Wherever you go, as a tourist, in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston or Beaufort, S.C., it seems you are walking on historic if not celebrity ground.. You can’t pass a building or house, usually no more than two stories, without noting its age or importance.
Remembered are George Washington’s visit, the Civil War generals and soldiers who fought and died, the slaves who were sold and labored on rice, indigo and cotton farms and plantations. Recently it’s Hollywood celebrities. Clint Eastwood filmed “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” in Savannah; Jim Williams’ house where he killed his lover is a major tourist attraction but the garden statue was moved into a museum to save it from gawkers. Barbra Streisand made “The Prince of Tides” in Beaufort. Also filmed in its National Historic Landmark District was “Forrest Gump.” Meanwhile, guides point out the house on Charleston’s waterfront where Stephen Colbert grew up with his 10 siblings. A medical building at the College of Charleston is named after his father, a prominent local doctor. The Citadel, also in Charleston, has a statute of famous grad, General Mark Clark. It’s a family tradition to go to the Citadel if you want to be a successful in Charleston. Only about 30 percent of its grads actually join the military.
People in the South take their history seriously. Charleston, founded in 1670, passed the first historic preservation law in the land in 1931. Any structure 75 years or older cannot be torn down or have its outside modified in any way unless permission is granted. Savannah’s downtown is one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the United States. In the ’30s and ’40s, many of the city’s distinguished buildings were demolished to make way for new developments until seven women put a stop to it. Reconstruction of antique homes to keep them stable is ongoing. Modern buildings are not allowed in the historic district. The exceptions are an art museum and a Hyatt, a battle preservationists lost. Many of the diehards refuse to set foot in the hotel, although it does seem to be popular with tourists.
Many of the beautiful homes were also destroyed during and after the Civil War. As the South was losing and slavery became obsolete, the plantation owners and other gentry had no one to do the work for them (these early homes had no water, electricity or plumbing). There was no one to work the rice fields or pick the cotton. So owners abandoned their homesteads and fled. Only freed slaves were left without a source of income. Many buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Others were turned into tenements. An earthquake in Charleston in 1886 also caused severe damage.
As the South gradually returned to prosperity, a movement grew to preserve its history. Tourist dollars are now a major source of income to both Georgia and South Carolina. Docents are everywhere to guide one through the elegant old homes.
Savannah is a park lovers delight. The city was founded in 1773 and was the first planned city thanks to English General James Oglethorpe who conceived of a series of wards built around central squares. Lots for private homes were on one side; public buildings and churches on the other. The squares are large symmetrical parks, filled with Spanish moss laden live oaks, plenty of benches and a statute or two of the famous figure which bears the park’s name. Savannah’s squares make it one of the most picturesque and walkable cities.
Savannah made its wealth from cotton, courtesy of slave help. Charleston from rice, again courtesy of slave help. At one time, Charleston was the richest city in the colonies because of the rice trade. It was also the site of the first secession movement. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union. The war started with shots fired at Fort Sumter which the federal government had built to protect Charleston harbor.
The few plantations left have been turned into historic sites and visitor centers. After you explore one and take in the vast acreage of lawns and formal gardens and visit the home where family members passed on their legacy from one generation to the next, you feel you are at Tara ( even though “Gone with the Wind” was filmed in Hollywood) and understand why the South was trying to preserve its genteel way of life. But a visit to the old slave market in Charleston depicts the ugly history behind it . Even this stain on the South’s history is preserved.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.