Savannah Gardens

Our initiative began in 2009, with an invitation to a meeting of engineers, city planners, and municipal development agencies seeking more sustainable strategies for a major redevelopment project in Savannah, Georgia.

After discussing various sustainable construction and building strategies, our soon-to-be founder suggested that an innovative deconstruction project would be consistent with the historical character of the city, provide job training opportunities for underemployed residents, build trust in the community being impacted by the redevelopment, and generate unexpected economic vitality by providing materials and inspiration to the local craft and design communities.

Over the course of that ensuing first year, a group of designers, preservationists, artists and activists enacted a series of inclusive ‘harvest’ events that were coordinated in conjunction with CHSA Development Inc., (the property owner and master developer), Thomas & Hutton (the lead engineers), NorSouth Management, and the City of Savannah Housing Department. These events captured the public’s attention, and convinced construction and demolition (C+D) experts that there was value in engaging in waste-to-wealth experimentation and innovation. The rigorous planning and creative promotion of these events consolidated into the non-profit organization Emergent Structures.

Since that time, Emergent Structures collaborated with Thomas & Hutton and NorSouth on various projects, including reclamation events, on-site re-use applications for new flooring, new ceiling trusses and new furniture, carpenter apprentice training, community workshops, and even public art.

This work (some of which can be found in our project gallery), has led to a framework for increasing material reclamation from large-scale redevelopment projects through a process of advanced planning, highly collaborative partnerships, and innovative design solutions that bring value to all stakeholders.

An expression of sincere gratitude must be conveyed to Michael Hughes, Project Manager for Thomas & Hutton, and Brian Quigley, Project Manager for NorSouth Construction. In a time when the construction industry was contracting, and companies throughout the country became risk adverse, these 2 gentlemen were always willing to step boldly forward to experiment with new ideas in deconstruction, material reclamation, and material re-use. Without their commitment in difficult times, and on tight budgets and deadlines, very little would have been accomplished.

It must also be said that the Savannah Gardens redevelopment—thanks to master developers CHSA Development and the City of Savannah Housing Authority—is an exceptional example of sustainable redevelopment, possessing numerous sustainable aspects above and beyond material reclamation, which includes Earthcraft certification for all single family homes, retaining a significant number of mature trees, and low-impact development practices. In fact, Savannah Gardens is on track to become an EarthCraft Coastal Community certified development for its “green” site and building design.

We are proud to have played a small role in supporting this endeavor

Our coverage, from most recent to oldest:
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A Recent History of Savannah Gardens

as described in one of our first blog posts

Faux clapboard siding made from PVC…on top of asbestos panels…on top of cedar shingles…on top of heartpine studs. These physical layers tell us something of a building’s past. But while they are similar to the growth rings of a tree in their documentation of past conditions— and while something of the technological savvy and sociological values of those who built and lived within them can be gleaned from these layers by the astute observer—we must rely on other historical artifacts to comprehend time’s continuum in a more holistic fashion.

The contemporary detritus that could be found scattered throughout the Strathmore Estates buildings is familiar to us; such things surround us all, and they are representative of what we ourselves possess. While the objects reveal something of how the very last occupants of these buildings lived, however, they must not be seen as marking an end, as much as marking a transformation; a sudden transition that’s worthy of contemplation despite the unending stream of similar transitions.

The images found here capture an earlier but no less sudden transition; the transition from what once was, to what once became. This transition also marked the beginnings of the physical structuring of this place that we are familiar with today. The Josiah Tattnall Homes were completed in January, 1943 as war housing that was intended  to be ‘demounted’ after World War II. Seven hundred and fifty units were built in the span of 5 months, and the site was named after Commodore Josiah Tattnall of the US Navy, who is credited for coining the phrase “blood is thicker than water,” by way of explaining his 1859 violation of US neutrality in coming to the aid of a British squadron under fire from Chinese forces in China. Josiah Tattnall was raised on his father’s plantation, Bonaventure, which is now Bonaventure Cemetery. The Tattnall Homes were built to house shipbuilders of the Southeastern Shipbuilding Corporation employed to build Liberty Ships for the war effort.

While the photographs here are less familiar to our understanding of life as we live it today, such images often speak more clearly to us; not necessarily more truthfully than the images in today’s newspaper, but arguably more clearly. They provide the benefit of distance. These images have the luxury of speaking to us through their symbolic representation of an era that is so far removed from the present day that we are spared the messy realities existing behind the singular and fleeting moments captured in these photographs. These realities had even passed into personal symbolism for the individuals portrayed in the images by the time the photographs made it to their initial publication.

For us, the photographs are merely puzzle pieces of a larger reality from which time has removed the majority of meaning. And rather than attempting to discern the essence of those missing pieces—an admittedly difficult, if not impossible, task—we are too often content to blend one available symbol smoothly into the next, despite the obvious distance between them, and take comfort in the belief that we can express the full extent of this era in a phrase or two; in an image or two. This contrived simplicity of the past, of course, can be refuted by any closer and more sincere inspection. One example of how the depictions of the shipbuilders’ idyllic living conditions presented in the opening photograph of this post can belie the broader reality can be found in this article on the damage that asbestos did to the health of these shipbuilders.

While these ‘demountable’ homes were intended to be dismantled after the war, they instead, shifted from property owner to property owner, renamed Strathmore Estates, and steadily fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, 370 units were demolished to make way for Savannah High School. Only 140 were still occupied as of February 2009.

Emergent Structures is grateful for the help of local historians Charles Varner of the Pine Gardens Neighborhood National Registry Project, Martha Keber, author of Low Land and the High Road : Life and Community in HudsonHill, West Savannah, and Woodville Neighborhoods (as well as an upcoming book on East Savannah, of which Starthmore Estates is a part), and Patricia Jenkins. And we are especially appreciative of Michelle Hunter’s contributions. As Contract Coordinator for the City of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Department, Michelle Hunter has long been engaged in devising creative strategies to coordinate, design, and manage neighborhood documentary projects in and around Savannah.