Savannah State of Mind


I’M HALF HOME in Brooklyn; my other half is still down south somewhere. Coming home from a vacation, even one of six days, always makes me wish I appreciated being away even more when I had the chance. Certain patterns and behaviors associated with “real life” — lousy sleep, money anxiety, word-game addiction, uninspiring routine, eating out of deli containers — reassert themselves only too quickly upon my return.

Happily, I’ll have the opportunity to test my vacation appreciation skills again, when I go to Mexico — the arty city of San Miguel de Allende, in the country’s heartland — in two weeks’ time.

Meanwhile, I’m not done with Savannah. Can’t let my photos of beachy Tybee Island, below, Savannah’s Hamptons equivalent, go to waste.


The last day’s urban wanderings included the Regency-style c. 1819 Owens-Thomas House, designed by William Jay, a 23-year-old architect from Bath, England, with early indoor plumbing, doors to nowhere and orange and blue stained glass windows. (No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.)


More Savannah street sights:


A local sent us to check out Alex Raskin Antiques in the Noble Hardee Mansion on Monterey Square, below, five floors of genteel decrepitude filled with 18th and 19th century furnishings and objects. Not a stick of mid-century modern to be found!





Oh Savannah


AFTER CHARLESTON, Savannah, Georgia, two hours to the south, seems busy, noisy and touristy. Parking and restaurant reservations are hard to come by, probably because we’re here on a weekend.


But Savannah’s historic district, which forms the heart of the city and is centered on 22 lush public squares, of an original 24 first laid out in the 18th century, is a stunner.


Many of the houses are from the mid-19th century and reminiscent of Brooklyn’s flat-fronted, three-windows-across row houses, though with shutters and sometimes wrought iron balconies. Free-standing mansions abound, in a variety of styles, and everything is fringed with palms and other greenery.


The early part of our visit was a washout. It was pouring rain and we couldn’t find a guided walking tour (only trolley and horse-drawn carriage tours, which I rejected as embarrassing). Instead, we picked up a book and did a self-guided one, taking in classic sites that included Forrest Gump’s bench in Forsyth Park and the terracotta-colored house featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, above, as well as the only Gothic style synagogue in the U.S., below, built in the 1840s and still going strong.


We happened on one of the few historic houses open to the public, the c.1841 Old Sorrel-Weed House, below. It had been used as a boarding house and had some tacky retail shops on the ground floor from the 1940s through 1990s. Then it was bought by a private individual who spent a few million trying to bring it back to how it looked when it was a social hotspot for such guests as Robert E. Lee.

The owner ran out of funds before completing the restoration (modern plastic chandeliers are still in place), and gifted the house, still far from finished, to a foundation. They call it Greek Revival-Regency style, which is new to me, but I love the deep colors of the rooms (similar to the originals, discovered under 30 layers of paint) and the moldings, doors and other details that survived because of what our guide called “inadvertent conservation.” The ceilings had been dropped, fireplaces boxed in, etc., during the house’s years of debasement, so the original details remained mostly intact.


We are lodged at the River Street Inn, below, a former cotton warehouse and one of several surviving early 19th century brick industrial buildings, constructed of ballast stones and built on a bluff, that have been converted to riverside hotels.

The Savannah River is right outside our window. Barges loaded with containers pass by with regularity, and the sounds of foghorns and music from the clubs below  waft in at night.


Best meal so far: a genteel Southern-style lunch at the c.1789 Olde Pink House, below, where I had my first-ever Hoppin’ John (rice with vegs and black-eyed peas).


Enjoyed an afternoon latte at the Gryphon, below, a tea room operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design in a turn-of-the-century apothecary shop.


As I write this, the blare of a trumpet from a busker on the riverfront walk is penetrating the closed windows and balcony door of our river-view digs. Louis Armstrong he’s not. But the sunset over the Savannah River is making up for it.


Born-Again Savannah Mansions


THIS JOB DESCRIPTION caught my eye as I was flipping through the latest issue of O magazine: “Historic Home Renovator.” Oprah’s magazine often spotlights female entrepreneurs; this was the story of Tammy Jo Long, a 48-year-old single mother, who in 2003 quit her corporate sales job in Chicago to pursue her obsession with the romantic 19th century mansions of Savannah.


Jones Street Suites

Since then, Long, who had little prior experience with construction, has restored five of them, some that had been vacant so long “they had rats you could put a saddle on.” She’s brought back their grand staircases and elaborate plasterwork, winning local, state, and national awards for her strict adherence to preservation guidelines, and decorated them, for the most part, in traditional formal style.


The Washington Square Collection

The spiffed-up landmark properties are now vacation rentals. Long’s company, Luxury Living Savannah, markets them as 16 units, starting with a 1 BR, 1 bath for $175/night and ranging up to an entire 8-bedroom mansion for $7,450/week, for weddings, reunions, getaways and gatherings of all sorts.


The 1871 Forsyth Park Mansion, above, took 18 months to restore.


The Wedding Cake Mansion, left

To read more about Long’s inspiring dream job and success story, and see interior and garden photos, follow this link.

BOOK REVIEW: Restoring a House in the City

Restoring a House_Jacket_ Large Hi-resOLD TOWNHOUSES usually come with big ‘buts,’ points out Ingrid Abramovitch in the intro to her new book, Restoring a House in the City: A Comprehensive Owner’s Guide to Renovating Town Houses, Brownstones and Row Houses With Great Style (Artisan). They may have “charmingly anachronistic grace notes, from imposing classical entrances to parlors straight out of Edith Wharton novels,” she writes. But less charmingly, they also tend to have roof leaks, slanty floors, and ominous cracks in the wall.

Never mind. IMO, as readers of this blog know, those are mere annoyances, no contest at all compared to the many pluses of living in a house built in the 19th century, when houses really were built. This book offers abundant proof that antique houses are worth the effort.


Parlor, Fort Greene

It features 21 exceptional dwellings, from a Boston Brahmin to a double-wide brownstone in Troy, N.Y., a Greek Revival in Charleston, and a San Francisco Edwardian that survived the 1906 earthquake. The projects closest to my heart, of course, are those in Brooklyn, well-represented with six envy-inducing houses.


Fireplace wall, Fort Greene

Some are restored, some extensively remodeled. Some are furnished with antiques, others done up in a modern mix. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about any of them. A couple are a bit over-the-top for my taste: too much clutter, too much color. But most ooze warmth and livability.

It’s no surprise that the book’s interiors are impeccably styled and photographed. The author, a resident of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is a veteran design journalist and a former editor at House & Garden and Martha Stewart Living.


Parlor, Park Slope

Luscious as it is, Restoring a House is not just a look book. Along with the inspiration, there’s a hearty dose of practical information on such topics as wood floors, brickwork and ornamental plaster. How can an old-house lover resist?


Entry hall, Brooklyn Heights

All photos from RESTORING A HOUSE IN THE CITY by Ingrid Abramovitch (Artisan).
Copyright 2009. Brian Park photographer.

Coslick’s Cottages


SO HERE I AM, trying to renovate just one cottage, and along comes an e-mail from Jane Coslick, who has bought, fixed up, decorated, sold, and/or rented some three dozen of them!

She’s well-known as a cottage preservationist on Tybee Island, Georgia, near Savannah, where tiny workmen’s houses and fishing shacks built in the 1920s, some as small as 400 square feet, would have been pulverized in the name of development if not for Jane and others like her.


It’s the exuberance and care with which she does it, and her free hand with color, that has made Jane’s work a staple of such magazines as Coastal Living, Southern Living, and, before its recent demise, Cottage Living.

Jane has a website with links to all her press coverage, of which there’s been no shortage. Her vibrant cottages, with evocative names like Fish Camp, Calypso, and Hemingway, are like honey to magazine-editor bees. She just started a new blog, too. You can find it here.