The National Park Service has recommended that Savannah's National Historic Landmark District be placed on the “Threatened (Priority 1 List),” meaning the city’s Landmark District — first declared in 1966 — has suffered, or is in imminent danger of, a severe loss of integrity.
The Integrity and Condition Assessment of the Savannah National Historic Landmark District was conducted at the request of Historic Savannah Foundation.
The two main reasons for the alarming reclassification: The loss of James Oglethorpe's original town plan dating back to the colony's founding in 1733; and large-scale development (primarily but not limited to hotels).
“The scope of work involved using the National Park Service's seven aspects of integrity – location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association – as a rubric to examine the district's current health," says Rebecca Fenwick, Director of Preservation for Lominack Kolman Smith Architects and a partner in the assessment.
"Rooted in on-the-ground fieldwork and an analysis of changes to the district since the district's listing in 1966, two major threats were identified – the loss of Oglethorpe's Savannah Town Plan and large-scale development," says Fenwick.
The increasing speed and scale of text amendments to building guidelines in the district, along with an increase in variance requests to the Zoning Board of Appeals, have significantly hampered efforts to more responsibly regulate new and infill development in the Landmark District — especially in the wake of recent economic recovery and continued expansion of tourism.
Ellen Harris, Director of Preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, says, "In many ways, Savannah is a victim of its own success."
Since the District was recognized in 1966 and a corresponding preservation ordinance was formally adopted by the City in 1973, "I really don't think that anyone could have foreseen getting 14 million visitors a year," Harris says.
"Last year the board and staff reviewed 372 Certificates of Appropriateness — that's more than double what it was ten years ago," Harris says.
“The loss of National Historic Landmark status would be analogous to a major league sport team being demoted to the minor league," says Dr. Robin Williams, Savannah College of Art and Design Architectural History Chair. "To see Savannah’s historical significance thus diminished would be very unfortunate.”
Historic Savannah Foundation Director Daniel Carey says, "This assessment is — in part — the result of going too long without a check-up... It’s not too late, but we need to start dieting and exercising. That diet, it appears, is what the National Park Service is prescribing: go lighter on big infill and take care of Oglethorpe’s Plan."
Since Savannah earned its National Historic Landmark Designation status in 1966, about 28 buildings within the district have been demolished, and the Savannah Civic Center, Chatham County Courthouse and Jail, and the Cultural Arts Center have interrupted the Savannah Town Plan.
Over the last 50 years, 15 hotels have been built within or bordering Savannah's Landmark District. Today, there are 15 additional hotels that are either under construction or proposed to be built.