Friday, March 22, 2013

Romantic Savannah through the Decades: Tales of the 1920s

SAVANNAH Georgia (March 22, 2013) – Stories of Savannah in the 1920s are of romantic places and ideals, romantic adventurers and rascals, romantic movies and debonair villains, West Broad Street jazz and blues, and Frogtown’s soulful folk lore of haint blue door posts and the conjures of root doctors.

Christ Church (ca. 1920) where Johnny Mercer
was a choir boy. On Johnson Square, it is a venue for
the Savannah Music Festival (March 20-
April 6, 2013)  Photo: Library of Congress.
Romantic Inns of Savannah is pleased to share a few of the dear stories, plus ideas for things to do and spots to visit in Georgia's First City.

Savannah’s population was 83,252 in 1920.  “In the 1920s, the ‘Jazz Age’ business flourished in Savannah, as it did in the rest of the nation,” we read in the City of Savannah tour guide manual. 

A Society for the Preservation of the Parks was organized in 1921 and continued to battle against the destruction of city squares through World War II.  Fort Pulaski National Monument, named after Revolutionary War hero General Casimir Pulaski, was first established in October of 1924 by order of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.   

Born in 1925, Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) became the three-time winner of the O. Henry Award and posthumous winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for The Complete Stories. She was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital, at the time located at Taylor and Habersham streets overlooking Whitfield Square.  Her family home still overlooks Lafayette Square.
On March 23, 2013 (3 p.m.) at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home and on Lafayette Square the Flannery O’Connor Foundation celebrates her birth at the Flannery O'Connor Homemade Parade and Garden Party.  Visitors can shop for unique books and gifts and also wander in the garden where a six-year old O’Connor famously taught her chicken to walk backwards.
James P. Houlihan Bridge, the swinging bridge on
Highway 17 and Highway 25. Still in operation (now
ALT Hwy 17), for decades this was THE bridge
between South Carolina into Georgia to reach Savannah.

In 1927, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was officially established.
Located along and just across the Savannah River into South Carolina, one would drive across the Houlihan Bridge (photo left, still in operation) to reach the wildlife refuge, a popular spot today for nature photographers.
The city’s first radio station, WTOC, began broadcasting in 1929.  Reading the slang of that romantic era, it is easier to envision the liveliness heard spoken on the radio, in the music, and chatter in Savannah during the 1920s -- “And how!” (I strongly agree) or “Bank’s closed” (no kissing or making out).  

During the romantic era of the Roaring Twenties, it was in Tin Pan Alley -- the music industry in New York, located between 48th and 52nd street – where Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer set out in 1928 when he was 19 to begin his now famously successful career in music.  If you don't know the name think "Moon River,", "Days of Wine and Roses", and "Two of a Kind" -- a Johnny Mercer Bobby Darien recording tapped by Apple for commercials in 2012 comparing the iPad and iPad mini. 

Moon Travel Guides writes of Johnny, “who began his theater career locally in the Town Theater Group”. 
Today you’ll find Johnny Mercer’s bronze statue in Ellis Square, a marble bench to honor him in Johnson Square near Christ Church where he was a choir boy, and his family grave in Bonaventure Cemetery.  And, you can see, row and fish in “Moon River”, which runs by the family's summer home and ‘huckleberry friend’ coastal playground of little Johnny Mercer.
Once upon a time the world was sweeter than we knew. Everything was ours; how happy we were then, but then once upon a time never comes again.  ~ Johnny Mercer (November 18, 1909 - June 25, 1976)
In 2009 for the Johnny Mercer Centennial, Carol Stalvey  wrote A Day at Massie School in the 1920’s: Johnny Mercer's Elementary School in Savannah, Georgia. It gives insights into the child’s school life at Massie School. 
Now open to the public as Massie Heritage Center: Savannah’s Museum for History and Architecture, Massie School on Calhoun Square opened in 1856 as Savannah's first free public school, operating continuously except for its use as a Union hospital during the Civil War. Extensive renovation were completed in 2013.
Tybee Island beach (ca. 1923), an era
of oyster roasts, auto and turtle races

on the beach. Photo: Library of Congress
The 1920s was an era of “boot leg” (illegal liquor) available in speakeasies (“juice joints”).  It was where one knocked on the door with a secret code to request entrance.
Today Mata Hari (Lower Factor's Walk near River Street) is a private club marketed as a speakeasy. 
In the State of Georgia archives of “Vanishing Georgia” we discovered  a 1920’s photos -- a Savannah policemen and his horse on Oglethorpe Avenue, Kingnut butter display at Chatham County Fair, and Interior of the Citizens and Southern Bank (now Bank of America) located on Johnson Square at Bull and St. Julian Streets.  

Sixth Sense Savannah haunted tours points to a 1920s photo of the root doctor’s house.  Surely there are tales of voodoo and herbal conjures in the folk lore – the tales of Savannah’s Frogtown!  A search of “1920s Savannah” in Google gives us a scrapbook of images, each sure to have character-rich southern stories.

We even stumbled across 1920s Era Entertainment for hire in Savannah today.  

Stolen Moments silent movie showing statuary at Telfair Museum | Photo courtesy
Screen capture from "Stolen Moments". Statuary formerly
at Greenwich Plantation is on display at Telfair
Museum in Savannah, Georgia USA. 
Photo courtesy:
Silent era movies were made in Savannah. The yet-to-be-mega-star and “Latin Lover” of the silent movies, Rudolph Valentino stared in Stolen Moments, principally filmed “at a Savannah mansion on Greenwich Plantation.  Reportedly it rivaled Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, in both size and architecture. Source: 
It was an era when the pipe organ provided the movie score.  Movie photos and city-side Savannah location pictures are posted HERE. The US television premiere was on Turner Classic Movies on May 22, 2006.
Today when one drives to Greenwich Plantation it is Greenwich Cemetery you’ll discover, overlooking the beautiful Wilmington River. “Greenwich Plantation, with its manicured gardens of ancient statuary, exotic plant specimens, and an elegant white marble fountain, was once considered the most magnificent, privately owned estate in the entire South.” Source: City of Savannah, Municipal Cemeteries
From "Stolen Moments" silent movie, showing magnificent
gardens and statuary at Greenwich Plantation
(now Greenwich Cemetery) in Savannah, Georgia USA.
Photo courtesy
The magnificent Greenwich Plantation mansion was destroyed by fire in 1923 just a few years after the Stolen Moments filming.
More than a few of the plantation’s statuary now resides as part of the Telfair Museum collection, on indefinite loan from the City of Savannah.  Many are on display inside the Telfair Academy of Arts and Science, located on Telfair Square in downtown Savannah, Georgia USA. Needing repair, the elegant white marble fountain remains at the old plantation. It is seen in background in a scene with actress Marguerite Namara. 
Rudolph Valentino starred also in the American romantic drama, “Camille” (a silent movie released in 1921), the first movie to be shown in the  Lucas Theatre in downtown Savannah.  Camille was included in Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Movies in 2005. 

Now the Georgia State Railroad Museum, the Central
of Georgia Railway: Savannah Repair Shops were
designated a National Historic Landmark on June 2, 1978.
Photo: Library of Congress (1926)
Staying on the cutting edge of technology, the [Lucas] theater was the first building in Savannah to install air conditioning in 1923, making the balcony a welcome retreat during the sultry summers. The front row in the mezzanine became known as ‘lawyer's row’ after local businessmen began spending their lunch hours sleeping in the cool, comfortable balcony.” - Source:
Today the beautifully restored Lucas Theatre is where, periodically, classic movies replay on the big screen and a continuing series of contemporary events literally light up the night. The vintage marquee announces the 2013 show-stoppers. Also, daily silent movies play on the screen at The Distillery craft brew pub and restaurant, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. near the Savannah Visitor's Center.  
What an exciting era! In Savannah, one historical era builds on another. The City and her citizens keep the best and keep expanding upon it.  

As you can tell the 1920s are very much alive here. Stay tuned for more romanticizing in our Romantic Inns of Savannah story series -- “Savannah through the Decades”. 

Copyright (c) 2013 Sandy Traub.  


  1. Another spot with 1920s connections -- Chuck St. Arnaud shares a 1920's tidbit in his Facebook post with photos this morning: "An old wooden ship resting on the grounds at Oatland Island Wildlife Center. It sets behind the mansion that now houses the Oatland administrative staff and offices plus classrooms. It was built for retired Railway Conductors. It opened in 1927 and had 67 bedrooms and 32 bathrooms. Retirees had the option to be buried in Bonaventure Cemetery."

  2. Many thanks to for sharing screen captures from the silent movie "Stolen Moments", starring Rudulph Valentino. A prominent filming location was Greenwich Plantation, now Greenwich Cemetery owned by the City of Savannah. Many of the statuaries are on indefinite loan to Telfair Museums and on display at the Telfair Academy of Arts on Telfair Square, Savannah, Georgia USA.