A day touring Savannah’s grand homes

Remember this from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?

Sleep was troubled in Savannah, ahead of a day exploring the city’s Historic District. The air conditioning kept turning itself on and off and my long-dodgy and painful shoulder kept waking me.

But breakfast in our hotel was delicious, including a pulled pork sandwich with a firey tomato jam and scrambled egg. Our posh innkeeper certainly knew how to set us up for a long day on our feet.

As we walked along the charming, shaded streets, and crossed the famous historic squares, scenes from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came flooding back. It was the book and film of a famous murder case that had drawn us to the city and we weren’t disappointed. Everywhere we looked there was something special and history by the bucket.

The Scottish Rite Masonic building
The Scottish Rite Masonic building

We took refuge from the heat in the air-conditioned shop at the famous Savannah College of Art and Design, where I could easily have spent a fortune, and then marvelled at the ludicrous architecture of the the Scottish Rite Masonic Center just over the road.

We tried to avoid tripping on the higgledy piggledy pavements, made deadly by all the tree roots pushing through the brick blocks, and peered into the windows of the many refined antiques stores.

Property after property vied for our attention and praise, many of them flying the Stars and Stripes with the sort of patriotism that would raise eyebrows back in Britain.

Savannah was as friendly as Charleston – people said hello, drivers willingly let us cross the road. It wasn’t what I expected from a city, especially an American one

A Union Jack on a Savannah street
A Union Jack on a Savannah street

The grid system, the squares and the wide streets, though, helped make Savannah a very different city to old Charleston, where the historic district had a more random and organic feel. And there were places where it was obvious that the battle to save the city’s historic homes had been lost, where developers had succeeded in stripping out Savannah’s old to make way for the new.

Occasionally, even in the historic district, there were brutal blocks and car park wastelands. The Hilton, not far from our hotel, was particularly ghastly.

We toured three historic homes that had survived – the beautiful Andrew Low House on Lafayette Square and the related home of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Guides in the US. The disappointing one, yet the home the guidebooks recommended, was the drab Owens-Thomas House. The guide had a weird voice that grated and the building was very gloomy.

The Owens-Thomas House
The Owens-Thomas House

By the end of the day, I’d seen and heard enough. It was a universal truth that the old ladies who invariably hosted the house tours were great at talking about the art and design, but not so good at the human stories that are what bring piles of bricks and mortar to life.

Slavery continued to be a non-subject, just as it was in Charleston. The white south likes to pretend the past didn’t happen…

We skipped lunch, indulging in a glorious ice cream at the historic art-deco Leopold’s instead, and then explored sunny Broughton Street, the main shopping drag in town. But it didn’t have much to offer a man desperately in need of some new shirts and looked like another victim of the depressing out-of-town malls that so blight the outskirts of American cities.

The garden at the Owens-Thomas House
The garden at the Owens-Thomas House

We marvelled instead at the City Hall building’s golden dome and explored more of the riverfront, clambering down the historic but worryingly steep steps to the cobbled streets below. We marvelled too at the hideous Hyatt hotel that ripped through the heart of the district and wondered how anyone could’ve approved it.

On the way home we stopped at the inevitable British themed pub, The Six Pence, on Bull Street. The atmosphere was great and Graham continued his quest to memorise all the states of the USA, while Toby jugs in the shape of Britain’s famous kings, queens and politicians stared down at us from the back of the bar.

The Andrew Low House
The Andrew Low House

We dined at what many said was Savannah’s best restaurant, the Old Pink House. Much extended, it was one of the city’s grandest historic houses but had been converted into a restaurant some years before. We, according to our excessively perky waitress, were in the bedroom of one of the former owners. Fortunately she wasn’t around…

We both plumped for a delicious rump steak with mushrooms and pureed potato. Delicious it was too.

Later we adjourned to the bar in the basement, the Planters Tavern – all low ceilings, wooden beams and a slightly damp spell. A pianist played classics, folk came and went, and slowly the place emptied until we’d outstayed our welcome.