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Your Guide to Savannah

Published in association with the Society of Architectural Historians, the celebrated Buildings of the United States series (BUS) has been covering the history of the built world in America, state by state. The latest title to emerge from this collaboration, however, looks at a single city in depth. Buildings of Savannah is the first volume in the SAH/BUS City Guide series. We caught up with lead author, Robin B. Williams, to ask a few questions about the book. Williams, the chair of architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, was fresh off the “Reading the City” campaign, an innovative series of lectures and city walks organized around the book in association with SCAD.

Q: What characterizes Savannah architecture?

Williams: To understand Savannah, you have to understand the interplay of buildings, streets, green spaces and trees. Savannah is like a symphony without a soloist, as there are no famous individual buildings, yet its built environment is among the most harmonic in America.

Q: How did you decide to create an architectural guidebook to the city?

Williams: There is no good authoritative or comprehensive guide to Savannah’s architecture and urban history. We have been reminded of this fact, and chided for it, over the years by visiting architectural historians eager to pick up a good guide and walk around. After years of conducting research on specific aspects of Savannah’s built environment, I approached the Buildings of the United States series editor and SAH about the idea of a BUS book focused on a city instead of a state.

Q: Buildings of Savannah is described as comprehensive, authoritative, and up to date. Can you explain how this is true?

Williams: This book is the first architectural guide of Savannah to cover significant portions of the city beyond its famous downtown historic district, including some areas or sites that rarely get attention even locally. Despite its title, the book addresses all components of the built environment, from large-scale developments and neighborhoods to individual buildings and monuments, as well as elements of landscape and planning—including wards and squares—and infrastructure, such as canals, light houses, and bridges.

The book is authored by five professors of architectural history with over twenty years' experience in the Savannah environment. This team performed extensive original research specifically for the book and was held to the highest fact-checking standards. We embraced a more holistic and socially balanced approach to analyzing Savannah’s built environment, giving attention to topics neglect in the past, such as African American architecture and neighborhoods, industrial architecture, and vernacular traditions.

Q: What new information about the city and its history did you unearth?

Williams: There is so much new information throughout the volume, it would be very difficult to catalogue it all. The biggest contribution would be in shining a scholarly light on neighborhoods or sites that rarely if ever enjoyed any attention. Even for the well documented parts of the city, especially downtown, we were able to pin down corrected dates for many buildings and identify and date modifications or preservation efforts that have gone unrecorded. One of the surprises that emerged from our first draft was how little we knew about the designers of the city’s famous downtown squares. New research has been able to attribute their current appearance to mid-twentieth-century designers. One of my favorite new discoveries was that the FHA-funded Yamacraw Housing project, which had passive hot water solar panels installed on the roofs of the housing blocks when it was constructed in 1940! 

Q: What are your favorite two or three buildings or sites in the book, and why?

Williams: This is like asking a parent who is their favorite child. As the lead author and general editor of everything written by the other authors, I had the pleasure of being introduced to several wonderful buildings that I had never known before. Among my favorites is the 1904 Bryson Automobile Garage, which is one of the oldest purpose-built parking structures for cars in the country. It retains its original copper Art Nouveau–style signage on the building. It was also exciting to learn about the great architectural heritage of Savannah State University and how many of its earliest buildings were designed and constructed by faculty and students of the Industrial Department—and may constitute the largest concentration of African American designed and built buildings in the South.

Q: The book includes twenty-one walking and driving tours. Which affords visitors the best sense of Savannah's rich heritage?  Which offers the most surprises?

Williams: Each tour aims to highlight a different facet of Savannah’s rich heritage. The downtown area, by virtue of its greater concentration of historic buildings, gets more attention than other sections of the city. The tours that go beyond the downtown area would likely provide the greatest number of surprises, since these address areas rarely get any attention.

Buildings of Savannah is available now in both a hardcover edition and a handy paperback edition perfect for bringing along as you explore the city.

You may read further online about Savannah's architecture in our SAH Archipedia, the digital counterpart to the Buildings of the United States series: Dr. Williams has prepared a fascinating and generously illustrated overview to historic preservation in Savannah.




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