located beside the square.

In 1983, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America installed an attractive water fountain commemorating the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Georgia colony in the center of this square.  

Near this Square: The Andrew Low House (1849) at 329 Abercorn Street was built for Andrew Low. His daughter-in-law, Juliette Gordon Low, founded the Girl Scouts of America, and gave them the carriage house behind the main house as their first headquarters. The biggest draw to the square is the view of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (1876) at Abercorn and East Harris Streets. The Cathedral is the starting point for the St Patrick’s Day parade, the key event in Savannah’s annual Mardi Gras-style St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

Troup Square

Troup Square (1851) is named for George Michael Troup, a Chatham County native who served as a congressman, a senator, and the governor of Georgia. Only Troup and George Washington had their wards and squares named after them while they were still alive.

The square is smaller than most others and made even more unique by its bronze, Victorian-era armillary modeling the heavens and locating astronomical objects in the night sky.

This square is commonly called “Dog Bone Square” because it has a pet-friendly fountain similar to the Myers Drinking Fountain in Forsyth Park.

Near this Square: The Unitarian Universalist Church (1851) at 321 Habersham Street was originally built beside Oglethorpe Square. Legend says that James Pierpont (an uncle of financier J. Purport Morgan) wrote the Christmas song “Jingle Bells” while serving as organist and choir director of the church. After the Civil War, freed slaves bought the building, moved to Troup Square, and renamed it St. Stephen Episcopal Church. Today, Unitarians have reclaimed the church.

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Chatham Square

Chatham Square (1847), like Savannah’s own Chatham County, is named for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, and the Prime Minister who wanted Parliament to treat all British citizens, including the colonists, as equal under the Bill of Rights.

During the cotton boom that made Savannah rich in the early 1800s, many wealthy Savannahians built beautiful Greek Revival homes beside the Square and throughout its ward.

With its thick canopy over crisscrossing brick pedestrian paths, this is a delightful square even though there are no statues or monuments.

Near the Square: The Gordon Row (1853) at 101-129 West Gordon Street is one full city block of beautifully restored three-story row houses with intricate and decorative cast iron railings.

Monterey Square

Monterey Square (1851) commemorates Zachary Taylor’s 1846 victory (with the help of numerous Savannah “Irish Jasper Greens” military men) at the Battle of Monterey, Mexico.

In the center of this beautiful square with towering trees, manicured grass, and flower gardens is the Pulaski Monument honoring Count Casimer Pulaski (see also Pulaski square). The inverted canons and laurel wreaths on the cast iron fence symbolize military loss, victory, and peace. In 1854, Pulaski’s supposed remains were exhumed from Greenwich Plantation and reinterred under the monument in this square.

Near this Square: Mercer Williams House (1871) at 429 Bull Street was built by the grandfather of famed Savannahian songwriter Johnny Mercer, but no Mercer ever lived there. A century later Jim Williams, the main character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, completely renovated the house and lived in it until his death in 1990. It is certainly Savannah’s most famous (and arguably most beautiful) house.

The Congregation Mickve Israel Synagogue (1878) at 20 East Gordon Street houses the third oldest Jewish congregation in America (1733).

Calhoun Square

Calhoun Square (1851) is named for John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian who was U.S. Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and was known during his life as “the Great Orator of the South.”

The square is tinged with some irony as it was laid out in land that was formerly a burial ground for slaves, yet was named for John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of the right to own slaves.

It is an appealing square, but has no status or monuments to explore.

Near the Square: The Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church (1876) at 433 Abercorn Street honors Reverend John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother Reverend Charles Wesley who wrote “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.” The Massie Heritage Center (1856) at 201-213 East Gordon Street was built with funds from the estate of Peter Massie, a Brunswick farmer, as a school for Savannah’s poor children.

Whitefield Square

Whitefield Square (1851) is named for the Reverend George Whitefield, the fourth minister of the Georgia colony, the second rector of Christ Episcopal Church and the founder of the Bethesda Orphanage (1740).

The ward around this square is primarily filled with wooden Victorian houses. In the center of this square is a plain but beautiful gazebo, and is occasionally used for weddings.

Near the Square: The First Congressional Church (1859) at 42 Habersham Street was built atop its predecessor for New England Congregationlists who taught freed slaves at Savannaha’s Beach Institute.

Getting Around the Squares

The best way to get around the squares is with the Old Town Trolly (855-245-8992) tour. Purchase a ticket for the open air tour bus with the option to hop off and on all day long. The tour company features a dozen stops throughout Savannah with many of them located at the best squares.

Blair Witkowski
Author: Blair Witkowski

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