When in 1998 it came time to purchase a new house—a new project, really—David Guilmet and his business partner Patrick Bell, owners of the Bucks County-based design firm Bell-Guilmet Associates, went big: Restoring a sweeping country estate that had fallen into disrepair and, even worse for any gay man, bad taste. With historic structures covered in vinyl siding and grounds ignored for decades, “every ounce” of the circa-1930 property needed major TLC, Guilmet says. So he developed a 10-year plan to take the house back in time—before the 1960s kitchen and horrid ’70s paint colors—to its Colonial glory. Read more »
There weren’t many other visitors meandering through Savannah’s downtown cemetery as I tentatively began to wind my way along the tombstones. The city has a legendary reputation as one of the most haunted places in America (who knew?), but to me, it all seemed more gorgeous than ghostly. Until, that is, a fellow visitor strolled by, offering an unusual traveler’s tip: “They don’t move until after dark.”
How delightfully quaint—ghosts! But after a few more days in old Savannah—with its regal Southern pedigree, Civil War history and, yes, fondness for the supernatural—I discovered I couldn’t be so sure.
Designated one of “America’s Favorite Cities” by Travel + Leisure in 2012 (and 2011, and 2010), Savannah has all the Southern accoutrements you’d expect (the near-overwhelming hospitality, grits on practically every menu), but infused with a modern, arty edge. My Hyatt-owned hotel, Andaz, had a polish not offered by other chains, and it’s within walking distance of all the major landmarks. And really, walking is the best way to see Savannah. There’s no need to obsess about navigation here: Like Philly, the city was built around a system of squares—called the “jewels of Savannah,” each is more lovely than the next, especially lush Monterey Square.
I walked the residential streets, admiring the stately townhouses, peek-a-boo courtyards and intricate wrought ironwork. Gaston Street was especially enchanting: The willow-like oak trees on either side, dripping with Spanish moss, create an arching canopy over the road in the daylight, but—in true Savannah style—turn oh-so-eerie at night. It’s no wonder ghosts have decided to linger here. The place is beautiful.
Even grander were the English Regency-style (think classic Georgian, but with a dash of dramatic Gothic) manses that dot the streets, several of which turn into ghost-tour stops once twilight hits. The
Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace has the signature opulence of 19th-century Savannah, with authentic period furnishings, original family pieces and elaborate crown molding, but its namesake’s biography is far more interesting than any decoration: Juliette was the founder of the Girl Scouts, and her father-in-law was a close friend of Robert E. Lee.
Beyond the ghost stories and rich antebellum heritage, the city is reinventing itself as an artists’ hub. Exhibit A: the Savannah College of Art and Design, home to ShopSCAD, a whimsical store whose Anthro-esque displays and student work are art installations in their own right. Professionals sell their wares at myriad galleries all over town (my favorite: the irreverent A.T. Hun Art Gallery, which sells prints based on The Big Lebowski), while more, ahem, museum-grade artists’ exhibits can be seen at the Telfair Museums, including the mansion-housed Telfair Academy and the more modern Jepson Center.
On the advice of a native, on my last night in Savannah I stopped by the rooftop bar of the sultry riverfront Bohemian Hotel. Standing on the balcony, warmed by the glowing fire pit, I watched the Savannah River sparkle below my feet. I’d scheduled a ghost tour for later in the night, but decided in that quiet moment to cancel. The ghosts may move after dark, but humans are far better off staying put, sipping a great cocktail.
Also Check Out:
- Alligator Soul, a dimly lit underground joint, has a menu focused on locally sourced meat and coastal fish, but many dishes can be made vegan. Try the deliciously warm banana beignets.
- The Olde Pink House serves up traditional Low Country food in an 18th-century mansion.
- Byrd Cookie Company is a Savannah institution—try the popular Scotch Oatmeal or Key Lime Cooler varieties.
- An Old Town Trolley Tour might seem cheesy, but the guides are engaging historians.