Savannah's Landmark Historic District stretches from the Savannah River to Forsyth Park (pictured). (Darrell Gulin/Getty)
With its stately squares, Spanish moss and sizzling arts scene, Savannah, Georgia is both an old US South touchstone and a new US South powerhouse. This compact city scores high on many quality of life lists, with cultural hubs and events that attract a steady influx of cutting-edge creative types who rub up against established and time-honoured traditions. Living here means falling for the seductive charms of one of the country’s most romantic – and most haunted – cities.
What is it known for? Unlike many other Southern cities, gracious Savannah survived the US Civil War without being razed to the ground, and today it successfully melds its ghost-filled, moss-covered history with its role as an important proving ground for contemporary art and film. The Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, encompasses roughly the borders of 18th-century Savannah as it was originally laid out and is famous for its more than 20 squares surrounded by Georgian and Greek Revival homes such as the Owens-Thomas House. One of the old squares was even recently resurrected. Ellis Square -- in the heart of the downtown Historic District along the Savannah River -- had been destroyed to make way for a parking garage, but was resurrected as a public plaza after the garage was razed in 2005. Ellis Square is adjacent to City Market, a four block-long, pedestrian area with former warehouses that now house restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. Nearby, stores and cafes fill the length of historic Broughton Street.
Modern Savannah is uniquely associated with contemporary art and design, and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) attracts 10,000 students to the downtown campus annually. The SCAD Museum of Art is a teaching museum and is the nexus around which scores of art galleries and other events revolve. Every autumn, the increasingly high profile Savannah Film Festival puts on a programme of independent films and shorts. “There is always something going on in Savannah, but it doesn’t have the bad traffic like Atlanta or other big cities,” said lifelong resident Andrea Silverman, a pharmaceutical sales rep. “It’s just big enough, but everyone still knows everyone else.”
Where do you want to live? The city has 12 districts, and two of the most desirable are the Landmark Historic District, which stretches from the Savannah River to Forsyth Park (famous for its role in the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt), and the Victorian District just to the south, full of houses with intricate, gingerbread trim. “Houses in the Landmark District typically consist of a garden level, parlour level, one or two additional floors, a courtyard, garage and a carriage house above,” explained Heather Booth, sales associate at Cora Bett Thomas Austin Hill and Associates real estate agency. Also popular are condos and townhouses along the riverfront.
South of the Victorian District, Ardsley Park and the nearby neighbourhood of Chatham Crescent have housing stock from the 1930s and ‘40s, and both are very popular districts, as is the adjacent Baldwin Park. “As their names depict, these communities were planned around their parks, which have been a gathering place for neighbours, pets and children since their inception,” Booth said. To the southeast of the city, the Isle of Hope district has streets lined with oak trees draped in Spanish moss and numerous Greek Revival and Neoclassical homes. About 10 miles south of the city, Vernonburg is a popular suburb along the Vernon River.
Side trips Savannah residents have easy access to the Low Country -- the surrounding coastal region -- and its clean, sandy beaches and barrier islands. Georgia’s Tybee Island is just 18 miles away, and 20 miles to the north, just across the South Carolina/Georgia state line is the resort island of Hilton Head. South of Savannah, Georgia’s holiday-friendly St Simons Island and Cumberland Island are about 50 and 100 miles away respectively. The South Carolina city of Charleston is 90 miles away to the north and Atlanta, Georgia is around 250 miles away to the west.
The Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is small, but has daily flights to Atlanta and other regional cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as direct flights cities across the US. Many destinations up and down the east coast are a two-hour flight or less away.
Practical info Savannah’s real estate market is continuing to stabilize after taking a downturn during the 2008 to 2009 recession. “The areas that were hit the hardest were those that had increased the most at the height of the market, [including] our landmark Historic District and Tybee Island,” Booth said. “Many of the suburban neighbourhoods with a large inventory of new homes were also largely affected, with depreciation as high as 35% in some areas.” This means there is an opportunity for buyers to purchase historic town homes, waterfront properties and other stock at prices not seen in 20 years, with low interest rates. “The inventory of distressed properties such as foreclosures and short sales has begun to stabilize, but values have not yet begun to appreciate again,” she explained. “The Victorian District currently has the most opportunities for income-producing properties and a return on investment through restoration.”
An unrestored townhouse in the Historic District costs between $500,000 and $900,000, depending on the size of the courtyard and whether there is a carriage house, while renovated properties can reach $3 million. A two-bed, two-bath condo in the Historic District costs around $275,000 to $325,000. A similar property would rent for around $1,800 to $2,000 a month, while a three-bedroom home in the Victorian District rents for around $1,300 a month.