In the 1920s and 1930s Savannahians argued about the future of their world-famous town plan, with its many squares. Savannah's Lost Squares: Progress versus Beauty in the Depression-era South tells how one body of modern Savannahians—primarily young, white, male business owners—argued that the squares had to be altered—paved over for parking or cut open to allow highways to penetrate them—to accommodate the automobile. Their ideas were opposed by the majority of the city's residents, who, often led by women's groups, rallied to preserve the beauty and pedestrian character of the squares. Time after time, the "progressives" were defeated, and the squares largely endured until they came under the protection of sweeping preservation laws in the 1950s. But Nathaniel Robert Walker explains that in 1935, when economic conditions were dire, the financial might of the federal highway program combined with local racism to destroy three of Savannah's squares for the making of the Coastal Highway, a path for motorized modernity.
In 1935 the political and civic leadership of Savannah, Georgia, broke sharply with the city's architectural tradition and took a dramatic step toward "modernistic" design. The city's famous town plan of wards and squares was compromised by their decision to allow the federal engineers of United States Highway 17 to cut a straight, north-south swathe down the center Montgomery Street, demolishing three of Savannah's twenty-four public squares—Franklin, Liberty, and Elbert (Figure 1). For once, the scales of civic initiative were tipped in favor of a minority of motorist citizens who, weary of circumnavigating the city's public spaces in their automobiles, had been relentlessly advocating square demolition for at least fifteen years. Throughout that time, attempts to reform the city's urban fabric to better accommodate motorists had been alternatively lauded by citizens as "progressive" and "forward-looking" and ridiculed as the "short-sighted" object of a "mania for speed."1
The urban plan of Savannah, lauded then and now "as one of America's greatest town planning paradigms, a model of rational, geometric composition aesthetically vitalized by an extraordinary array of public squares," had by the 1920s become an object of contention among the city's citizens.2 Its future was the prize in a struggle between what can very loosely be described as "modernist" principles of machine-oriented, industrial-scale urban design and a long-standing, local dedication to beauty—a definable and attainable public asset, which was at least partly associated with pedestrian-scale civic space.
While the surrender of the three Montgomery Street squares to destruction reflected a significant shift in the town's attitude toward its historic plan, the most unusual thing about the decision was that it provoked almost no outcry among the town's citizens—despite the defeat by a highly mobilized and vocal body politic of all previous and subsequent efforts to open the city's squares to automobile traffic. The two opposing camps in this civic contest were characterized by the local press as "progressives"—primarily automobile advocates and male business leaders—and "conservatives"—the majority of Savannahians, often led by women's groups and educated professionals. In these battles, "progress" and "beauty" were routinely invoked by the two sides to define battle lines and galvanize allies in the struggle over the future of Savannah's squares. But in 1935 on Montgomery Street, the progressives won, with hardly a cross word spoken.
This uncharacteristic silence, long mistakenly seen as betokening general civic apathy toward the squares, seems to have been primarily caused by the strong-arm tactics of the federal transportation office, made even stronger by the money associated with large Depression-era highway projects, as well as racist disregard on the part of a number of key local officials for these particular public spaces, located, as they were, in an African-American area.3 The complex local processes that led to the remarkable erasure of Montgomery Street's three squares embodied the cultural forces and power dynamics that shaped the politics of "progress" in Savannah, the American South, and the nation as a whole during the Great Depression. It is, furthermore, a relatively unknown chapter in the history of one of the country's most remarkable and enduring examples of urban design.
The Early Development of Savannah's Squares
The squares of Savannah have a long history, bits and pieces of which were invoked by all sides throughout what one local writer termed the "Battles of the Squares."4 In many ways, this history resonates with the larger, general history of American urban public space, but in other ways, the uniqueness of the Savannah plan ensures that its history stands apart. While squares are the defining elements of many cities, in Savannah the squares are many. They form a network throughout the historic core, and they shape the physical experience of the city to a degree that competes with its streets.
The city of Savannah was established in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe to provide succor for economically "distressed persons" in Britain and for Protestant refugees from continental Europe, and to be the experimental stage for an ideal society. But permission to settle the Georgia Lowcountry was entirely contingent upon the colony's usefulness as a military buffer on the volatile, contested border between British Carolina and Spanish Florida. In the context of these diverse purposes—a charitable haven and a fortress—the city's plan was designed, and as no record of the founders' design philosophy survived, Savannahians subsequently adopted competing interpretations of the sources and intentions of its orthogonal wards and squares. Some have contended that the squares were utilitarian military features, while others have argued that James Oglethorpe intended for them to be "places of rest, pleasure, recreation, and 'breathing spaces.'"5 This debate resurfaced regularly to shape the future of the squares.
At the colony's founding, Oglethorpe seems, at least, to have invested the squares with civic meaning by marking a central axis through the city along Bull Street, placing a sundial and a memorial mound for his friend Tomochichi in Johnson and Wright squares, respectively.6 Subsequent colonial acts levied fines for behavior that left the squares unhealthy or unsightly.7 But certainly by no later than the first decade of the nineteenth century, with thirteen of the city's wards laid out, the squares had been unquestionably defined by the city council as enclosed, verdant public spaces. In 1810 the Savannah merchant Robert Mackay boasted, "every square in town is now enclosed with light cedar posts painted white & a chain along their tops, trees planted within, & two paved footpaths across; the remainder of the ground they are spreading Bermuda grass over, & upon the whole the Town looks quite another thing and very enchanting."8
Of course, the Savannah squares were not alone in this regard. Urban planting had been undertaken sporadically, inspired by both its aesthetic merit and what was believed to be its health-giving properties, in other American cities in the eighteenth century, including New Orleans, New Haven, New York, and Boston, where the Common had been planted no later than 1723.9 However, despite these early projects, as Thomas Campanella wrote in The Republic of Shade, "vegetation was largely absent from most American cities before 1850."10 Even many New England town greens languished in an un-parklike state well into the 1840s, presenting a "wild confusion" of rubbish and grazing livestock.11 Savannah was among the earliest American cities to demarcate public spaces as special civic amenities, and is almost unique in the fact that it spent public monies on planting.12
It was not the plants alone that defined the Savannah squares. The "paved footpaths" referred to by Mackay were also of crucial importance, establishing the spaces as the domain of pedestrians. Such delineation of pedestrian space was also happening elsewhere in the country, including in New York's Bowling Green and Philadelphia's State House Yard (now Independence Square).13 But in those cities, and in the many others that joined the trend in the 1840s and 50s, public green spaces were usually set apart as distinct destinations, refined into what Dell Upton called a "promenading ground for the genteel" or "the genteel alternative to the streets."14 While many Savannah squares were invested with the "genteel" values of the city's white, mercantile elite—who into the twentieth century followed Oglethorpe's footsteps down Bull Street by filling the squares with public monuments—the sheer number of squares, imbedded into every ward and integrated with the surrounding sidewalks, ensured that they would never be discreet spaces. The squares were both sites of commemoration and parts of a working public realm.
A map drawn in 1818 depicts the squares approximately as they existed at that time: carefully defined spaces distinguishable from the surrounding urban fabric chiefly by their greenery (Figure 2). Each is shown as an abstract and conventionalized grassy oval (save Ellis Square, which had hosted various market buildings since Savannah's colonial beginnings). If indeed the squares were all much the same in 1818, this did not last for long. Oglethorpe himself sowed the seeds for differing treatment when he set the Bull Street squares apart, and they continued to enjoy a prestige unmatched by the others, receiving the most luxuriant plantings and the grandest monuments, attracting the most prestigious architecture, and given pride of place in all representations of the city (Figures 3, 4).
As Bull Street and its squares received the lion's share of institutional buildings, and as commercial activities were concentrated along the riverfront or on east-west streets such as Broughton, most of the other squares remained residential. Like most cities, Savannah had housing of varying quality, and some of that disparity inevitably came to be reflected in the squares that defined each neighborhood. Whereas Oglethorpe Square enjoyed the tidiness and elegance that came from fairly consistent prestige (Figure 5)—due in part to the association of its Owen-Thomas House with a visit from the Marquis de Lafayette—the conditions of St. James Square (now Telfair Square) suffered some dramatic downturns (Figure 6). On the western and eastern edges of the historic core in particular, where by the mid-nineteenth century the city was abutted by heavy industrial infrastructure, conditions fell far below the "enchanting" ideal described by Mackay in 1810. Franklin Square, for example, home to the historic First African Baptist Church, was chosen as the site for the city's utilitarian water tower; by the late nineteenth century its original name had been displaced, and it was commonly referred to as Water Tower Square (Figure 7).
The less prestigious squares of Savannah saw their fortunes rise and fall throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the likelihood of decay and even dereliction rising the further one went from Bull Street. But as unequal as the squares were, they were all part of a conceptually unified whole, all created by public investment that was remarkably early in date and unusually comprehensive in scope. The enclosures, plantings, and pedestrian pathways, bestowed in 1810 upon "every square in town," would become the key ingredients of the typical American city park. In Savannah, these features, more than the unevenly distributed monuments, were recognized as key ingredients in the pedestrian character of Savannah's urban fabric and would prove to be the most important when debates began to rage over the future of the town plan.
The First Incursion
The 1760 colonial act that protected Savannah's squares from littering also placed them in the custody of the General Assembly of Georgia. That state legislative body, relocated to Milledgeville in 1806, authorized the city of Savannah to "lay down and construct carriage railways . . . provided that no such railway shall ever be built in or on any street which runs through a square or park in said city."15 This proviso was perfectly in keeping with the already long-established tradition of public square enclosure in Savannah—but a mere five years after becoming law, it was flouted by a number of well-connected Georgia businessmen. In 1871 a horse-drawn streetcar operator launched the first of many efforts to coerce the city into allowing transportation right-of-ways through the public squares. The company desired to supplement its successful horse car lines on square-less Drayton and Whitaker Streets by running tracks through the squares on Abercorn Street, and it received approval from the state legislature on 11 December 1871.16
The people of Savannah were outraged. Local authorities cried out that the squares "were enclosed and had been for time beyond memory, and that only a pedestrian could go through a square"; the "embattled city fathers" went on to proclaim that "the squares [are] hallowed ground."17 They argued that they had been intended for the public's "comfort, health, and convenience," since the town's original plan and that "neither the railroad nor the Legislature had power or authority to send vehicles over them."18 The legal battle went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, where the issue was decided in favor of the streetcar company.19 The court's decision contained an important interpretation of the squares' history, which would bear considerable weight in the future:
We . . . find the corporation [the city] has diverted the squares of the city from the purposes of their original appropriation. . . . A public mill for grinding corn was first erected . . . in one square of the town. . . In another square . . . a second was set up. . . . These, then, were the uses to which the squares were put, eight years after the foundation of the town . . . It is difficult to understand how the squares could have been used, either as markets or as mill-sites, without being traversed by vehicles of every description. . . . This brief historical retrospect shows that the original appropriation of the squares, at least, of those laid out at the foundation of the town, was not as parks, or of pleasure grounds.20
The supreme court judges' justification prompted a furious response from Savannah's lawyer, who also appealed to history by citing legal precedents of square protection.21 But his account of the past development of the squares did not sway the court from the conviction that Oglethorpe never meant for them to be "pleasure grounds."
Many unscrupulous entrepreneurs took advantage of the unstable legal landscape of the South during Reconstruction, making profitable deals with politicians to exploit public assets—railroad operators were among the most notorious.22 The Savannah pedestrian's historic hegemony over the squares was compromised during this time, and the spaces were rapidly transformed for private profit-making. Within forty years of the court's decision, thirteen out of Savannah's twenty-four squares were punctured by streetcar tracks (Figures 8, 9). Only the squares of Bull, Houston, and Montgomery Streets escaped the rails.23
Despite these developments, the squares did post some modest gains in the late nineteenth century. In 1888 and 1889, when many of Savannah's streets were paved, the squares were enlarged from ovals into rectangles and edged with curbstones, removing the need for the remaining wooden fences.24 The Savannah Park and Tree Commission was founded to serve as caretakers of the squares in 1895, and tasked with ensuring that the spaces were "graded, spaded, sown with clover," planted with trees, and improved by small and sundry acts.25
But the arrival of the gasoline-powered car inaugurated several decades of serious peril for the squares. The views of those who fought to protect the spaces remained as clear as in 1872: Savannah's squares were sacrosanct—respected for more than a century as pedestrian havens. The automobilized progressives, however, understood themselves to be the adopters and leaders of the economic future, which progressed logically from the streetcar to the automobile, and that the lingering fixtures of the past had to make way for mechanized speed or Savannah might be "left in the dust" by other, more adaptable communities. To them, the squares only had value to the extent that they served, or avoided hindering, the new world of automobility.
Competing Visions Emerge
Many Southern cities were ambivalent about cars in the early twentieth century, and in Savannah this sentiment materialized as a profound cultural divide some time before the question of demolishing squares for a roadway was first publicly posed.26 In the South generally, the motorcar was most unreservedly lauded by the "urban business community, largely because it promised to open up new channels of commerce, expand the pool of customers for downtown merchants, and make available large expanses of outlying territory for urban growth and economic development."27 The major issue for Southern businessmen became not "whether the automobile was desirable . . . but whether roads, highways, and related facilities could be provided rapidly enough" to exploit this new "toy and symbol of modernity."28 This attitude was understandable, given that for many decades the South's poor infrastructure and high poverty levels had discouraged automobile manufacturers from even opening dealerships in the region.29 As cars did catch on in the 1910s, many Southern businessmen saw their increased presence as both a sign of overall improvement and as a point of civic pride. In Atlanta, for example, even a streetcar promoter could be heard clamoring in 1925 for the refitting of the downtown to accommodate automobile traffic, arguing that "the streets should be opened up, narrow streets made wider, new thoroughfares provided, additional viaducts built," and so on.30
But not everyone in either Atlanta or Savannah was a businessman—not least because businessmen were mostly male, white, and relatively young. In Savannah the split between early automobile adopters and those concerned about the loss of traditional urban experiences fell largely but not completely along generational lines.31 The ambivalent reception of automobiles in Savannah played out in continuous conflicts between young progressives and so-called "old cronies" and "moss-backs"—telling labels given to the preservationists by their motorist opponents no later than 1929.32 The progressives, revealing another cultural divide and a streak of misogyny, also accused their adversaries of an irrational "sentimentality" and referred to them as "sob-sisters."33 Indeed, the city's women, young as well as old, were among the most consistent and vigorous defenders of the city's public squares against automobile interests. Almost every public women's organization, among them the Women's Missionary Society of Bull Street Church and the Colonial Dames, came down hard on the preservationist side whenever Savannah's public spaces were being put up for review. Domestic unity was even shattered by the issue: Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Gordon, a motorist husband and his politically active wife, very publically disagreed with each other.34 While some prominent men did support square preservation, these were usually educated professionals who stood up as individuals—they seem like exceptions in contrast with the unified front of Savannah's women.
As the automobile and its accommodation widened the cultural fault lines between young and old, men and women, business leaders and the college-educated, questions about the future of Savannah's spaces began to be asked in City Hall and published in local newspapers. On 31 December 1920, the Savannah Evening Press reported the Auto Club's proposal that "Johnson Square ought to be used for parking purposes. The square could be so arranged it would not only be ornamental, and yet serve a useful purpose for the parking of automobiles."35 The article went on to report an emerging sentiment among motorists that the struggle to admit automobile traffic into the squares was a contest of the young and modern against the old:
"We could have one square opened up," said Mr. Harris, "and after the public . . . saw the benefit of the open square, all objections to the opening up of the other squares would be withdrawn. There will be a hard fight to have even one square opened up, but our legislators are young men with modern ideas and we will have to depend on them. The old property owners will make a strenuous fight against the opening up of the squares."36
A little more than a month later, W. W. Gordon, the president of the Savannah chapter of the business-centric Kiwanis club, announced that he represented an "old property owner" willing to back the Auto Club's parking scheme. He cited the precedent of the streetcar lines for opening the squares: "If the electric railway can occupy our squares with their tracks . . . a move to open our squares to our citizens generally, is neither new nor revolutionary. . . . I am one of the older residents of the city and equally attached to its traditions and equally anxious to preserve its health and beauty and I for one, do not object."37
The efforts of the Auto Club and the Kiwanis Club in 1921 to penetrate the Savannah squares with parking and roadways fizzled due to a lack of support, and although they renewed the fight to accommodate motorcars less than one year later, they defeated themselves by making the Colonial Cemetery their new target. They argued that Lincoln Street should cut straight through the hallowed grounds, and this so infuriated the community that, as future mayor Thomas Gamble put it over a decade later, "there was a terrible uproar and this proposition died 'a-borning.'"38 The Savannah Morning News summarized the public response to the doomed effort, which was strongly opposed by the Park Department: "Judge Samuel B. Adams . . . states that he is very much opposed to having the park cut . . . The sentiment of the Colonial Dames was voiced by Mrs. W. W. Gordon, who is head of the organization: ' . . . The Dames were very much opposed to cutting the squares and I am sure that they will be conservative in the matter of cutting the cemetery.'"39
Tellingly, Mrs. Gordon publicly split with her husband, condemning the unpopular attempt to force a road through the Colonial Cemetery and linking it to his previous efforts to open the squares. Her voice of opposition, joined by many others, quickly put to rest any question of driving through the graveyard—but the Battles of the Squares were set to intensify over the coming years, even while many of the squares were beautified and used.40
The tenor of the debate changed sharply in 1928, when the Georgia link of the Atlantic Coastal Highway opened to great fanfare and excitement, tying Savannah more tightly to the increasingly lucrative tourist route between New York and Florida. In the following year, automobile enthusiasts and their allies launched the largest effort yet to reshape Savannah's town squares. They styled themselves as progressives battling "moss-back" conservatives, and the community was polarized as never before. The debate began to hinge not only upon competing visions of Savannah's progress, but also on the concepts of progress and modernity themselves.
The Progress versus Beauty Battle of 1929
By the end of the 1920s, a significant number of the city's oldest and wealthiest families had left the squares for southern suburbs, taking away their sense of protective ownership of the town plan.41 Ironically, many of the first suburban homes were built along Victory Drive, which had been improved to host prestigious New York-based automobile races in 1908–11. The races were terminated in part because they "heightened the automobile frenzy" and sent Savannahians who did own cars "whizzing around town."42 During these first waves of suburbanization, new automobile commuters began to clamor for better accommodation for cars. They became decreasingly interested in Savannah's pedestrian areas, and began to view its squares as nothing more than hindrances for rapid motoring between their homes and the city's commercial center. Their efforts to retrofit the city for faster and easier driving stirred a heated debate that played out in the newspapers and in public meetings in March 1929. It was a battle that pitted the champions of Savannah's automotive "progress," as they called it, against the defenders of the city's beauty.
The rumblings came to the fore when a group of commuters petitioned the mayor and alderman to open the squares on Montgomery Street to traffic, citing that paving the squares would be the modern solution.43 "Montgomery is the widest and best street in the city running north and south and is a boulevard without [streetcar] tracks . . . [Its] squares are unsightly and ill-kept and serve no purpose."44 Mayor Gordon Saussy addressed the Lions' Club at the Hotel Savannah, arguing that a "general tearing down and a rebuilding of the [older] northern section of Savannah" was required if the downtown was to compete with "more modern" suburbs of the city. "Sentimentality," he argued, "cannot be permitted longer to stand in the way of the city's progress."45 Businessmen in northeastern Savannah announced their intention to visit City Hall to express solidarity with Mayor Saussy and the "modern movement" he started.46
Among the most passionate and long-standing proponents of "progress" was a Georgian with ties to Detroit, M. Edward Wilson, who claimed to be one of the city's first automobile owners. He pointed out that many of Savannah's oldest and most prestigious families had already left the squares for the suburbs. Praising the "progressive" mayor for his desire to "eliminate any foolish sentiment that interferes with real business," Wilson accused opponents of square demolition of being "the same old crowd of 'sentimental, sob-sisters' and 'old cronies,'" and argued: "Would it not be better, safer and saner to eleminate [sic] all traffic from going around the squares . . . endangering or interfering with twice as many pathways . . . [than if they cut] through the center . . . ? 'Let's go straight!' through."47
On the same day Wilson's letter was published, it was announced that the petition to open the two northernmost squares on Abercorn Street and all of the squares on Montgomery and Barnard Streets had been signed by about "seventy-five business men and taxpayers."48 The spokesman for the group declared that Savannah must join the modern technological mainstream and "not be run on country town ideas."49 The mayor concurred, pointing out that a precedent had already been established: "the use of the squares by the street cars already makes a thoroughfare through these areas," and that "in line with the principle of equal rights to all . . . automobiles should be allowed to use the thoroughfare."50
The resistance in Savannah was strong. P. D. Daffin, chairman of the Park and Tree Commission, responded, "There are plenty of streets running north and south and open their entire distance, to take care of the autoists. While this is an automobile age, the pedestrians still have some rights which we should respect. I do not believe 20 per cent of the people of Savannah want the squares pierced by the streets."51 Likewise, the Junior Chamber of Commerce disproved the motorists' assertion that the Montgomery Street squares "served no purpose" by pointing out that in fact, one of the squares contained a school playground.52
Women's groups quickly formed a strong voice in the fight for preserving the city's beauty. The leader of the local Daughters of the American Revolution, Mrs. J. E. D. Bacon, labeled the proposition a "sacrilege," declared that it would happen "Not, except over my dead body," and threatened to bring the matter before her chapter of the D.A.R.53 The Women's Missionary Society of the Bull Street Church was "decidedly opposed to the opening of any squares of the city to traffic."54 They doubted the motorists' assertion that they would stop at opening just a few squares and they asserted that the squares gave Savannah "a unique and individual charm."55
One man who became a voice for preservation was attorney David C. Barrow, who issued a long rebuke to the automobilists, attacking their fundamental concept of progress:
How many civic crimes have been cloaked with the short-sighted policy of "progress"! . . . If there are immediate conditions or circumstances which perhaps hneed to be aided or remedied, these "progressives," looking no farther than temporary relief, demand the destruction of the old order of things in the name of "progress." The fatal defect in their theory . . . is their failure to realize or inability to learn that the immediate conditions they seek to remedy change themselves, and in time, when it is too late, we realize the destruction of the old order was an unnecessary, wasteful thing . . . We have suffered too much in Savannah on account of the false ideas of "progress."56
With spirited argument ricocheting on both sides, it was impossible to gauge the public sentiment until the Savannah Morning News held a referendum. For several days starting on 23 March, the newspaper issued blank voting forms (Figure 10).57 The News noted, "The agitation which is engulfing the city over this matter of proposed change in the thoroughfares of Savannah has grown daily," and as the vote was reported day by day, it published interviews on the subject with important citizens and distinguished tourists.58 A vast majority of those interviewed strongly opposed the destruction of the squares, with much said about their historic beauty and usefulness and a fair amount of ridicule for the motorists' assertions that the demolition of squares would relieve any traffic problem.59
As the voting ended, two published statements summarized the opposing arguments. T. P. Saffold had been retained as spokesman for the pro-demolition lobby. He argued that the squares would be more beautiful and safer for children if their middles were replaced by paved roadway, and that this would be "a sane, progressive and material improvement to the progress and maintenance of value to the downtown section of our city without injury to its beauty."60
Just as Saffold worked to incorporate the language of his opponents into the motorists' platform—beauty, pedestrian safety—the preservationists revealed that they could brandish their own version of "progressive" and "progress." In a final sally on March 27, three days before the end of the public vote, shipping broker Joseph Winkers argued:
The poor squares. I wonder in what manner they may be carved and butchered to make a fresh morsel of business for our commercial appetites. Maybe I can explain. Someone has figured that about ten seconds per automobile could be gained by going through each square, and I believe the "progressive" idea is to cut through only two squares on each of the designated streets. . . . Now, about this thing called progress . . . there is danger in misuse of the word progress, or progressive, because there are so many people who are afraid of being called non-progressive that once a thing is labeled "progressive" they follow blindly like sheep, not seeking to determine for themselves whether the thing advocated is or is not progressive . . . [L]et us . . . beautify and preserve our squares forever.61
On 31 March the referendum results were published. The count was 1,412 to 417, with more than 77 percent of voters preferring to keep all of the squares closed to auto- mobile traffic.62 The Morning News gave the rundown: "The first day the majority of the voters were men," and a small majority of these voted in favor of the opening. "The next day the women voters tallied in heavy majority and in a heavy majority also voted against the opening of the squares. From then on both men and women voters . . . [cast] their ballots by an increasing majority against the opening. The vote seems to be a decisive one."63 The newspaper also noted that many ballots accompanied emotional letters, and that many of the preservationists had given in to "the temptation to express an unqualified disapproval in red ink."64
The public rejection of the plans of the progressives was decisive, and the outcome inspired a city-wide reinvestment in the squares. Many preservationists had argued during the debate that beautifying the squares was the best way to secure them against future abuse or destruction, and the years following the vote were filled with public and private attempts to enhance the quality of the spaces, raising consciousness of their practical and symbolic value. In June 1929 the Women's Federation—whose council had voted sixteen to one in favor of protecting the squares—proposed putting inscribed tablets in some of them that recounted their histories, paid for by the "patriotic and generous women of Savannah."65 On 31 July 1931, an editorial in the Savannah Morning News called for the city to "Enlist the Children" to beautify and clean the squares, instilling in the young people a sense of guardianship of the city.66 In August, the Park and Tree Commission invited public opinion in crafting a ten-year improvement plan for the beautification and enhancement of the public spaces.67
This campaign of protection, celebration, and beautification was, however, soon overshadowed. In January 1935 the Savannah Evening Press announced that the United States Bureau of Public Roads was planning to run Highway 17 through the three Montgomery Street squares.68 This time there would not be a public vote.
The Quiet Loss of Montgomery Street
The Depression was not kind to Savannah.69 Newspaper stories throughout the 1930s reveal a preoccupation with unemployment, a growing sense that the federal government possessed the only means of relief, largely in the form of employment and infrastructure programs, and a belief that Savannah had to court these programs aggressively in competition with other cities in Georgia and elsewhere. Avid amateur historian and civic booster Thomas Gamble had been elected mayor of Savannah in 1933, and although his political career was in part defined by his long and staunch opposition to the opening of Savannah's squares, he found the pressures of the federal highway engineers, augmented by economic hardship and the undying ambitions of Savannah's automobilists, too strong to withstand.
The Atlantic Coastal Highway, also known as U.S. Highway 17, had brought traffic into town from the northwest by crossing a viaduct over the city's western rail lines and meeting the edge of Savannah's built-up town fabric (Figure 11), where it dissolved into the city's street network and only formally reemerged south of town. Tourists were directed by unofficial signage and encouraged by city-issued maps to travel through Savannah down Bull Street, weaving around the city's grandest squares and largest park, before being released onto to the straight, paved path to Florida (Figure 12).70 The federal proposal to reroute the highway to the significantly less prominent but physically larger Montgomery Street was explained by the claim that tourist cars were expected to be more and more frequently joined by heavy trucks and other large commercial vehicles on U.S. 17.71
That such a rerouting was a foreign concept to many Savannahians is testified by the fact that their city-issued tourist roadmap did not include a single landmark or point of interest on Montgomery Street. It pointedly ignored the street's antebellum First African Baptist Church, even omitting that monument from the list of forty-three houses of worship printed on the back. From the start, Mayor Gamble, the city aldermen, and the Park and Tree Commission (no longer headed by the passionate P. D. Daffin, who died in December of 1929) seem to have assumed that the Montgomery Street squares were as good as lost, and said as much in public print.72 Whether they were then subjected to a large number of privately expressed protests is not known, but less than a week after the highway announcement, Mayor Gamble and the Park and Tree Commission suddenly and inexplicably began back-pedaling from their rapid surrender to the federal engineers, and slowed down their pursuit of federal funds for the project. Their prevarication was answered by increasingly clear signals from the United States Bureau of Roads that the bureau was not interested in dialogue, and that their money for the highway's improvement and relocation would not be available indefinitely. On 1 February 1935 the Savannah Morning News headlined "Montgomery Street Official Route, Selected by U. S. Highway Engineer Forces" and explained the lack of flexibility in the federal plans:
[S]o far as federal money is concerned, the Mayor was told, it can only be expended on the route laid out by the federal highway engineers, that is . . . out Montgomery street. . . . [T]he Mayor was informed, to complete the highway . . . and justify the federal government plans for Savannah along this and other lines, Montgomery street must be opened through the three squares on it which, it is pointed out, have no beauty and no likelihood of being anything more than they now are.73
The mayor immediately absolved himself of the matter: "If the opening of a highway through the squares on any other street were contemplated I would certainly resist it. . . . The plans are not my plans. They are the plans designed by expert highway traffic engineers in charge of federal expenditures."74
The suggestion that Montgomery Street's squares were unlovely and unsalvageable had been mightily rebutted by almost eighty percent of Savannah's voting public just six years before. It is remarkable that resignation to the loss of these squares could now be expressed by an elected official who would later be praised for his "broadminded" square-preservation and beautification policies—some of which were, in fact, being enacted even as he moved to surrender the squares of Montgomery Street.75
An association of the neighborhood residents and businessmen of West Broad Street, a square-less road immediately west of and parallel with Montgomery Street, mounted a short-lived attempt to change the position of the highway. Citing the need to preserve the Montgomery Street squares, they argued that West Broad Street was "by far the better of the two s[t]reets on which to route tourist travel" (Figure 13).76 The Mayor was unimpressed by this argument, and the Evening Press headlined, "West Broad out of the Question: Gamble Tells Merchants Governments Not Consider It":
Pointing out that the proposal to make Montgomery street the route for heavy traffic through the city was the idea of the federal engineers entirely . . . [he explained] the government would not consider using West Broad street instead, chiefly because of the street car tracks. . .
It was brought out yesterday that opening the squares would adversely affect playgrounds for at least two schools on Montgomery street and several P. T. A. representatives appeared to bring out this feature. A small child also was present to ask that the playgrounds be kept.77
Subsequently, after being prodded by the "anxious" Park and Tree Commission and stung by the commonsense rejoinder by the West Broad Street Improvement Association that other federal highways co-existed with streetcar tracks, Mayor Gamble repeated his assurances that the Montgomery Street square demolitions were not his idea, and he finally announced that he had convinced J. T. Marshall of the United States Bureau of Public Roads to come to Savannah and hold a public hearing on the highway's routing.78 Previously, Marshall had requested that any meeting be held 250 miles away, in Atlanta.79
Although Marshall did not publicly espouse a particular urban design philosophy, national policy had shifted decisively in favor of "modernist" thinking. In 1933 the Federal Emergency Administration for Public Works advised local public agencies—including the Savannah Park and Tree Commission—that in order to receive assistance, state and regional planning bodies had to be formed in compliance with the "conditions which the National Planning Board has laid down."80 Among the federal agency's suggestions was that states follow the lead of Massachusetts and form planning commissions that abided by the "general principles of city and regional planning and zoning," such as large-scale transportation programming and slum clearance, "as now held by the best known authorities and having general application throughout the country."81 Those authorities were identified as the leaders of the Harvard School of City Planning.82
By the 1920s, Harvard's planning school had adopted what Anthony Alofsin called an "evolving modernist agenda."83 The modernist deference to the principles of systemization and mechanization had its source in many different places, but was perhaps most succinctly advocated by Le Corbusier in Urbanisme (1925), translated in 1929 as The City of To-morrow and Its Planning: "A city made for speed is a city made for success."84 At Harvard, the City Beautiful movement had given way to the "City Scientific"—and with the onset of the Great Depression, the president of the university was assured by prominent city planner and faculty member Henry Hubbard that increasing "governmental guidance of the activities of individuals, communities, and states and larger regions," was "ensuring the need for city, regional, or even national planning." That prophecy was fulfilled by the insatiable demand of New Deal programs for planners, and the Harvard School of City Planning "found its purpose" in filling that demand.85 Preference for "scientific" highway engineering over traditional urban beautification was not, of course, simply an academic conceit exported by Ivy League planning schools—in Atlanta, city officials had already turned "their attention away from City Beautiful aspirations" by 1925 at the latest, and were "thinking more in terms of efficiency" for the automobile.86 But the Harvard School and the federal Public Works department were unusually powerful advocates of modernist efficiency and speed. Professor Hubbard, at least, believed that it was a power that should be exercised.
While J. T. Marshall's personal views are unknown, he showed that he was less concerned with local aesthetic taste and civic opinion than with building a highly efficient, uninterrupted, cutting-edge road through Savannah, and no argument about public beauty or pedestrian rights gave him pause. He said as much when citizens asked him to consider routing United States Highway 17 from Montgomery Street to West Broad Street: "The highway engineers will not take part in a local fuss, even though delay may result in the diversion of the money to some project in another part of the state."87 Of course, loss of funding was the last thing Savannahians wanted. Mayor Gamble summed up the situation at a hearing, attended by Marshall, on 15 February 1935: "We all know the elaborate funds are not going to be available forever, and if we do not take advantage of them in 1935 they will probably be lost to us forever . . . I don't believe we ought to throw obstructions in the way."88 A number of citizens added "that the exception of [the Montgomery Street squares] to Savannah's ideal of closed squares forever was not an overwhelming sacrifice."89 With the issue still undecided by the end of the hearing, it had become clear that while local opinion was not yet fully supportive of the federal plan, the will to fight it was dissipating.
The threat of losing federal money was probably a deciding factor for many Savannahians, but more than economic thinking was at work. Racism seems to have played a substantial, if unacknowledged, role in the dialogue, inextricably bound to the issue by the racial demographics of the district around Montgomery and Broad Streets, which lay on the uneasy border between the heavily segregated city's white and black neighborhoods. The Savannah city directory of 1934 records that West Broad Street was almost exclusively African-American, and news from that area was usually discussed in either the African-American newspaper The Savannah Tribune or a section of the Savannah Evening Press called "News of Interest to Colored People."90 Just one block over, on Montgomery Street, the residences were predominantly occupied by white citizens. Many blue-collar businesses were established there, as well, and the street was frequented regularly by both races more than many other areas of the city. Franklin Square, at least, was certainly used regularly by the congregation of the First African Baptist Church, and a rare ca. 1926 photograph of that square reveals a black family pausing under the shade of its palm trees, with at least one white man sitting on the stoop of a neighboring house (Figure 14).
It may have been that the squares on Montgomery Street were considered expendable because they were located on a racial border. Although racial considerations went unspoken during the relatively timid debate over the fate of those public spaces, the superintendent of the Park and Tree Commission, William H. Robertson, elsewhere revealed his deep-seated prejudices. We know that he conspired with city attorney (and ex-state senator) Shelby Myrick to force black people out of the city's parks, as evidenced by a letter from Myrick to Robertson that was read aloud and recorded into the Park and Tree Commission's minutes on 26 June 1935:
I have your letter of the 13th instant with reference to negroes frequenting the Public Parks of the City:
I have delayed writing you because I have carefully considered this matter. I doubt very seriously whether the City would have any legal right to exclude negroes from these Parks; they are all citizens, and many of them are taxpayers, and the Parks are for all classes alike. However, police officers of the City should have instructions to keep these parks free from negroes. Any officer with discretion could keep these Parks reasonably free from negroes sitting on the benches. This is not a matter however which should reach the public prints. It would seem to me that you should talk to the Mayor about it and that thereupon he and you should have a conference with the head of the Police Department. Public agitation of this matter should be scrupulously avoided.91
Robertson may well have believed it would be easier to keep black Sunday school children out of Franklin Square if the Atlantic Coastal Highway was running through its middle. If so, Savannah can be counted among the many American cities where a major automobile thoroughfare was strategically located in order to destroy public spaces used by African Americans and to isolate black neighborhoods. Such practices were indeed common well into the second half of the twentieth century.92
A last-minute flurry of citizen-based resistance, led by the West Broad Street Improvement Association, gained a little steam. The leaders of this final push to re-route the highway mistook the lack of a public federal rejection of their proposal as something other than federal disinterest. Believing that they had gained ground in the debate, they accused City Hall of acting hastily, and they tried to convince Savannah's leadership that public sentiment was on their side. Indeed, public opinion does seem to have been moving to their side—on Monday, 18 February 1935, the Savannah Evening Press reported this late groundswell under the headline "Says West Broad Grows in Favor, Litman Declares Sentiment Increasing for Preserving Squares."
Two days later, however, the deal was done: the city council adopted a resolution to open the squares, if and when the federal government implemented its plan to route the highway through Montgomery Street.93 On 11 March 1935, an omnibus bill was signed by Governor Talmadge in Atlanta, authorizing the city to demolish the squares.94 On 22 March it was announced that J. T. Marshall and other federal engineers would hold a second meeting in Savannah to receive a traffic study compiled by Judge M. M. Holloway, comparing the merits of Montgomery and West Broad Streets.95 The contents of this study were not recorded but they are no mystery: a few months later Halloway pleaded that the city open all its squares because "the best people in this city are automobile owners, inherently law abiding and asking for only fair treatment," leaving little doubt about his opinion regarding the Montgomery Street spaces—and, implicitly, the law-abiding nature of their users.96 Regardless, there is nothing in the record to suggest that Marshall ever returned to Savannah, to meet with Halloway or anyone else.
There is no documentation of the moment of destruction of the Montgomery Street squares. In June 1935 the state of Georgia and the federal government began a protracted dispute over highway money and planning control. The additional improvements to Savannah's larger highway infrastructure offered by federal engineers in exchange for the right to cut through the Montgomery Street squares never happened, and the re-routing of Highway 17 was delayed. On 17 February 1936, the city played host to major infighting over the possible re-routing of the Coastal Highway from Bull Street to Whitaker Street.97 Franklin Square, at least, apparently survived 1936 (Figure 15), but on 15 March 1937, the Farmers' Wholesale Market was forced to leave it "because of a paving program"—perhaps the moment signaling the square's imminent destruction.98 Yet, on the morning of 10 April 1937, the Union Mission announced plans to hold open-air services in Franklin Square later that afternoon, declaring that "they would like to have the square filled with worshippers."99
A map produced in 1940 by the city's engineer finally shows Highway 17 traversing the Montgomery Street squares (Figures 16, 17). All that was left of Franklin, Liberty, and Elbert squares were thin grass plats on either side of the roadway, looking and functioning much more like accidental leftover scraps of turf than spaces for recreation and civic gatherings (Figure 18). It remains unclear whether it was a federal contract that finally destroyed the squares, or whether it was state and/or local authorities, with motives that were mixed and probably tainted by prejudice, that ultimately dropped the axe. It does seem fairly certain, however, that the spaces would probably never have been destroyed had the federal engineers not insisted on their surrender. It was a loss made all the more bitter due to the fact that the promised regional improvement package was only partly delivered; in the words of Savannah historian Mills Lane, Montgomery Street's "three squares were destroyed . . . to make way for a highway that never really materialized," committing "a virtual rape of the old town."100
The Conflict Ends
There would be recurring "Battles of the Squares" until well after the Second World War. This was consistently framed as a conflict between the "'progressives' or 'modernistic' and the 'conservatives' or traditional adherents to the original artistic plan of General Oglethorpe."101 Throughout, the progressives never again managed to outdo the conservatives; 1935 brought their only victory. In 1951, the Society for the Preservation of the Squares of Savannah was formed, and the last major fight over the town plan was concluded on their terms.102 Indeed, the great wave of preservationist sentiment that swept the city in the second half of the twentieth century may have been triggered in part by the victory of the automobilists on Montgomery Street. Mayor Gamble, for one, promised to restore as many of the city's remaining squares as possible in nearly the same breath with which he finally announced the surrender of Franklin, Liberty, and Elbert squares, and he never flinched again in his efforts to protect and enhance Savannah's historic public realm.103
Savannahians would not forget the Montgomery Street demolitions–even if they forgot their root cause—and they came to regret the loss. This is well illustrated in the appeal written by Frank P. Rossiter, the mayor pro tem of Savannah, to Downing Musgrove of the Georgia Department of Transportation, in 1973:
Only once were [our beautiful and historic] squares violated—that being in the 1930's when U.S. 17 was routed through the Montgomery Street squares. The State Highway Department was party to this opening. . . . . there is a strong move to restore one of these parks . . . Historic First African Baptist Church fronts on the first square . . . Will you have your traffic people and engineers . . . indicate the feasibility of closing the squares as of old . . . ? Help us correct Savannah's big mistake of the 1930's.104
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Savannah strenuously debated the nature and value of "progress." Those who wielded the word to express and empower their economic expectations and technology-oriented visions of urban transformation argued that the future demanded a sweeping away of the old. For many of them, the idea of rapidly motoring through the squares may have been as much an expression of their modern "spatial imagination" as a practical acceleration of their commutes.106 Their arguments echoed those of countless early-twentieth century architects, planners, businessmen, and others who celebrated, like Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti, the "new beauty" of a "roaring motorcar that seems to ride on grapeshot," or who declared, like Le Corbusier, that speed was "a brutal necessity."107 "What is the good," Le Corbusier demanded, "of regretting the Golden Age!"108
Other citizens—and, in Savannah's case, the majority—asserted that progress should not be measured only in technological terms, and that more complex issues of civic good had to be weighed. They demanded that the enduring value of a unique town plan, rich with beautiful pedestrian space, be taken into account. While they were accused of being "sentimental sob-sisters" and "old cronies," what they advocated was not an irrational, nostalgic return to a lost golden age but an alternative vision of the future, which embraced improvement while favoring human beings and the public domain over machines and private privilege. Had some Savannahians in the 1930s not conditioned their respect for such values on skin color, the Montgomery Street squares might not have been lost.