Continuity and Vitality
The AHLP in Savannah, Georgia
18-21 March 2015
A superb gathering of like minded individuals took place in March in the ‘Hostess City of the South’, Savannah, Georgia, the 18th century legacy of one James Oglethorpe. The Briton Oglethorpe created a unique plan for the city in the 1730s based on Puritan ideals “sight unseen.” Alliance conference delegates discovered that Savannah is justly famous for both the remarkable degree of continuity in its urban fabric and, in recent years, its economic and cultural vitality. It was therefore an excellent place in which to explore several important issues embodied in this 37th iteration including: the types of continuity valued in urban settings; the tension between the continuity of forms (the tangible) and the continuity of activities and processes (the intangible); and, how such continuity relates to current ideas of social and economic progress.
Following a tightly run Board of Directors meeting further afield at Wormsloe (more about that later), the conference started with an aerial perspective of Savannah from the lofty perch of the Hilton Savannah DeSoto’s appropriately named Harborview Room. Welcomes were made and introductions appreciated. It was notable to welcome back former presidents Camille Fife and Cari Goetcheus to the fold after several years absence. Also notable was the participation of Rachel Kane, daughter of Tom Kane, one of the co-founding members of the Alliance back in 1978. And, while they were not physically with us, both Susan Buggey and Hugh Miller were acknowledged (and greatly missed).
The conference started off early as usual with warm words of welcome from our President, Carrie Gregory. Carrie summarized the Board meeting of the afternoon before and gave us the lowdown on what we were to expect – and experience – while in Savannah. Dan Nadenicek, Dean of the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia, then kicked off the paper sessions with a robust account of the state of affairs vis-à-vis historic sites in Georgia under the rubric “It’s the Story that Matters!”
Cari Goetcheus followed with her account of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a helpful overview of what we were to experience while in this part of the world. The morning was capped off by the inimitable story telling prowess of one Sarah Ross, (president and director of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History who regaled the delegates with the natural and cultural story of Wormsloe, an 18th century plantation and Georgia’s first State Historic Site. This was to be the focus of our afternoon ‘road trip’.
The afternoon found us on a bus bound for Wormsloe and the collective anticipation of seeing firsthand the most photographed site in all of the State of Georgia: the 1.33 mile long Live Oak avenue (and its 404 pampered plantings dated back to the 1890s): superb even under overcast skies! The estate encompasses 1,400 acres whose management today falls under three distinct jurisdictions: the Barrow family, the State of Georgia, and the University of Georgia.
Needless to say, and in spite of less than stellar weather, Sarah’s enthusiastic presentations both in the library and while traipsing through the site kept us engaged (and reminded us as to why we so love the Alliance!). We learned about 10 generations of the same family in one place; submerged patrol boats; and butterflies.
Nearly exhausted, we then made our way back into Savannah where people re-grouped and struck out into the city to explore the squares, find eats and relax.
The second morning continued with a full slate of papers including exposes on: the Marin Headlands; what to do in the face of climate change; the plight of ‘large’ cultural landscapes; coffee landscapes in Colombia; cultural landscapes at UGA; Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna (Egypt); and from Canada, the tensions arising from a proposed recreational development on a valued golf course north of Lake Superior. Sophia Sineath finished off the morning describing her role as public historian with the Georgia Historical Society complete with compelling historical images of important and interesting landscapes.
Friday afternoon was spent walking the squares of Savannah – not all 22 of them mind you, but a good sampling! Following a box lunch consumed in the pleasant surroundings of Chippewa Square, we split into two groups and dutifully followed our guides ‘on the ground’ Beth Reiter and William Thomson of Savannah ArchiTours.
Following a civil sampling of squares and architectural marvels, Beth and William led us to Forsyth Park and its famous fountain (mercifully no longer spewing green-dyed water as per St. Patrick’s Day traditions). Eventually we ended up in Bonaventure Cemetery, a former plantation, and now the resting place for both the famous and not so famous dead of Savannah.
And, as is normal for Alliance gatherings, by the end of the afternoon Friday, people were starting to tucker out. But perhaps the most interesting day was still to come?
Saturday morning began with an impromptu reading by Rachel Kane of a letter that one Isadore Smith wrote to her father back in the 1970s on the subject of protecting historic landscapes, a nice link with and reminder of the organization’s early days. Next thing you know, Dean Dan had introduced our guest speaker for the morning, Dr. Jamal Toure (Day Clean Journeys) who, resplendent in a white suit and the best hat ever, made his way to the front of the room clapping rhythmically all the while (which, given the nature of the group, set us a’clapping as well). A good start.
Dr. Toure proceeded to educate us on African-American history given as we were, in the ‘holy land of African Americans’. In short order he traced the long history from African origins to America and beyond (the diaspora) and the importance of the UNESCO’s interest in this story (towards World Heritage status?). He concluded with an emphasis on understanding connections and relationships in an increasingly small world in order to better understand each other. And to quote him “The people are the experts!”
It was a great preface to what we would experience on the ground later that day.
The morning program continued with a series of papers including: urban patterns over the centuries in both the US and in Canada; Olmstedian efforts in Boca Grande, Florida; the honoring of Civil War service in a multitude of cemeteries; restoration efforts for a unique Jewish burial place in Charleston; the Hobcaw Plantation; and the re-thinking of a Modernist (Eckbo) landscape in Tuscon, Arizona.
The formal morning program concluded with a delicious taste of what’s in store for us in the Windy City of Chicago in 2015. More to come on that in the fall!
The walking/bus tour that afternoon led by Mr. Toure broadened our understanding of Savannah, its development and the integral (if often difficult) role of the African-American in it all. A visit to the First Bryan Baptist Church (established in 1788) was particularly inspiring.
The wrap-up banquet took place at Vic’s on the River, nestled in an 1859 building and overlooking the lively Savannah River. Beverages, lovely meals and kind words were enjoyed by all.
Once again we are indebted to and extend our thanks to both Ian Firth and Susan Hitchcock for their efforts in realizing the intellectual content of Alliance conferences, that is to say the call for (and vetting of) papers and posters. We also thank Eric Macdonald and Ted McLachlan (get better Ted!) in their roles managing the student scholarships. And with that in mind, congratulations to both scholarship recipients:
The Hilton Savannah DeSoto Hotel provided a terrific venue for our 2015 meeting and Grace Tours and Limousine (Jeannie, Moses and Laurent) kept us on schedule as we visited Wormsloe and toured through Savannah. And we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge Beth Meeks at Goose Feathers for the wonderful box lunches that we appreciated each and every day! We should also mention Audra Lofton and Donnie Longnecker who provided assistance from UGA.
So in conclusion, it was a remarkable three (full!) days in Savannah. Once again, kudos to Dean Dan and our ever-vigilant President, Carrie Gregory, for bringing it to fruition!
See y’all again in 2016, in the Windy City!