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updated: 3/16/2010 5:31 AM

Savannah, Ga., square destroyed in 1950s reopens

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  • Savannah city and county officials and others gather near the fountain in Ellis Square following a ribbon cutting ceremony marking the official opening of the square to the public.

      Savannah city and county officials and others gather near the fountain in Ellis Square following a ribbon cutting ceremony marking the official opening of the square to the public.
    Associated Press

 

SAVANNAH, Ga.-- For more than 55 years, Savannah counted Ellis Square among its lost historic treasures.

Of the city's 22 public squares, Ellis Square was one of the first plotted in 1733. Since 1872, it was home to the City Market where farmers sold crops directly to shoppers.

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Then came the wrecking ball. Ellis Square and the market were demolished in 1954 to make way for a new four-story parking garage. The loss was a flashpoint that galvanized citizens to organize Savannah's historic preservation movement.

Now, more than a half-century later, Ellis Square has been resurrected. The city spent nearly $32 million and more than four years bringing back the 1.5-acre square after razing the parking deck in 2005 and building an underground garage in its place.

"This is a proud day in the history of Savannah," Mayor Otis Johnson said after a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony held Thursday despite pouring rain. "It's been a long time coming."

Shaded by gnarled live oaks and marble monuments, the manicured squares of Savannah's downtown historic district are one the signature features of Georgia's oldest city.

Ellis Square, the city's second largest, was among the first four squares plotted by James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as the 13th American colony in 1733. It was named for Sir Henry Ellis, Georgia's second royal governor.

Savannah's squares eventually totaled 24, but the arrival of the automobile in the 20th century wiped three of them off the map. Ellis Square was sacrificed for additional parking. Liberty and Elbert Squares were bisected by a major street to allow traffic to pass unimpeded -- and remain that way today.

"In the 1950s and '60s, I think we were fixed on a concept of newer is better," said Daniel Carey, president of the Historic Savannah Foundation. "The destruction of City Market (at Ellis Square) was the flashpoint of the crisis."

The Historic Savannah Foundation was established a year after Ellis Square's demise and has worked ever since to save the city's historic homes and buildings. Today, Savannah's 2.5-square-mile downtown area forms the largest National Historic Landmark District in the U.S.

The new Ellis Square is anything but a recreation of its past incarnation. It has a glass-walled visitor center and restrooms with grass growing on the roof to capture rainwater. There's a giant chessboard with knee-high pieces. Near the center is a $440,000 fountain that shoots streams of water 10 feet in the air -- perfect for cooling off in the summer.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Savannah square without live oaks. So the city uprooted five of the 30-foot trees from alongside a parkway and had them transplanted to Ellis Square last year.

"It'll be nice to have people come mill around," said Jan Clayton Pagratis, owner of the Chroma Gallery on the south side of Ellis Square. "For once, we have a view all the way to the river. We hope it's going to make a huge difference."

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