With its time-capsule collection of Victorian mansions and antebellum churches overlooking oak-shaded squares, Savannah has long taken great pride — and built a nearly $3-billion tourism economy — from its central district’s standing as a National Historic Landmark, a designation awarded to America's most prized treasures preserved from the past.
And while nearly 2,000 historic homes and buildings survive in Savannah's downtown landmark district, the National Park Service has found that decades of growth and modernization have steadily eroded the framework that ties them all together.
Savannah's town plan of homes and buildings grouped around public squares, all connected by a grid of streets and lanes, was devised by Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe when he founded Georgia in 1733. It was the last of England's 13 North American colonies.
After months of study, the park service announced this week that Savannah's historic integrity has been damaged by decades of new developments, including large hotels and government buildings, that don't fit within Oglethorpe's original framework. The agency downgraded the condition of the landmark district from "satisfactory" to "threatened."
The agency emphasized there's no risk of Savannah losing its landmark status. Still, it's an embarrassing development for a Southern city where historic charm lures Hollywood movie productions and more than 14 million visitors a year.
"It's a sobering reminder of the fragility of the district, the importance of the district and our responsibility for taking care of it," said Daniel Carey, director of the Historic Savannah Foundation. "We've gotten a little careless and we've gotten a little complacent."
Savannah's downtown area won its designation as a national landmark in 1966, one month after the National Historic Preservation Act became law and created the landmark program. More than five decades later, the Savannah landmark district remains one of the largest out of about 2,500 total nationwide.
The park service has declared Savannah's landmark district to be "threatened" twice before: in 1996 when demolitions were planned in a historically African American neighborhood, and in 2002 when city officials planned a large bus terminal that others deemed incompatible with the historic district. Both projects were amended to avoid damage to the district.
This time the threat isn't about losing any particular historic building or a specific new development. The federal agency's first in-depth assessment of the Savannah district in 16 years focused on a long-term accumulation of changes that have chipped away at Oglethorpe's town plan.
In the 1930s, three of Savannah's 24 squares got demolished as part of a highway project. Construction of the city's Civic Center in the 1960s paved over streets and lots on two sides of Orleans Square to make room for a parking lot. The Hyatt Hotel built in 1980 took up an entire city block overlooking the riverfront, making it far larger than neighboring buildings.
"The cumulative effect, that's what makes Savannah's case particularly difficult to wrap your mind around," said Cynthia Walton, who manages the National Historic Landmarks Program for the park service's Southeast region. "It's easy to sort of dismiss projects on an individual basis. But when they start adding up, that's when it becomes problematic."
Making growth conform to Savannah's historic town plan continues to be a fight. Plans for a new federal courthouse annex released in December showed the building spanning a street. The federal government doesn't have to follow Savannah's rules governing construction in the historic district. But the General Services Administration has agreed to reconsider its design.
Meanwhile, a new cultural arts center under construction will cover, rather than restore, a lane lost to a prior development. Several recent hotel projects have been granted exceptions to local limits on building heights. The rule is meant to prevent large new developments from overwhelming neighboring historic buildings.
"There's tremendous pressure on the city from developers of hotels," said Robin Williams, chairman of the Architectural History Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. "The City Council gets developers who bristle at some of these limitations — they don't want to be capped at a certain number of stories."
The National Park Service's 11-page memo outlining threats to Savannah's landmark district also gives City Hall credit for taking steps to improve it.
In 2010, the city restored Ellis Square after demolishing a parking garage built atop it 55 years earlier. Recently the city adopted an ordinance making areas of the landmark district off-limits to hotel development. And it's working toward new policies to protect archaeological relics at construction sites and historic paving on city streets.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach told reporters he would like the park service to assess Savannah's landmark status every two years.