Good Times Never Seemed So Good: How Two Colonial Cities Tick in the Information Age

Saturday was always a very productive day in the Kemp-Baird household growing up.  Both of my parents are ministers–senior ministers at different churches, no less–and have been since my childhood, so both would spend the traditional day of rest and recovery from the week prior in thought and preparation for the next morning’s service.  The most crucial Saturday task is always writing the sermon: preparing a meditative, spiritual, thought-provoking response to the life of the church, current events, and a scripture selection in line with a common theme of study.  My dad will often sit down and prepare his sermon in one sitting, having mulled over the direction he wants to take the message during the week.  My mom often prepares hers in shifts, writing for a bit before turning her attention somewhere else while continuing to think about how she will draw her talking points to a sound conclusion.  I find myself working in both manners depending on the nature of the task, but one tenet I have certainly inherited is the structure of sitting down at a set time to immerse myself in deep thought.  My 2018 resolution might have to be to make Saturdays productive again.

Well, I’ll work on the wording a bit.

2017 has been another year on the move for me.  It started with a few days in San Francisco with my uncle just before a few weeks of getting settled in Madison and eleven rambunctious days with a great friend split between Copenhagen and Helsinki.  Annual Ohio trips took me to the northeast corner of the state for a wedding and a USMNT soccer match, and a spur-of-the-moment long weekend trip to Portland inspired by an architectural showcase and an opportunity to see longtime family friends was very much worth the jet lag.  I was able to finish off the year by spending Christmas weekend with family in the Quad Cities, because it’s only when you have minister parents that the hubbub of Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday is enough justification to postpone that yearly gathering to January.  Throw a couple Orlando City matches, Cincinnati Reds games, and one Chicago Architecture Biennial on top and it was another productive year of getting out and about to spend time with those I care about so much.

Admittedly, I didn’t get around to writing and sketching as much as I would have liked, primarily because I was usually in the grind of studying for Architecture Registration Exams as soon as I returned home from my various excursions.  I certainly find these activities important and rewarding; one of the nicer sketches I did was at the Portland Japanese Garden–I was tired of staring at my phone (mostly to figure out where I was going), so I swapped my Samsung for a sketchpad and went to work for a couple hours.  One teenager saw me sitting under the tea room canopy, watched for a few seconds, looked up at what I was sketching, and whispered, “That’s awesome,” to me before walking away.  My conscious derivation made an impression on at least one soul that day.

Portland Japanese Garden Sketch

On top of the trips I’ve already chronicled, there are two cities I visited this past fall that stand out and have made a larger imprint on my conscience than I imagined they would: Labor Day weekend in Boston, and Thanksgiving weekend in Savannah.  Since a captivating trip to Philadelphia a couple years ago, I’ve wanted to explore more of the Colonial strongholds of the East Coast.  Boston came about as a solo trip spurred by reasonably-priced and timed flights and my omnipresent itch to travel, and Savannah was a suggestion for a fun place to meet up with my parents and uncle to give thanks and eat great food.  Visiting cities means plenty of walking, which means I get to eat whatever I want to make up the calories.

I only spent three days in Boston, though I could have spent ten days without hitting everything there was to see (the City Walks guide to Boston was a godsend to fit as much as possible into my short stay).  After landing late Friday night and getting to my airBNB in Roxbury Crossing, I started Saturday morning with breakfast at Render Coffee just off Mass Ave before stopping in Eero Saarinen’s chapel on the MIT campus and continuing to Harvard Square for lunch and the museums on campus (I was reading The Devil in the White City at the time and very much enjoyed the Peabody Museum’s special exhibit on the 1893 Columbian Exposition), then continued to South Boston for dinner and a couple pints at the Harpoon tap house.  I started a rainy Sunday with Boston Common and a tour of Fenway Park, then thought better and picked the JFK Library as a reasonable indoor activity before ending the night with Sox-Yanks at a pub in Cambridge.  Monday, being much sunnier, was perfect to do the Freedom Trail through downtown prior to relaxing in the Back Bay Fens while runners glided by.

Boston_City Walks
Map of Boston with locations of all City Walks tours.

Savannah started with a cab ride to the Madison Airport at 4:45 on Thanksgiving morning and finished with a lovely dinner of traditional fare in a hotel’s basement with an ambience suggesting that the Sons of Liberty might be meeting in the bar at the rear of the building.  While there are more house museums to count scattered around the city’s 22 squares, we opted for the trio of Telfair Museums and were rewarded with a great selection of art and architecture in both traditional and contemporary styles.  Savannah greets you with shops, art exhibits, and restaurants of varying styles at each turn, all within a well-organized area compact enough to guide a tour bus around for the sights during the day or for the ghosts at night.  If tour buses aren’t your thing, I recommend grabbing a drink at East End Provisions toward the–you guessed it–east end of Broughton Street.

Aerial view of downtown Savannah, with Forsyth Park in the foreground and the Savannah River in the background. (Google Earth)

Because of their colonial nature and lofty statuses in American history, both Boston and Savannah are “touristy” in their own right and I can respect how these industries play a role in the design and urban fabric of each city (I’ve never seen so many people so excited to walk through cemeteries).  In my short stays in both cities, I noticed one distinct difference in philosophy among the people: Boston is about city pride, Savannah is about movement.  Accentuated by the deep threads to American history and a raucous series of events of its own, every attraction in Boston gives a nuance of being a gift back to the people of Boston and the people of Boston allow others to enjoy them.  Nowhere is this clearer than Commonwealth Avenue Mall extending west from Boston Common toward Fenway Park, where statue after statue of city heroes from mayors and generals to firefighters and children greet you at every block.  On the contrary, Savannah has always functioned around this idea of coming and going, be it through the shipping days of the past (and present) or the strong tourism industry.  Everyone wants to know where everyone is from (which was a long-winded conversation since I showed up from Wisconsin, my uncle from California, and my parents from Florida) and will stop to chat for a while if prompted.  Still, both have clear identities and similar elements that have shaped a collective philosophy, plan, and architecture that can provide lessons on how cities and towns across the United States can create a stronger sense of place and dictate stronger tenets of design.

The first–and clearest–aspect to study regarding these cities is their respective relationships to higher education.  While in Boston, I spent much more time in Cambridge than I anticipated I would because of the scale and accessibility of both the downtown and Harvard Square.  They are arranged along a well-defined infrastructural axis and complemented by reasonably-scaled buildings and spaces which are compact and welcoming without the corporate or kitschy backdrop that comes along the Freedom Trail.  Contrast this with Kenmore to the north and Boylston Street to the east of Fenway Park, where wide avenues and the draw of a large-market baseball team have created a dichotomy between he pre-existing sense of place and more modernized development.  The scale of the newer buildings make Fenway Park and the famous CITGO sign look like snow village models sitting on a fireplace mantel, and I’m not sure this is the proper way to organize and understand that neighborhood.  Still, what is beautiful about both Cambridge and Kenmore is their connection to a homogenous urban fabric that connects the entire city across spatial and chronological shifts in design, scale, and thought.  These areas are not meant for the production of things or the the glow of a small Apple screen, but the cultivation of minds and spirits.  When design can do this, great things start to happen.

Boston_Side by Side
Left: Aerial view of Harvard Square and Harvard Yard, looking toward downtown. Right: Aerial view of Fenway Park and Kenmore, looking toward MIT and Cambridge. (Google Earth)

Unlike Boston which, like any typical American city, a connection of neighborhoods to form a metropolitan area, downtown Savannah is very much a single entity with a distinct beginning and a distinct end.  The Savannah River to the north and highways to the east, south, and west sides of the city very clearly define a zone in which certain design and planning principles are held to keep the area in a contiguous character.  Thus, unlike in Boston where Cambridge can become the educational hub for the city, the Savannah College of Art and Design is very much one with the historic downtown.  Established in 1978, SCAD’s campus is literally any large public building in Savannah which has outlasted its original purpose.  The department store on Broughton Street which was the setting for several sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement is now the SCAD library.  Habersham Prison, adjacent to an aforementioned cemetery and complete with perimeter corridors sans guardrails, is a SCAD outdoor banquet space.  A double-decker bus sitting in a two-story tenant space on Bull Street is Art’s Cafe, offering light fare and SCAD-branded merchandise.  While Savannah may give off the initial appearance of being frozen in time, the presence of this institution in and about the city begins to challenge the definition of a college campus and a college town.

Still, some key elements of planning and architecture in Savannah are carefully controlled to preserve that historic (and profitable) shell.  Other than the obvious Oglethorpe Plan to the city featuring the 22 squares and Forsyth Park on a rigid grid, clear east-west corridors are established like a clearing through a thick forest to entice tourists and their pocketbooks.  River Street sits level with the Savannah River several yards below the rest of the city and is lined with themed restaurants, bars, and tourist shops along its rugged brick road and is accompanied by Bay Street a block south, with similar appeal but in a more urban setting.  After the first line of squares sits the esplanade of Broughton Street, whose name-brand clothing stores pop out against unadorned, mid-century modern storefronts and facades.  I preferred rubbing Savannah’s tail the wrong way by taking the north-south corridor of Bull Street from City Hall through Johnson, Wright, Chippewa, Madison, and Monterey Squares to Forsyth Park because it so well encapsulated the range of spatial, monumental, and textural qualities that give the city such life and character.  Along the east-west axis, Savannah is about movement of ships, movement of people, movement of dollars; along the north-south axis, it’s about strolling, smelling flowers, reading plaques, admiring art and cuisine, and becoming wrapped up in a beautiful place.

Savannah_Side by Side
Left: Broughton Street, looking west. Right: Bull Street, looking north. (Google Street View)

While both Boston and Savannah have tangible connections to the early history of the United States, the urban fabrics of both cities can also ask questions of what it an American city should be today.  Looking at Cambridge again, layers of history and development define shifts that would be recognizable even if Harvard and MIT couldn’t put up signage outside their buildings.  The texture and scale of the buildings, makeup of the people and shops, and density of those people are enough to define edges without physical repersentation.  Secondly, the juxtaposition of the compact, irregular brick buildings and the Brutalist City Hall and Federal Building across Congress Street overshadowed by sleek, glass skyscrapers doesn’t so much create the illusion of two cities, but two studies in physical and experiential quality tied together by ribbony streets and pathways.  Whether or not each architectural style is considered desirable by its residents, they show resilience and triumph over the course of history for a city that has changed time and time again in order to remain relevant and competitive in a country and world that has changed time and time again.  As a designer, I’d be interested in applying a similar philosophy to the South Boston neighborhood, where the gridded streets and warehouse buildings create a sense of monotony and predictability in a city that is intricate and spontaneous when at its best.

Boston_Downtown Layers
Layers of downtown Boston, with the old city, City Hall, and modern skyline from foreground to background. (Google Earth)

On the contrary, monotony and repetition are the backbone of the urban fabric of Savannah.  Even the original platting of the city into tithe and trust lots is still largely intact, and the one significant design gesture since the mid-20th century, Moshe Safdie’s Telfair Museum, is largely disliked and had to be designed multiple times in order to comply with city zoning ordinances.  Thus, the layering of ideas and philosophies in Savannah does not happen from building to building as it does in Boston, but from building to people.  Martin Luther King Jr. once declared Savannah to be the most de-segregated city in the South, and the introduction of SCAD means that several Colonial-style buildings are accompanied by contemporary art gestures that convey thought, process, and progress in a place seemingly frozen in time.

If Savannah was to be infused with a built form that could ask questions and challenge thinking through its presence, the most intriguing site for it would be just north of the Telfair Museum and Broughton Street in Ellis Square.  Once the home to an outdoor market, replaced with a parking garage, replaced with a sequence of concrete and grass at the head of a tourist-funnel outdoor market, this stands alone as an urban void within the well-defined boundaries of downtown Savannah.  While I don’t have the intricate knowledge of the city to suggest a use for a design to fill this void right now, I can identify that its form and function would take into account a traditional formal organization along the exterior and a tangible relationship with residents and visitors akin to the other squares to which it is adjacent.  Maybe this building could accomplish for Savannah what the Commonwealth Avenue Mall does for Boston, invoking a sense of city pride and passion in a place that has been all about “passing through” for centuries.

Savannah_Ellis Square
Ellis Square, looking toward Franklin Square and outdoor market. (Google Earth)

In conclusion, what both Boston and Savannah offer is a unique narrative on where these cities–and this country–have come from and where they are going.  They will continue to evolve in design and thought based on the needs of those coming, be it for work, study, or leisure.  Their relationships with higher education will ensure that progress honors heritage while providing thoughtful insight on ways society can improve.  Urban fabric is created through expression and infrastructure, but is cultivated and nurtured through continuity and steadfastness through changing societies over time.  Though most cities in the United States haven’t been around as long as Boston or Savannah, this narrative can be understood and molded to every unique condition to create a universal appreciation of history, design, and each other.

Well, that’s one productive Saturday…51 to go.  Let’s make 2018 rock.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s