Under Savannah’s Spell


The romantic Georgia city enchants with its historic architecture, graceful squares, and a thriving cultural scene sparked by the enterprising Savannah College of Art and Design

By Julia Reed
Above photo by John Burke/Getty Images

Above: The 30-acre Forsyth Park, in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia, features Spanish-moss-draped trees and a landmark fountain.

Back in 1994, when The New York Times gave a rave review to the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s elegant and amusing tale of life and death in Savannah, Georgia, the paper’s critic wrote the following about the author and his subject: “What he found was a cultured but isolated backwater, a town where who your great-grandparents were still matters, where anti-Yankee resentments are never far from the surface, and where writers from New York are invited to midnight voodoo ceremonies in graveyards.”

Two decades and more than three million copies later, Savannah bears little resemblance to the decidedly “inward-looking city” Berendt says he encountered when he began visiting in the early ’80s. Since then the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has reshaped the cultural and architectural landscapes of the city via its sprawling campus of lovingly restored buildings, including the once-dilapidated antebellum train station that now houses the stunning SCAD Museum of Art. Devised by acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, the Jepson Center for the Arts, devoted to contemporary works, opened in 2006. And the SCAD-sponsored Savannah Film Festival, which attracts the likes of Liam Neeson, Isabella Rossellini, and Alexander Payne along with an audience of more than 40,000 each October, has been joined by an equally impressive book fair every February and a two-week music festival, featuring talents from mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in March.

“The transformation is huge,” says Chuck Chewning, design director for the Venice-based interiors firm Studio Rubelli. He first arrived in the city in 1983 as a member of SCAD’s fifth matriculating class, when, he remembers, the college consisted of “a one-building brick schoolhouse,” now called Poetter Hall. Even when Savannah was in a more frayed state—Chewning recalls a largely run-down historic district, boarded-up buildings, and “no food scene to speak of”—the place was magically, seductively beautiful. “I immediately fell in love,” he says. A couple of years ago he bought an 1878 townhouse on Pulaski Square, one of the prettiest local parks, and now, when Stateside, he takes the two-hour flight here from his base in New York every weekend.

Anderson Hall, a classroom building at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
Works by students and instructors are on offer at shopSCAD.
The bar at the Andaz Savannah hotel.
The SCAD Museum of Art occupies one of the city’s former train stations.

Located on a 40-foot-high bluff with views of the Savannah River, the town was established in 1733 as the last of Britain’s colonial capitals in America. Laid out by General James Oglethorpe in a repeating grid of varying block styles, it has been called “America’s first planned city.” The design included six public squares—by the mid-19th century, that number had increased to 24, and all but two of them remain. It’s an arrangement that provides Savannah with abundant open space.

The ubiquitous Spanish-moss-draped trees create the atmosphere of an urban forest, but the city has just as dense a population of notable structures, among them the circa-1819 Owens-Thomas House, now a museum, which is considered one of the finest examples of Regency architecture in the U.S., and the neoclassical-style Telfair Academy, a 19th-century mansion that’s now a gallery of 18th-to-20th-century art. Today the historic district encompasses more than 2,300 significant properties within an area of about 2.5 square miles.

Likewise, SCAD’s ever-expanding campus comprises dozens of refurbished buildings. “I chose Savannah for its past and the future I imagined,” says Paula S. Wallace, the school’s president and cofounder. “I wanted to build a bridge between the old and the new.” To that end SCAD has functioned as a virtual preservation society—the school’s repurposed edifices range from the Clarence Thomas Center for Historic Preservation, set in an erstwhile Franciscan orphanage and convent, to the international student center Habersham Hall, a stucco Moorish Revival–style building that was once the Chatham County Jail. “Admirably, SCAD has restored some buildings that were either not that great or not that ancient,” says Bob Christian, a decorative painter and furniture-maker (and brother of Architectural Digest design editor Howard Christian) whose works can be found at the Julia Christian Gallery, a space he runs with his wife. “They’ve been very creative in taking on neglected structures in overlooked neighborhoods.”

Architect Moshe Safdie designed the Jepson Center for the Arts.
An upstairs hall at the historic Owens-Thomas House, now a museum.
The French bistro Circa 1875.
A guest room at the Gastonian hotel.
IMAGE | Savannah Photos

Berendt’s book depicted a populace that reacted to the rare interloping Yankee with disdain, wonder, or a mixture of both. Ironically, that same book turned the spotlight on Savannah’s copious charms and launched a migration that has yet to cease. And for tourists, transplants, and locals alike, the city’s offerings are increasingly cosmopolitan.

Savannah’s restaurant scene, which had long trailed that of Charleston, South Carolina, its sister city to the north, now has a critical mass of compelling options. Topping the list is the Florence, a refined Italian spot that opened in June. Helmed by star Georgia chef Hugh Acheson, it is Chewning’s new favorite for dinner. Other highlights are the brasserie-inspired Circa 1875, the market-to-table bistro the Sapphire Grill, and Local 11 Ten, which serves updated Southern cuisine and features a popular rooftop bar, Perch. Classic joints are also holding their own. On weekend mornings Chewning breakfasts at Clary’s Cafe, a diner dating from 1903, which, he says, has “the best homemade corned beef hash.”

Given the city’s enthusiastic response to the Florence, Acheson is already pondering a follow-up restaurant—one that would take advantage of the area’s vast bounty of seafood. (Savannah is only 12 miles from the Atlantic coast.) “The talk of the town is that there are a number of chefs now contemplating moves here,” Acheson notes.

Though the city has many quaint guesthouses, more modern hotels have joined the mix. Acheson recommends the Andaz Savannah, a newly built 151-room property in the historic district. The 75-room Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, a loft-style building with vibrant interiors, affords terrific water views from its top-floor lounge, Rocks on the Roof. For old-world appeal with up-to-date amenities, the recently restored Gastonian offers 17 rooms in two adjacent Italianate mansions near the 30-acre Forsyth Park.

Shopping opportunities also continue to multiply. Once-shabby Broughton Street is now home to such favorites as the eclectic furnishings-and-gifts emporium the Paris Market and the chic general store Sylvester & Co. Renowned Savannah cookbook author Libbie Summers adores Broughton standbys Chocolat by Adam Turoni, a source of delectable confections, and Leopold’s, for “some of the best ice cream in the country.” For gifts, her go-to is shopSCAD, which showcases the work of the school’s students and teachers.

Meanwhile, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil continues to enthrall. The book is being adapted into a Broadway musical, with songs by the late Johnny Mercer, a hometown hero. If history is any indication, Savannah should once again prepare itself for the limelight.

Chef Hugh Acheson’s new restaurant, the Florence.
Paintings and handcrafted furniture at the Julia Christian Gallery.


Savannah Details

Museums and Cultural Sites

  • Forsyth Park At Drayton St. and E. Park Ave.
  • Jepson Center for the Arts 207 W. York St.; 912-790-8800; telfair.org.
  • Owens-Thomas House 124 Abercorn St.; 912-790-8880; telfair.org.
  • Pulaski Square At Barnard and W. Harris sts.
  • Savannah College of Art and Design Admission and information center, 342 Bull St.; 912-525-5100; scad.edu.
  • SCAD Museum of Art 601 Turner Blvd.; 912-525-7191; scadmoa.org.
  • Telfair Academy 121 Barnard St.; 912-790-8800; telfair.org.


  • Chocolat by Adam Turoni 323 W. Broughton St.; 912-335-2914; chocolatat.com.
  • Julia Christian Gallery 114 W. Taylor St.; 912-234-1960; bobchristiandecorativeart.com.
  • The Paris Market 36 W. Broughton St.; 912-232-1500; theparismarket.com.
  • ShopSCAD 340 Bull St.; 912-525-5180; shopscad.com.
  • Sylvester & Co. 205 W. Broughton St.; 912-2361150; sylvesterandco.com.

Restaurants and Bars

  • Circa 1875 48 Whitaker St.; 912-443-1875; circa1875.com.
  • Clary’s Cafe 404 Abercorn St.; 912-233-0402; claryscafe.com.
  • The Florence 1 W. Victory Dr., Ste. B; 912-234-5522; theflorencesavannah.com.
  • Leopold’s Ice Cream 212 E. Broughton St.; 912-234-4442; leopoldsicecream.com.
  • Local 11 Ten and Perch 1110 Bull St.; 912-790-9000; local11ten.com.
  • The Sapphire Grill 110 W. Congress St.; 912-443-9962; sapphiregrill.com.


  • Andaz Savannah 14 Barnard St.; 912-233-2116; rooms from $225/night; savannah.andaz.hyatt.com.
  • Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront and Rocks on the Roof 102 W. Bay St.; 917-721-3800; rooms from $240/night; bohemianhotelsavannah.com.
  • The Gastonian 220 E. Gaston St.; 912-232-2869; rooms from $250/night; gastonian.com.