- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Savannah can’t seem to separate itself from “the Book,” as locals call it, which was published 11 years ago and has supercharged tourism here. But why distance yourself from a 4-million-copy best-seller and Clint Eastwood film?

Both still help shape the itineraries of the nearly 6 million visitors a year who come to this Southern jewel, population 131,510 in the 2000 census, the capital of Georgia when it was the nation’s 13th Colony.

“We did have a history before ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ but we were unknown to the rest of the world,” says John Duncan, local historian, Mercer House neighbor and a friend to the book’s author. “When John Berendt published that book, it shone the spotlight on Savannah for the whole world. Whether you liked this book or not, it will be the view the world has of Savannah from now on.”

That view includes Mercer House, home of the wealthy Jim Williams, who was charged with murdering his young male lover; oak-lined Forsyth Park; the martini-sipping bench at Bonaventure Cemetery; the “bird girl” statue on the book’s jacket; the nightclub where the transvestite Lady Chablis still occasionally performs. The list goes on.

Those and much more await in Savannah, a planned city that actually was completed. One of the first things to strike visitors is how Savannah is arranged in a grid of town squares connected by straight streets, all easy to navigate.

The city originally had 24 public squares; 21 have survived and have been restored. Savannah also claims to have the country’s largest historic district, which covers 2-1/2 square miles filled with more than 1,000 restored buildings (several of them completed by Mr. Williams).

The Savannah Visitors Center has much information on the squares, their statues and the historic homes along them, an architect’s dream. The center is across from what once were cotton warehouses (site of a battle scene from the 1989 film “Glory”), now owned by the Savannah College of Art and Design, which occupies 56 buildings in the historic district.

EXPLORE ON FOOT

Savannah is a town best explored on foot. A stroll through the 20-acre Forsyth Park offers a true Southern postcard view, with Spanish moss hanging from huge old live oaks. The trees form a tunnel that frames the park’s 1858 fountain, patterned after that in the Place de la Concord in Paris and purchased for $2,200 from a catalog. The water is dyed green for the country’s second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration (after only New York), which draws about a half-million people.

Spring also is the garden-and-home-tour season, when stately shuttered and wrought-iron-gated brick and stone mansions are framed in a pastel explosion of azaleas, wisteria, dogwoods and camellias.

Chippewa Square on Bull Street is the spot where Forrest Gump sampled his box of chocolates in the 1994 film. His bench is displayed at the Savannah History Museum, adjacent to the visitors center. The square is home to a statue of Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who arrived from England to settle the area with 114 settlers, about a third of them debtors. He and his trustees established four prohibitions, known as Oglethorpe’s rules: no slavery, no hard liquor, no Catholics, no lawyers.

Most notable for fans of the Berendt book is Monterey Square, site of Mercer House, named for its original owner, the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer, who is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery.

Mr. Williams of “Midnight” fame bought the house in the 1960s for $55,000. After his death, his sister reportedly had it on the market for nearly $9 million but got no takers; it is now open for tours. It was in the Mercer House study that Mr. Williams shot Danny Hansford. The shooting and subsequent trials — plus a host of unusual Savannahians — are the topic of Mr. Berendt’s best-seller.

Monterey Square is also home to historian John Duncan and his wife, Virginia, who run V. & J. Duncan Antique Maps, Prints & Books. The couple, who appear briefly in the “Midnight” film, became friends with Mr. Berendt when he lived in Savannah. (On page 142, Mrs. Duncan is chilled by the sight of a Nazi flag Mr. Williams drapes from an upstairs balcony to disrupt filming for a TV movie, reportedly because the production company failed to pay him to use Mercer House as a backdrop.)

We caught up with the Duncans as they hosted a book signing for what they hope will be Savannah’s next big story, Tom Kohler and Susan Earl’s “Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community,” an inspirational tale of a disabled man’s determination to live life on his own terms and how the community helped him achieve that.

Mr. Duncan gives us a quick tour of his own stately home, including an item of notoriety — the bed owned by the Berendt book’s elderly Southern belle, known for brandishing a gun and a cocktail with equal relish as she routinely received guests in her boudoir.

As we ooh and ahh over the Duncans’ ornate mansion and its furnishings, he tells of meeting Mr. Berendt. “He knocked on my door and said: ‘I understand you’re the local historian. I’d like to talk to you.’” The two remain friends, and the Duncans have read Mr. Berendt’s book-in-the-making, set in Venice.

“He has three chapters to go,” Mr. Duncan says, “and the style is very much like ‘Midnight.’” Mr. Duncan says Mr. Berendt was surprised by his book’s success. “We have a lot of people come into town saying they’re writing a book. No one thought it would be this.”

MORE SIGHTS REVEALED

Mr. Berendt once described Savannah as “enticing and mysterious and beautiful.”

Says Mr. Duncan: “You can’t live here and not be impacted by what you see. It’s got to be one of the most special places in the world. I envy new people coming to Savannah — new eyes — because they can see what is really there. I love the bus tours, the carriages, the little pedicabs.

“Bull Street might be the most beautiful street in America. If you want to walk the other way, I recommend Abercorn Street, the house museums, the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe, where in 1860 Juliette Gordon Low was born, founder of the Girl Guides.

“That house museum, owned by the Girl Scouts of America, is the only house museum that has its original furnishings. It’s as it was when the Gordons were there — one of the leading aristocratic families.”

Mr. Duncan suggests visiting the Owens-Thomas House on Lafayette Square and the house that’s now home to the Telfair Museum of Art “if you have interest in fabulous Regency architecture and fabulous furnishings.”

The Telfair is home to the bird-girl statue, which was made so famous by “Midnight’s” cover that it had to be moved from Bonaventure Cemetery to protect it and the family plots from overzealous fans.

Mr. Duncan also recommends the William J. Scarborough House, whose owner founded the Savannah Steamship Co. It has become the Ships of the Sea Museum. Writer Flannery O’Connor’s house is on Lafayette Square on Charlton Street.

To that list we add the carefully restored Lucas Theatre plus three significant houses of worship:

• The nation’s third-oldest synagogue, Temple Mickve Israel, across from Monterey Square.

• The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Georgia’s oldest Catholic church, recently restored for $11 million, at Lafayette Square.

• First African Baptist on Montgomery Street, the oldest standing brick building in Georgia, and still with a congregation.

“Of course, go out to Bonaventure Cemetery,” Mr. Duncan says. “Savannahians believe to be buried in Bonaventure Cemetery is almost as good as being alive anywhere else.”

Hauntingly lovely and full of statuary, crypts and plots fenced in wrought iron, Bonaventure rests on more than 100 live-oak-and-moss-filled acres along the Wilmington River. We arrive without martini shaker, unlike Mr. Berendt’s hostess on his first visit. They sipped cocktails from the bench at poet Conrad Aiken’s grave.

Our tour guide points out the bird girl’s original location, plus Johnny Mercer’s grave and its “And the Angels Sing” marker. He notes that the man Mr. Williams shot is buried in nearby Greenwich Cemetery. He also clarifies that the “garden” in the “Midnight” title is “not Bonaventure but actually a black cemetery on St. Helen Island.”

GHOSTS AND EATS

Savannah’s latest buzz surrounds the new Mansion on Forsyth Park with its Poseidon Spa and 700 Drayton restaurant and cooking school, all taking up a prime city block overlooking beautiful Forsyth Park. Rooms have crystal chandeliers, oversized soaking tubs, marble desktops and pewter candelabras, flat-screen televisions, and pillow-top mattresses with white linens and plush robes.

The Mansion, created by Savannahian Richard C. Kessler of the Kessler Collection hotels, is touted as the city’s first luxury hotel and after the April opening was enjoying 99 percent occupancy. One floor of the 126-room, four-story property offers butler service, and all guests are greeted by bellmen in top coats and tails, who whisk them through Lalique-knobbed glass doors into a sleek lobby with an illuminated onyx reception desk.

A palm-lined marble garden courtyard has a heated pool and water wall beneath 200-year-old pink Verona columns. Not to be missed inside is the 400-piece art collection displayed throughout the hotel and restaurant.

Savannah is also a bed-and-breakfast haven, with good ones such as the Gastonian on Gaston Street, with in-room fireplaces, turn-down service, afternoon tea and wine, and evening cordials. One cozy in-kitchen breakfast featured poached eggs over fried tomato on toast with hollandaise sauce and apple-smoked bacon, collard greens and cheese grits.

The Gastonian is actually two 1868 mansions joined by a walkway with a lovely garden between. It’s here that we bump into our first Savannah ghost story. (Many say this is the country’s second-most-haunted city, after New Orleans.) Have a look at the lady’s portrait in the parlor and then hope you don’t encounter her later.

Specters are such big business that Savannah’s ghost tours number 27. You can hardly walk at night without bumping into a lantern-toting leader, his followers trailing behind. Colonial Park Cemetery is one stop for tales of duels and troops sleeping in crypts.

On our late-night tour, we are told that the Hampton Lillibridge House, site of the city’s only widow’s walk, once had three ghosts in residence and that a 1963 exorcism worked for just 10 days. Broken glass bottles line the top of a low brick wall in an attempt to ward off evil spirits.

One of Savannah’s most haunted spots is the Pirates’ House restaurant, built in 1754. This old seafarers’ inn is mentioned in the opening of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” (The author lived across the street.) The weathered gray clapboard structure looks eerie by night’s lamplight. Inside, the ghost of Captain Flint has been known to drink an unattended rum shot. Underground tunnels reportedly were used to shanghai the unsuspecting to work on ships.

We spend a delightful evening with the Gastonian’s innkeeper and her manager, who hail us a set of pedicabs — a breezy way to travel on balmy Georgia nights — for the quick trip to the Olde Pink House and its signature crispy scored flounder.

The 1771 home is so named because years of weathering caused the red-orange of the bricks to show through the stucco in pinkish hues. The restaurant is a reviewer’s favorite with its Low Country and seafood presentations and, yes, ghost stories. Supposedly, a former owner who hanged himself in the cellar has been spotted strolling the halls in 18th-century garb. Sunday nights are popular for sightings. The downstairs tavern is perfect for spirited libations accompanied by live music.

Elizabeth on 37th, which has earned national accolades, is haunted also — by droves of diners. Mr. Duncan raves: “Not only is the food wonderful, the service is good. It’s unobtrusive. Savannah cream cake is the house signature.”

The setting, in the Victorian District, is as fine as the food. Think of old elegance and surefire creations that consistently blend flavors to perfection. Reservations are required.

Other dining picks include Gottlieb’s, Il Pasticcio, Garibaldi’s Cafe, River House, Belford’s, Bistro Savannah, Sapphire Grill and 700 Drayton.

For a down-home lunch, try the Lady & Sons buffet, which is filled with Southern-fried chicken, spaghetti, Southern baked ham and plenty of homegrown vegetables. Owner Paula Deen of Food Network fame has a town tour named after her that includes lunch here.

There’s also soul food at Nita’s Place, where the helpings are huge. Another favorite in the historic district is Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, where lunch can feature 25 home-style dishes from collards and black-eyed peas to chicken and dumplings and corn bread (which they call “brick bread”). Communal dining tables let you meet visitors and locals alike.

Locals also frequent Soho South Cafe. In addition to fine soups, salads and sandwiches, this former garage has colorful, unusual knickknacks and art for sale: great food and shopping in one easy stop. Another shopping delight is RAF Gallery, featuring glass creations.

Mr. Duncan says don’t miss the Gryphon Tea Room for “ambience that’s the best in all of Savannah” and wonderful high tea. The restaurant, owned by the design academy, once was Solomon’s Drug Store, which filled a prescription for Gen. Robert E. Lee.

We visit the City Market’s galleries, shops, eateries and nightclubs as well as the Savannah History Museum, site of the siege of Savannah, when Colonial troops tried to reclaim the city from the redcoats in 1779. City Hall has an imposing presence on Bay Street, once the site of the Old City Exchange.

The cobblestone area fronting the Savannah River is where you’ll find Factor’s Walk — where cotton merchants used to inspect the “white gold” — plus numerous shops.

Also along the river, look for the bronze “Waving Girl” honoring Florence Martus, who, in search of her love, waved to passing ships for 44 years before she died at age 63. She used to receive letters from ships all over the world saying they had spotted her on Savannah’s shores. The story goes that a seaman promised to return and marry her. She waved the keepsake he gave her, his Navy neckerchief, at his parting ship, but he never returned.

For a cheerier interpretation, consider the Waving Girl’s gesture a bid of welcome to this riverfront Southern gem, the unspoken equivalent of “Y’all come back real soon.”

• • •

For Savannah information, go to www.savannah-visit.com or call 877/728-2662. The Savannah Visitors Center, 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (912/944-0455), is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays. Guided tours come in all forms: riverboat, bus, trolley, limo, horse-drawn carriage and on foot.

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