By Kristen Maloney
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
The jarring cobblestone streets almost overpower the sight of the magnificent colonial architecture that the city is built of, making Savannah a cultural, historical and environmental wonderland.
“It’s not like a lot of towns that I grew up in,” said Andrea Six, director of public relations for Visit Savannah Tourism and Travel. “It’s very historic and almost reminds you of an old town you would find in England or France.”
Students and tourists from all over the world travel to Savannah to experience the unique cultural history that this city provides. In addition to the whimsical architecture and street art, Savannah offers important landmark attractions that significantly contributed to the history of this city.
“Savannah is the whole package,” said Erica Backus, director of public relations for the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. “The unique dynamic of a hip music and arts scene, under the influence of the Savannah College of Art and Design, mixed with historic architecture as well as the walkability of the city, the beautiful scenery and the amazing culinary experiences make this city so attractive.”
“Downtown Savannah is the largest urban landmark historic district in the country, with more than 45 different historic and cultural attractions,” Backus said. “Savannah was Georgia’s first city and many important landmarks remain from the long history that comes with that.”
While all landmarks notably influenced the city’s history, a few of the most significant are the Telfair Museums, which include the Owens-Thomas House, the Jepson Center and the Telfair Academy, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
The oldest of the three museums, the Owens-Thomas House, was built in 1819 by European architect William Jay for cotton merchant and banker Richard Richardson and his wife, according to Calli Laundre, director of public relations for the Telfair Museums. A few years later in 1830, former Mayor George Welshman Owens bought the house, which was later donated to the Telfair Museum of Art by Owen’s granddaughter, Margaret Thomas.
The museum, now considered a national historic landmark, includes an art collection mostly comprised of the Owen’s family furnishings dating back to the early 1800s, along with a look inside an original carriage house and slave quarters, Laundre said.
The Telfair Academy, originally a mansion designed also by William Jay for Alexander Telfair in 1818 was converted in 1875 by Mary Telfair into the Georgia Historical Society, according to Laundre. It then opened in 1866 as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and contains two period rooms embracing 19th and 20th century American and European Art.
The Jepson Center, according to Laundre, ties all the museums together. The center, opened in 2006, unifies the three by showcasing the contemporary art of today, such as the Kirk Varnedoe Collection, while paying tribute to Savannah’s historical aspect by featuring the city’s art from the past 50 years.
“I think people want to see not only the architecture and the art, but they also want to get a story about the history of Savannah,” Laundre said. “All three sites are so unique and show a different aspect of the city. Each one you go to depends on what kind of experience you want to have.”
While these museums are said to be one of the eldest historical landmarks Savannah has to offer, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is considered a worthy contender to compete with them in both beauty and age.
The cathedral, established near the end of the 18th century, is a landmark that visitors and residents of Savannah hold extremely dear to their hearts, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“Just a peek inside this incredible church has the power to inspire and uplift someone of any background,” said Brenda Price, office assistant of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and Savannah resident. “It’s one of the most historic landmarks Savannah has to offer.”
Members of the cathedral, originally residing in France under the French-Catholic rule, relocated to Savannah in the late 1700s after an uprising in Haiti, according to Price. It then took countless volunteers years of constructing and designing the substantial-sized church to be able to hold any proper religious ceremony.
On Feb. 6, 1898, a devastating fire destroyed the entire church and all that it held, according to Price. It took 13 years of rebuilding after the fire to finish the interior art and design.
“After the fire, the cathedral came back bigger and better than ever,” Price said. “It is now the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.”
The church holds several daily activities that are open to the public including bible study and bible school for young kids, mass, funerals and weddings, Price said.
“There’s a constant stream of weddings being held in this church,” Price said. “You haven’t seen beauty until you’ve seen a wedding here. People need to make reservations at least a year in advance.”
The city of Savannah is literally and metaphorically built around this church. It has a gravitational pull that attracts people from all over the world to come and see its beauty and tranquility. The people of Savannah, according to Price, are firm in their pride of having the opportunity to have this church in their hometown.
“I think this church has a big historical influence on Savannah,” Price said. “It kind of ties the entire city together. It’s like a part of us.”
Savannah’s history is apparent in its architecture, parks, streets and art. Few other cities in the south pull such crowds from around the world for their culture and historical aspects, making Savannah truly unique.
“People from the south come here to see how beautiful Savannah is along with its historic side,” Six said. “They want to know and see what it was like before everything had been modernized.”
Savannah’s historic reputation extends beyond Georgia’s boundaries. People from all over the world travel to this city to visit and explore everything it has to offer. Residents of even fellow southern cities travel to Savannah to uncover a side of the south that their city does not offer.
Communications associate for the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, Taylor Castillejo, made the trip to Savannah from Knoxville, Tennessee due to job relocation.
“The move down here was a real culture shock,” Castillejo said. “Even though both cities are in the south, they are complete opposites. But, I absolutely love Savannah for all of its history and mystique, and it’s my favorite city so getting to promote it every day for my job is awesome!”
Walking down the streets of the historical district, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish which aspect of the city contributed most to Savannah’s historical success: the architecture, art or cultural influences. One thing, however, is clear. Regardless of how much the city becomes contemporary and modernized, as long as landmarks such as the Telfair Museums and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist exist and remain in the city, visitors and residents will never forget the journey and history of Savannah.